Light Fittings

In Georgian and Early Victorian Interiors

Jonathan Taylor


  18th century glass chandeliers and a wall sconce at Draper's Hall,

Today it is difficult to imagine how dark houses were in the past, not only at night but also, in the gloomy British winter, for much of the day. Despite the significant improvements made to oil lamps in the late 18th century and the increasing use of gas lighting in the late 19th, few houses had a level of lighting that we would consider to be adequate until electricity became generally available after the First World War.

The choice of new light fittings for an historic interior therefore presents a dilemma. Few elements strike a more discordant note than fluorescent strip lights and modern plastic pendant fittings, and yet a return to candlelight or even gas fittings alone would be unacceptable for any building in normal use. If the character of the interior is to be respected, some element of compromise between historic authenticity and function is clearly required.


In the 17th century and for much of the 18th our ancestors relied almost entirely on the light of the fireside and either candles or, in the poorest houses, rushlights made from the pith (of rushes) and tallow (a type of animal fat). Candles were used sparingly. Even in the homes of the wealthy, when the family was not entertaining guests, only the minimum number of candles were used in a room at any one time, and these were positioned close to where the light was most needed. A single candle was carried to light the way from one room to another. Everyday lighting was therefore moveable, and not part of the architectural design of the interior.

In the larger houses of the time, fixed light fittings included sconces, hall lights and chandeliers. Sconces (wall fittings) often had a mirror behind them to reflect more light, and were often on either side of the chimney breast. Hall lights, which might be pendant or wall fittings, consisted of a candle in a glass case to protect it from the draught when the door was opened. Chandeliers (suspended fittings with radiating arms) were hung in the most important rooms only and were often designed to light these rooms in a most spectacular fashion. However, keeping the many arms of the most impressive chandeliers alight was an extravagance reserved for special events, such as weddings. After George III visited the Dowager Duchess of Portland at Balustrode in 1779, her friend Mrs Delaney wrote: 'Her Grace had the house lighted up in a most magnificent manner; the chandelier in the great hall was not lighted before for twenty years.' (From Lighting in the Country House).


Simple oil lamps consisting of a wick partly immersed in oil were used in some houses but they smoked badly and smelt even worse than the cheap tallow candles commonly used. However, major improvements were made in the late 18th century when the 'Argand' or 'colza' lamp was introduced. Designed by Aimé Argand in Switzerland and patented in this country in 1784 by Matthew Boulton the Birmingham silversmith, the Argand oil lamp was the first in a series of developments which revolutionised lighting. Its success was due to the use of concentric cylinders which sandwiched the wick in a circle, with air channelled through it and around it, so that the oil burnt most efficiently. Air was drawn in through the middle of the wick and its oil-filled holder from a vent below, and from the sides through a 'gallery'. The draught was further improved by the use of a glass chimney which caused rising air above the flame to draw air in from below, fanning the flame.

  THREE LIGHT FITTINGS FROM A LATE 18TH CENTURY HOUSE IN LONDON. Top: a crystal chandelier. Middle: a colza oil lamp with a central resevoir. Bottom: A gilt wood candelabra converted to electric.

These early lamps burnt colza oil, a thick heavy oil made from rape-seed which was stored in a separate vessel to one side, above the level of the wick, and the flow of oil to the wick was controlled by a valve. This configuration gave the lamp its distinctive form.

When Argand and Boulton had the misfortune to lose their patent two years later, other manufacturers took the opportunity to introduce their own colza lamps. A wide variety of different designs soon emerged. In elaborate examples the reservoir was often disguised as a classical urn at the centre of a table lamp or chandelier, with one or more lamps bracketed off it. There were also simple, functional designs, such as wall lights with the reservoir designed to reflect the light downwards to light the floor or work surface, and elegant but functional brass reading lamps, as well as many other variations.

The reservoir presented a problem for single lamps, casting a shadow over much of the room. In later variations this problem was overcome by introducing a pump to carry the oil up to the wick as in the moderator lamp. The Sinumbra lamp which appeared in the 1820s resolved the problem more simply, by disguising the reservoir as a hollow ring inside the rim of the light shade above. Oil was fed to the lamp below through the brackets supporting the shade.

Both the moderator and the Sinumbra resulted in simple pedestal-shaped oil lamps. This form was established as the one with which we are most familiar today by the introduction of paraffin in the 1860s. Made from petroleum, paraffin was the ideal fuel as it was much lighter than colza oil, more volatile and not at all viscous, enabling the oil to be drawn up a simple wick from a container below. As a result, the complex system of pumps and valves was swept away, producing the flat wick burners with which we are most familiar today. Some lamps, such as the Duplex, had two flat wicks placed close together to give more light.


When first introduced towards the end of the 18th Century, gas lighting was viewed with suspicion. By 1816, 26 miles of gas mains had been laid in London for factory and street lighting but few houses adopted gas lighting before the second half of the 19th Century. Notable exceptions included Abbotsford, the Scottish country seat of Sir Walter Scott, which was first lit by gas in 1892.

