A fireback is a rectangle of metal placed at the rear of the firebox to protect the brick from excessive heat and reflect that heat back into the room. Cast-iron firebacks are as old as cast-iron itself. Cast iron was used in ancient China before the 5th century but not in Europe before the Renaissance.
Fireback from the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy
The fireback was made by a process known as sand casting, being cast in open sand molds, the 'green' sand being naturally bonded with a small percentage of clay to give it a moist texture that could hold the shape of the pattern pressed into it. The mold was made by placing a carved model - usually made of wood, of rectangular shape - face down onto flat, damp sand set into the foundry floor. The model was gently hammered down until it was embedded in the sand. It was then removed, leaving its impression in the sand. The iron, heated until it was liquid, was poured into this mold and left to cool. The end product was an iron slab, patterned on one side.
The simplest firebacks were rectangular, but hoards could be made to other shapes, the most popular of which included a central arch above the rectangle, a design popularized by the architect, Andrea Palladio.
The first area in Britain where blast furnaces were employed for iron making was a region, which incorporated parts of the counties of Kent and Surrey that remained the principal producer of cast iron in Britain until the middle of the seventeenth century. Cast-iron firebacks were also produced in other European areas such as the Eifel region of Germany, Belgium or Burgundy. Fire-backs were named "takenplatten" in Germany , "plaque de foyer" in France.
In the beginnings the decoration was produced in using any ornament at hand. The objects were pressed disorderly one by one into the sand, and not previously fixed upon a board. The slabs were edged with short lengths of cable twist or a cable stiffened with pitch or glue; such edgings, in fact, being one of the characteristics common to Wealden fire-backs of early date.
Fireback molded with a design made up of cabletwist
From the 16th century many fire-backs were cast with patterns such as fleurs- de-lis, rosettes, crowns, coat of arms, biblical allegories, portraits or other subjects.
By the middle of the 17th century firebacks of a very elaborate type were being produced.
Firebacks types were grouped by Gardner in four different categories:
1-Those with a design molded by means of separate movable stamps
2-Plates with armorial bearings, local and allegorical subjects, from a single plate of wood
3-Biblical subjects in the German style
4- Fireback of Dutch design that are thinner and lighter in their casting and are ornamented with swelling outlines and rich floral borders.
In the early Middle Ages, domestic fires had been located in the center of the main hall or the main room. Distributed heating systems with fire or stove in each room appeared much later, probably in the late 15th century, depending of the availability of suitable materials such as stone , bricks and cast-iron.
In spite of the evolution of home design and of a better availability of proper materials, only a minority of houses had iron plates or cast iron firebacks in the 17th century. Many armorial firebacks with a sophisticated design were produced. Nevertheless the price of firebacks was largely based on the weight of iron.
British cast iron firebacks of the 16th to mid 18th c. by Jeremy Hodgkinson, 2010
Wealden Iron by Ernest Straker, 1931
History of the British Iron and Steel Industry ,Schubert 1957
Carpentier, Henri: Plaques de cheminées, Paris 1967