I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep this little gem a secret. But I rationalised with myself; how many sets of Victorian fireplace tiles are you going to buy in the next year? So I am sharing my love of Mr Wandles' with one and all. I stumbled across Mr Wandles' workshop quite by accident, whilst hunting down carpet in Wandsworth, a year ago. Meandering towards Earslfield, I noticed piles of reclaimed fireplaces stacked up against the shop's facade. I was in the middle of renovating my first flat and pondering what to do with the sitting room fireplace. The original one had been stripped out during the 1970s. Then replaced by a mock Victorian fireplace, complete with Flaming June, Rossetti style tiles and pine mantle piece...........the horror! The previous owner had the best of intentions, it just didn't quite cut the mustard. My friend Emma says that a fireplace should be the voice of a sitting room, with a song to sing. Well, my heart sank every time I looked at it, but my renovation budget was fast depleting.
My first impression of the workshop was how filthy it was, I held my coat tails tight to my body. A veritable coal hole, the place was black! As I looked around, I recognised the same original cast iron fireplace remaining in my bedroom. The raised patterns and edges of the all the designs were covered in soot and gloss paint. Freshly ripped out of houses, by property developers keen to make a fast buck I reckon. Why would anyone even consider modernising to such an extreme level?
Down some rickety old stairs to the cellar, the story got better and darker. It was so dark, I could barely see what I was being led towards. Till Mr Wandle switched the light on to illuminate a plethora of antique tiles. Racks of full sets and partial sets sat in rows, gleaming on the wooden shelves like sweets. This was the answer to my problem. If I could buy a reclaimed set of tiles and paint the mantle piece I might just rescue the budget back. Some of the tiles were so dirty, he had to polish them on his machine to show me the true colour. I was in heaven, I loved them all, how would I possibly choose? My sitting room was still wet from plastering, I didn't know what colour I was going to paint it. Mmm, this was my trickiest interior design decision yet. I fell hard for the Mintons tiles, but at £400 they were beyond my purse strings. But then a set of eight stags caught my eye, in cream and brown. I would need to use a separate set of chocolate-brown breakers to make the set up; to the full length of the side panels. Queen Victoria's love affair with Scotland made the Highlands a fashionable place and decorative theme in her time. Albert and Victoria felt so at home there, in 1852 they made Balmoral castle their holiday retreat, visiting every summer. My stags would also make the perfect reference to my namesake Scottish island; Islay ( the "y" is the masculine in case you wonder why I don't use it!). Perhaps I would never feel far from the country if I had them to cosy up to? When I proudly showed the builder my antique tiles, he decided the stags should face away from the fire, in case they got burnt..... sweet!
In our age of central heating, one forgets that the Victorian fireplace was the ultimate marriage between decoration and function. Coal and gas were costly commodities and Victorians were frugal types, anxious to keep costs down. Yet mass production meant that cast iron fireplaces suddenly became relatively inexpensive and widely available. The metal was malleable enough to be moulded into a wide range of ornate designs. They indulged the middle classes' appetite for interior design statements. Little wonder then that the fireplace became the focal point of domestic life and a fashionable place to display a home owner's trinkets. I haven't quite got to the trinkets stage, I need to source an antique mirror, I'd like a tartan blanket for the sofa to extend my highland theme. There is still so much to do, but it is my favourite room and I spend far too much time day dreaming in front of the fire. I think it might be time for The Antiques Roadshow..............
Mr Wandles' Workshop; 202 Garratt Lane, London SW18 4ED