INTERIORS / The Hearth of the Matter

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'MAISON sans flamme, corps sans ame,' runs an old French proverb that is ringing particularly true this autumn. Central heating may be clean and convenient, but it offers none of the emotional appeal of a real fire. It's taken us nearly half a century to realise it, but you can't sit round a radiator.

For thousands of years a fire has been the domestic and decorative focus of a home. From the very beginning, people cooked, slept and performed religious rituals around the same fire. Later, when the hearth left its position in the centre of the room to be recessed in the wall with a chimney, the decorative potential of the fireplace was opened up.

In more recent times the fireplace has taken on much of the symbolic significance of the fire itself. From exuberantly carved 16th-century Italian overmantels to the classical restraint of the Adam brothers, to the golden age of Victorian craftsmanship, the fire surround became an integral part of domestic design. At the same time, the fireplace developed into a focus for individual expression. Even today, whether the fire is lit or not, or perhaps boarded up completely, the mantelpiece remains the place to display family talismans.

When in the Sixties old fireplaces were ripped out in a frenzied embrace with high-tech, our homes lost more than a method of heating. They lost their soul; and we lost a little of ours.

It's no surprise that the soul-searching of recent years has been accompanied by a return to the open fire. Even its drawbacks are being transformed into virtues.

The time and labour involved, the smells and smoke produced, become part of a ritual that connects us to our earliest origins. The deep satisfaction in creating light and warmth cannot be compared to the flick of an electric switch. It's the difference between grilling a freshly caught fish and peeling the foil from some colourless and bland offering from the microwave.

Those lucky enough to have a real fire can sit back and quote from Cowper's 'The Winter Evening': 'Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast, / Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round . . ./So let us welcome peaceful ev'ning in.'

(Photograph omitted)