Even before the advent of electricity, candlesticks were a luxurious – perhaps even inessential – implement. In his Directions to Servants (1745) Jonathan Swift pointed out that it was just as easy to “stick your candle in a bottle, or with a lump of butter against the wainscot, in a powder-horn, or in an old shoe, or in a cleft stick, or in the barrel of a pistol, or upon its own grease on a table, in a coffee cup or a drinking glass, a horn can, a tea pot, a twisted napkin, a mustard pot, an ink-horn, a marrowbone, a piece of dough, or you may cut a hole in a loaf, and stick it there.”
Of course, Swift was being satirical, but the point of design is often to render the utilitarian beautiful and light fixtures have long come in for the special attention of artisans and designers. Thomas Hope was especially interested in the challenges of lighting interior space and his Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807) is full of his opinions on the subject as well as renderings of his own carefully chosen fittings, several of which can be seen in the current exhibition. One pair of candlesticks is especially eye-catching: Three burdened Egyptian slaves stand on a tripod base supporting a vase-shaped candlesocket.
Following in the wake of the renewed interest in the land of the pharaohs after Napoleon’s campaign there from 1798 to 1801 and the publication of Dominique Vivant Denon’s Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte (1802) with its meticulous illustrations of sites along the Nile, archaeologically-inspired Egyptian motifs represented avant garde taste. Inspired by reports from Egypt and other ancient lands, and his own engagement with ancient artifacts, Hope passionately advocated adapting antique ornament to modern uses. (In the same exhibition case stands another interesting pair of candlesticks in the form of an antique oil lamp with sculpted flames; both pairs are illustrated in plate XLIX of Household Furniture.)
The decorative unity of Hope’s famous Duchess Street house, however, is expressed in other ways than by objects making use of related ornament. Hope seems also to have been fascinated by the effects of a unified palette. Indeed, the contrast between the patinated and gilded bronze elements on the slave candlesticks reinforce in small scale the black and gold color scheme of many of the larger furnishings and decorative details in the house. And while the use of Egyptian motifs may have been quite fashion-forward at the time, the basic form of these candlesticks is a sort of updated version in miniature of the blackamoor, a type of gueridon popular in Europe since the seventeenth century, in which an African figure supports a tray intended to hold a candlestick or candelabrum.
In appreciating these candlesticks as well-wrought objects, however, we mustn’t lose sight of their intended use and effect as lighting fixtures. Well into the twentieth century candles themselves, whether of beeswax or tallow, were so expensive that many people simply couldn’t afford them, let alone the elegant utensils to hold them. In many homes, the only light available after sunset came from the hearthfire, kept ever burning. As late as 1905, an article in Country Life noted that, “Light, as distinguished from mere warmth, or fires for cooking by, is a luxury. Many old-fashioned villagers always went to bed directly they had their supper in the winter-time, in order to save the cost of a candle[.]”
For those wealthy enough to burn the occasional candle, the local blacksmith could easily manufacture humble holders of wrought, cast, or sheet-iron. Next up the scale were fittings made of pewter, an alloy of tin and lead. For a while, brass was the most luxurious material for candlesticks, but by the eighteenth century new fashions called for silver, giltwood, and gilded bronze, as well as porcelain and glass.
Why? Shiny, often baluster-shaped bodies provided an ideal reflecting surface – the goal being to get as much light out of a single flame as possible. In wealthy interiors, the placement of mirrors, the gilding of wood, and the incorporation of sparkling threads made of precious metals into textiles and trimmings were all calculated to catch the rays and shimmer out from the dark corners of rooms.
But such designs transcended the practical. It is easy to envision the dramatic effect of evening lighting at the Duchess Street house, with the lugubrious sphinxes, griffins, slaves, and other mythological creatures winking out of the shadows. As Mario Praz, the cultural historian and a passionate collector of objects in the Regency and, its Continental cousin, Empire styles put it, “It is well known that firelight, in a large room with gilded ornaments here and there, produces effects which the early romantics vied with each other in describing. If ghosts were to appear, this was the most propitious light.”
Praz wasn’t being merely spooky and poetic. Rather, he understood something fundamental to the affective power of all neoclassical styles, of which Regency and Empire were but iterations in a long history. Designs inspired by archaeological exploration of the material remains of long-dead civilizations cannot help but be somewhat haunted. The mysterious motifs may be little understood by those applying them, but they obviously have deep roots in the human psyche.
Though Hope hated inaccurate applications of ancient ornament, he never advocated slavish copying but, instead, sought imaginative adaptation to modern needs, as exemplified by the designs of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In the “Egyptian Room” at Duchess Street the chimneypiece was modeled after the entrance to an ancient burial chamber carved into a rockface in southern Turkey, an assimilation and domestication that could easily have come out of Piranesi’s Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini (1769). Into the spaces created by such leaps of the imagination all sorts of ghosts can enter.
By the late nineteenth century, when first gas and then electricity revolutionized the lighting of homes, the writers of new treatises on interior decoration – all inheritors and adapters of Hope’s advice-giving spirit – were mourning the waning candlelight. In The House Beautiful(1877), Clarence Cook wrote, “It was a great deprivation when we were obliged to give up candles for illuminating… Candle-light is the only artificial light by which beauty shows all its beauty – it even makes the plain less plain.” In The House in Good Taste (1913), Elsie de Wolfe stated unequivocally that “When all is said and done, we must come back to wax candles for the most beautiful light of all. Electricity is the most efficient, but candlelight is the most satisfying.” She went on to happily note that “There are still a few houses left where candlesticks are things of use and are not banished to the shelves as curiosities.” By 1930, however, in The Personality of a House Emily Post had fully embraced the electric era. “Use candles for occasions – or use occasional candles,” she advised, “but for the essential lighting of your house, have plenty of outlets available.”
And this is still our attitude: Candles and their sticks are for special occasions, better at conjuring a sense of romance than providing actual light. Today, under the gallery’s spotlights Hope’s candlesticks show off their erudite design and exquisite craftsmanship. But we can only imagine their theatrical, elegant, and, yes, haunting impact by flickering firelight. They themselves have become ghostly emanations from a long-ago, hard-to-conceive past.
Shax Riegler is a 3rd year doctoral student at the BGC.