The Bath Assembly Rooms opened in 1771 and, although it would be several years before Jane Austen and then Charles Dickens immortalised them in print, the venue quickly became one of the most fashionable places to be seen in England.
Part of the reason for its glamour was the stunning chandeliers designed by William Parker, which put the assembly rooms at the forefront of Georgian fashion.
From then on, chandeliers became grand status symbols for the English: heavy taxes, introduced in the 18th century, on both glass and candles meant that only the truly wealthy could afford them. Karen Fritz Fryer, owner of a specialist antique lighting store in Ross-on-Wye, west England, says that chandeliers were such an expense that even in the grandest houses it was common to burn hundreds of wax candles in the chandeliers during parties, and live the rest of the time by the light from the fireplace and a tallow candle, which was made from animal fat and tended to smell.
“Before this time, entertaining was largely done during the day, but during the Georgian period social change and the ability to show off your wealth by lighting your home led to the fashion of evening entertainment,” she says. But it wasn’t just the cost of the candles that made chandeliers the preserve of the wealthy. George IV needed to employ 30 men to keep the candles lit for just one party.
Parker, who became the most famous maker of the period, was only commissioned after the arm of one of the original chandeliers fell off during a dance, narrowly missing the artist Thomas Gainsborough. At the time his lights fetched up to £999, with the bill for gas and oil reaching £550 during the dance season. Today his chandeliers are worth around £2.5m.
Terry Brotheridge, of Brotheridge Chandeliers, says Parker’s designs are still considered the finest in the world. “He abandoned the style of having a large ball in the centre of the stem [the traditional shape] and incorporated, for the first time, the vase shape that became the fashion for all chandeliers.”
Chandeliers were initially candle holders but many were converted to gas and electricity as the new forms of power became available. By the mid-19th century, as gas lighting caught on, branched ceiling lights called gaseliers were made and many candle chandeliers were converted.
Baccarat, a glassware company founded in 1764, began converting to electricity towards the end of the 19th century. A testament to the enduring popularity of the chandelier, the company has collaborated with some of world’s most interesting contemporary designers, including Jaime Hayon and Marcel Wanders. One of its earliest pieces, the Zenith, has been reinterpreted several times, with Philippe Starck recently creating a black version.
Chris Cox, director of Cox London, says the current collecting trend is for modern 20th-century pieces. “This increasingly means not only arts and crafts, art deco and art nouveau, but lighting right through from the 1940s to the 1970s. In terms of collecting, the European early to mid-century designers and sculptors are on fire at the moment. Names such as Jean Royère, Felix Agostini and [Diego] Giacometti are ones to look out for.”
Today’s designers are constantly looking to reinterpret the chandelier from its traditional shape. George Singer, who makes bespoke pieces, says the modern chandelier is now more like an art installation. He is interested in new techniques and is currently using 3D printing to create a giant diamond chandelier made from gold-anodised aluminium. “I had the idea years ago but it was prohibitively expensive to cast the different joints in metal. Then I was walking past the iMakr 3D printing store in Clerkenwell [in London] and realised that the technology to realise my idea now existed.”
This is not the first time Singer has taken a pioneering approach to his work. Mark Howorth, of the London-based interior design firm Callender Howorth, was commissioned to work on a Norman Foster-designed ski chalet and turned to Singer to create a chandelier. “When George turned up with the piece he told us that he’d found it really difficult to get the finish right so he tied it to the back of his Land Rover and drove around with it for a few miles. That created the distressed look he was after.”
Fryer says bespoke chandeliers have recently become popular. “[This means] making a chandelier out of something meaningful to you – from car or bike parts to a chandelier made from coffee cups or knives and forks.”
London-based designer Charles Edwards creates chandeliers in a more traditional style. One of his recent pieces was a replica of an Irish chandelier that is more than 2.8m tall and weighs more than 300kg. It is for sale at £125,000 but it’s likely that you would also need to have the ceiling strengthened. “I bought the original some years ago and sold it to a client in Beverly Hills,” he says. “But I had always thought it would be wonderful to make another one.”
When it comes to choosing a chandelier, Edwards advises leaving at least nine feet from the floor to the base of the light. “You mustn’t hang them too high or the effect is lost, but once you have the clearance below you can use all the available space above.”