According to Dan Cruikshank and Neil Burton in Life in the Georgian City, the use of gas lighting in the new House of Commons in 1852 must have reassured many people of its safety, and perhaps marked the turning point in public perception. In the cities where gas mains supply was available, many houses adopted gas lighting from the 1860s.

These early fittings used 'fishtail' and 'batwing' burners, which were relatively inefficient. The flame smoked badly and in the more impressive houses built at this time, huge ceiling roses were designed to conceal ventilation grilles which conducted the fumes to a vent in the outside wall.

These early gas burners all sat on top of the gas pipe with light emitted by the flame itself. It was not until 1886 that Carl Auer von Wesbach developed the Wesbach gas mantle which, when placed over the flame, glowed incandescently with the brilliance of a light bulb. This subject, and the development of the electric lighting in the late 1870s and early '80s, is discussed by the author in Lighting in the Victorian Home (The Building Conservation Directory, 2000).

Despite the introduction of improved forms of lighting, candles remained the principal source of light in most houses throughout the 19th century and continued to be popular in houses where gas lighting had been installed for special occasions. Lighting with oil or gas cost around twice as much as tallow candles.



  A colza oil lamp of the early 18th century, with seperate resevoirs, being repaired in the workshops of Denmans Montrose Ltd.

Most Georgian and early Victorian buildings in use today will have had new light fittings installed when their electric supply was first introduced, and these in their turn will have been updated many times since then. Where original chandeliers and wall sconces have survived unaltered, there is considerable scope for using them as originally intended for special occasions, such as a candle lit dinner. However, those fine oil lamps that occasionally survive (mainly in large public buildings and stately homes) are more likely to have been converted to electric. In most cases the loss of the original burner will rule out any possibility of restoring old oil or gas fittings to their original form, but they may be rewired and retained.

The requirement for a high level of lighting which can be easily controlled rules out the use of early forms of lighting such as chandeliers and oil lamps as the principal source of light in all but the most exceptional museum conditions. This is not to say that original fittings cannot be used as originally designed; nor does it mean that every room must have fluorescent strip lights and plastic pendants. The question is how to introduce new fittings to provide the lighting level required, without detracting from the character of any surviving fittings and the character of the interior. If the new fittings are to be seen, should they look modern or should they be in the style of the period? The options are summarised below.

  A craftsman at Denmans Montrose Ltd cleaning the 'flashing' or mould lines from a cast replacement for the 'gallery' of a light fitting. Originally stamped from very thin metal, the cost of making a new stamp for individual repairs is prohibitive, and individual replacements have to be cast from moulds made from the original component.

Modern fittings

Alterations may be expressed 'honestly' so that it is immediately obvious which elements of the interior are modern and which are old. Advantages: spot lights, up lights and other modern fittings can be freely used to display the interior in the manner desired; and free-standing fittings can be used to avoid the need to chase in electric wires. Disadvantages: unless highly skilled designers are used, modern schemes can be distracting, and even the best schemes may soon look dated.

Hidden fittings

New fittings may be introduced discretely, for example by hiding them behind existing features such as pelmets. Advantages: the technique minimises the impact of new forms of lighting on the character of the interior. Disadvantages: in many interiors it may not be possible to achieve a satisfactory scheme without making damaging alterations to historic fabric.

Period style

The impact of new fittings can be softened by using replica and reproduction fittings such as chandeliers and sconces supporting genuine candles, with free standing electrical light sources providing the main light source. Replicas may also include contemporary fittings which have been converted for electricity and later fittings such as gasoliers, gas wall brackets or even early electric fittings. Advantages: where new designs accurately replicate original fittings, the appearance of the interior retains a degree of authenticity, and the alterations are less distracting. Disadvantages: the use of replicas confuses the history of the interior, making it difficult to tell what is original and what is new; poor copies and imitations which try too hard to look old such as fake patination and flickering flames not only look contrived, but they also cast doubt on the authenticity of original fabric.

In most cases successful solutions will involve a combination of one or more of the above options. In each case the choice of design approach will need to be considered according to the function of the interior and the amount of light required for the activities; the historic interest of the interior and the extent to which it has been altered in the past; the availability of power points and the ease with which new wiring circuits can be introduced; the need to conserve historic fabric and fittings; and last but not least, the taste of the owner.



In most cases light fittings are unlikely to be considered as 'fixtures' of a building so listed building consent may not be required for their alteration. However exceptions arise where the fittings form part of the architecture of the interior or are in any way built in to the fabric of the building. If there is any doubt it would be advisable to check with the conservation officer of the local authority, as mistakes may not only be damaging to the character of the building, but they may also merit prosecution.


This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 1998


JONATHAN TAYLOR, is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He would like to acknowledge the help of James Hall of JH Chandeliers Ltd and Peter Hall of Denmans Montrose Ltd in preparing this article

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