DESIGN: This large fireback is one of the finest exisitng examples of American decorative cast iron. The formal Chippendale-Georgian design of the pattern, with its bead and reel border, tight acanthus scrolls, and realism of portrayal in the animals, recalls the great “Aesop fable” case pieces of Philadelphia, some of which may indeed have been carved by this same firm.
HISTORY: Bearing the arms of the Fairfax family (note the early spelling), the pattern may have originally been a custom order of George William Fairfax, the Virginia agent of the 5 million acre Fairfax holdings in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Their estate, Belvoir (near Mount Vernon) was considered to be, after the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg, the social and political center of the colony. The fireback is one of the very few armorial types cast in this country, this form having been more popular in Europe. The order from furnace proprietor Isaac Zane to specialist Philadelphia carvers Bernard and Jugiez survives, provides documentation of the artists: on 20 December 1770, Bernard and Jugiez acknowledged the receipt of “Eight pounds for the carving the arms of Earl of Fairfax for a Pattern for the Back of Chimney sent Isaac Zane Jr.”
MAKER: The design was executed by the Marlboro Furnace, of Frederick County, Virginia, founded by Isaac Zane in 1767. His partners, John and Samuel Potts and John Hughes, were experienced ironmasters from Pennsylvania. Zane subsequently bought out his associates and began to make improvements to the works. He constructed a furnace near newly discovered ore beds and operated it until the early 1790s when he retired due to declining health. Raised in a prominent Philadelphia household, Zane maintained cultural and economic ties with that city, commissioning casting patterns from Philadelphia carvers and distributing iron through his brother-in-law and factor, John Pemberton. Survivng castings from Marlboro show remarkable flexibility in Zane’s product marketing since they range from elegant stoveplates and firebacks in the Rococo style to jamb stoves decorated with simple scenes derived from European folklore. By the time Marlboro closed, Zane owned over 35,000 acres of land, the furnace complex, a spacious manor house, and one of the largest libraries in the country. He was a colonel in the Shenandoah milita, a member of the House of Burgesses, and a close frined of Thomas Jefferson.