Shining a light on the history of the chandelier – RN
Chandeliers used candles until electric light was introduced after the 1880s. (Getty: secablue)
A pedant might point out that the word chandelier is simply the French for candlestick but for most of us, the word conjures up images of glittering ballrooms, Strauss waltzes, and palatial spaces that might daunt anyone but royalty.
According to a recent biography, Princess Margaret put it about that the first word her infant son uttered was ‘chandelier.’
Joke or not, it says something for the way the object is seen, although the story of the chandelier is really the story of the candle and of lighting in general.
Are chandeliers timeless? Yes, according to Associate Professor Wendy Davis from the University of Sydney.
“We see across architecture, elements that are to this day very popular, that mimic something that is obsolete,” Professor Davis said.
“In certain countries residences might have shutters on them that might just be decorative, they no longer protect the building from storms.
“The chandelier is one of the more iconic examples of that. It is based around these old holders of candles suspended from the ceiling and that’s what they’re intended to conjure up.”
They ‘guttered and stank’
It’s believed the Romans began making candles from tallow, beginning around 500 BC, while the earliest surviving candles, made from whale fat, originated in Han China around 200 BC. (Getty: Towfiqu Photography)
Candles in some form have existed since the earliest civilisations.
By medieval times, they were made mainly from rendered animal fat.
An illustration of a medieval chandelier from King René’s Tournament Book in 1460. (Wikimedia Commons)
These guttered and stank as they burned and gave out precious little light but most people went to bed when daylight ended, anyway.
But as homes became grander, they needed decent lighting at night.
The wealthy used beeswax candles and generally had enough servants to deal with the constant changing and cutting of wicks.
Symbols of wealth and power
It’s no surprise to find that the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, used 20,000 candles to illuminate the dazzling Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.
After all, the chandelier is surely a symbol of the sun: something almost pagan, capturing the essence of light, obviously something only the very wealthy could afford.
Certainly they remain a widespread sign of wealth and power despite changing trends in interior design, says Associate Professor Wendy Davis.
“Interior design seems to have a number of different ways to express wealth these days. There are very high-end finishes and styles that would be very inconsistent with a chandelier,” she said.
“But there’s something, I guess in American vernacular I’d say, quite ‘old money’ about a chandelier.”
The Galeries des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) in the Palace of Versailles, France. (Wikimedia Commons: Myrabella)
By the eighteenth century, the crystal makers of Bohemia were making tiered chandeliers festooned with crystal droplets that cast rainbows around a room. The ornate chandeliers from Murano near Venice were also popular.
And yet most people’s homes remained resolutely gloomy. Despite the invention of the oil lamp in 1783, and the introduction of gas lighting soon after, many continued to rely on the traditional candle.
In the middle of the 19th century, even Buckingham Palace was lit only by candles, although these were now made from paraffin wax which didn’t drip.
The crystal chandelier really came into its own when electric light was introduced after the 1880s, enabling truly bright light.
Opulent theatres, opera houses and hotels wanted a statement piece and manufacturers produced chandeliers of immense size, such as the huge chandelier in the Paris Opera House whose counterweight famously broke free in 1896, killing one man, and inspiring Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera.
‘They make people happy’
A chandelier inside the dome of the Great Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Oman, Arabia. (Getty: Karl-Heinz Schein)
Chandeliers continue to wow us. The largest are now found in the biggest mosques, like the one in Oman’s Grand Mosque which weighs nearly eight tonnes.
Although they’re not a popular form in architectural lighting design because of a lack of efficiency, Associate Professor Davis says they remain timeless because people love them.
“What a purely engineering-focused approach to lighting design ignores is the fact that people like them – they make people happy,” she said.
“The things that people like sometimes aren’t the most efficient or even the most effective way to do something but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done.”
Dictators love them, too. Nicolai Ceausescu’s vulgar palace in Bucharest used 3,500 tonnes of crystal in over 400 chandeliers.
And yet, who among us isn’t secretly a little enchanted by the sight of even the smallest chandelier suspended over a dining table? A sign surely that we all relish a hint of grandeur in our lives.