The Meanings of "Garniture"

A deliciously old-fashioned word, "garniture" first entered the English language in the sixteenth century and over the years acquired several different meanings. It has its roots in the French word garnir, which translates as "garnish." But what was garnished?

Initially, it was used as a term for equipment, especially that found in the kitchen. In the seventeenth century it came to mean ornamentation of furniture, swords and horse harness. By the eighteenth century it was also used to refer to the trimming of significant dishes for the table. In the nineteenth century it added yet another definition, that of clothing as the embellishment or "garnishment" of the human form. But after this diverse career, by the years of the Regency, "garniture" had acquired a more specialized meaning and was used to designate a specific type of household ornament.

The hearth or fireplace was a significant feature of the important rooms in most English homes, large or small, as far back as the Middle Ages. The fireplace was the primary focal point of these rooms since fire was the only available source of heat in the cool, damp English climate. In fact, the word "focus" is Latin for "hearth or fireplace." It is very difficult for us today to comprehend the monumental importance of the fireplace in a room, even in the Regency, as we enjoy our centrally-heated homes. Most fireplaces in modern-day homes are a novelty, a romantic gesture to tradition, but they are not usually our primary source of heat, and thus quite literally of life, in the bitter cold of winter. But they were exactly that for all the centuries before the Regency, and for many decades thereafter.

Alright, so the fireplace was vitally important. And for that reason, beginning in the Renaissance, especially in the better homes, it was glorified with the application of specialized architectural elements. These chimneypieces were ornamental frameworks applied to the walls around the fireplace and might also be referred to as the "mantlepiece." These chimneypieces were usually built right along with the room which contained them, and were thus not easily updated as styles changed. Nor, if you owned a fine old home which had descended through many generations of your family, would you be quick to demolish your chimneypieces to build new ones, even if the family fortunes could support it. So, how did you keep your public rooms fashionable and ornamented in the current style? Garniture, of course!

And just what was garniture in this context? The least complicated description is that it was a set of urns or vases, odd in number, usually of porcelain. So what is the big deal, it is just crockery. Not really. If you lived during the Regency you would be well aware that porcelain was an expensive luxury commodity, still very much the "white gold" it had been since it was first introduced into Europe in the early eighteenth century. Ownership of porcelain objects was a clear indication of your wealth, status and good taste throughout the nineteenth century. The type of porcelain you owned was also indicative of the level of your wealth and status. European porcelain, from Sèvres or Meissen, was the most expensive and thus the most prestigious. English porcelain, from Wedgwood, Chelsea, or Derby, was slightly less expensive, thus displaying perhaps a bit less dash, but still quite beautiful.

Garniture was typically produced in odd-numbered sets, as it was believed that was most pleasing to the eye. These sets most commonly included three items, but there were sets of five, and in some cases even seven vessels. The types of vessels in these sets ranged from clocks, vases, pitchers or beakers, to open or covered jars or urns. The set selected was partially determined by the location for which they were intended and partially by the pocketbook capacity of the buyer, as the larger sets were typically more costly. Click the links below to view garniture illustrations currently available on the net:

Some of these garnitures were made before or after the Regency, but the illustrations will give you some idea of the range of vessel types which can comprise a garniture set, and a sampling of the variety of decorative styles possible. The older pieces were certainly in use somewhere during the Regency. Just as today, the objects in Regency homes were of many different ages, from many different sources.

The most common location in which to display a garniture set during the late eighteenth century and through the Regency years was on the mantel shelf of a chimneypiece. A narrow fireplace with a short mantel shelf might only hold a three-piece set. A wider mantel shelf might have ample room for a five- or even a seven-piece set. Though porcelain garnitures were quite expensive, they were still an economical alternative to update a room with an old-fashioned chimneypiece. Three-piece garnitures might also be found occassionally on the tops of bookshelves, or in the transom of a door in a library or study. Extremely valuable or fragile garnitures might be kept in a glass-door china cabinet.

By the decade of the Regency, "garniture" was most commonly used as term for sets of porcelain vessels which adorned mantel shelves. But it also retained its meaning of small decorations or embellishments for furniture and interiors. It is in that second sense that I have chosen it as the name of the Regency Redingote category for any articles I will write about small decorative items.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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