Decorative Iron and Metalwork: Great Examples from English Sources

Decorative Iron and Metalwork: Great Examples from English Sources

by R. Goodwin-Smith

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Magnificent study by expert on age-old craft provides a spirited overview. 140 illustrations include grilles, doors, and gates; stair railings and balustrades; small handles, hinges, door-knockers, and keyhole plates; Elizabethan-era firedogs; weather vanes; much more, many never catalogued before. Rich source of inspiration, royalty-free graphics, information.See more details below


Magnificent study by expert on age-old craft provides a spirited overview. 140 illustrations include grilles, doors, and gates; stair railings and balustrades; small handles, hinges, door-knockers, and keyhole plates; Elizabethan-era firedogs; weather vanes; much more, many never catalogued before. Rich source of inspiration, royalty-free graphics, information.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Jewelry and Metalwork Series
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9.70(w) x 11.60(h) x 0.55(d)

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Great Examples from English Sources

By R. Goodwin-Smith

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14978-3



(a) A World concerning the Technique of the Old-world Smith, as shown by his Grilles and Gates.

No lover of English ironwork should pursue his studies far without making friends with some Smith, and paying many a visit to his forge; since the methods of ironwork have changed amazingly little through the centuries.

I have remarked on the highly instructive days I spent in the hospitable forge of a well-known Smith still living and turning out memorable work in the direct tradition of his forefathers. The bellows would roar and the sparks leap at the stroke of the hammer—nothing essential was here that had not been present in the seventeenth century.

Early in his visits to the forge, the layman learns to appreciate the Smith's three main modes of construction—welding, collaring, riveting.

In welding, the Smith—now, as in history—takes two pieces of iron, lays them in his fire, and, working at the bellows, heats them red-hot.

Now he brings them from the furnace, and slams each one vertically, endways, upon the anvil, in order to swell their soft ends, which gives him plenty of material to hammer on, so that the completed weld will not be thinner than the rest of the iron bar.

This (Figure 1) is a preliminary to all welding. Then comes the real welding process. Bringing again both pieces from the fire, he places them together, end-on, and hammers their glowing ends, at first lightly, then with increasing force, till both become one—and most astoundingly one. The cooling bar, to all appearances has been one solid piece since time began! Not the slightest trace of the weld, nor, any irregularity of line is perceptible. To the layman there is something miraculous in a simple weld by a master Smith.

Some Smiths use sand or borax in the operation; but this Smith used neither, and his weld was always faultless.

The collar, or "moulded clip," explains itself. A short, strap-like piece of iron, it is used undisguisedly to join two curves in some flowing design.

In riveting (a process of joining lower in the artistic scale than welding) the Smith bores his two pieces of metal, rivets or pins them, then burrs over the rivet to give it a round head, or to make it almost unnoticeable. Searching examination is needed in the photographs to detect the joins and the small heads of the rivets, which betray that this process, and not welding, has been used. Often, when applying flowing acanthus leaves to a curve of iron, the Smith will bend over the "scarf" or thin joining end of the leaves in order to get a firm fixing; this will be observed in the illustrations.

Welding is used for branching foliage in fine work; the collar joins curves or geometrical figures, while rivets are employed in less noble work, to apply acanthus to a flowing design, and also as the centre of a metal rose or flower. Collared work is light and elastic, and can be put together more easily than riveted work, but the collar is quite visible and must become part of the design. Usually, it is moulded.

The Smith's tools have changed so little that a fifteenth-century Smith could stroll into a country forge of to-day and begin work without embarrassment; for here are anvil, hammer, pincers, and cold chisel—all the instruments with which he worked his metal while hot, in addition to those that, later, were brought by the Locksmith, who made possible the delicate work on cold metal, and used the saw, the drill, and the file. Although, indeed, the oxy-acetylene apparatus might puzzle that fifteenth-century Smith.

Yet though this apparatus may be seen in many a forge to-day, it is not popular among the best workers, and I hear that the old manner of welding, by the hand, is both swifter and neater. "Oxy-acetylene," I was told, "entails a lot of cleaning up on the job afterwards; and even then, you can always tell. The hand weld is more satisfactory and artistic in every way."

Curious points would arise from my conversation with the Smith at those moments when he would relax to light his pipe with a bit of glowing metal—points of great interest to the student of wrought-iron. For example :

Here is a test, not only for the genuineness of a piece of ironwork, but also for whether it was used inside or outside a house!

"A genuine piece," I was assured, "has an unmistakable odour when heated, if it comes from inside a house. A 'housey,' domestic sort of smell, hard to describe, but unmistakable."

One Smith demonstrated this for me by heating a piece in my presence, then holding the glowing iron near my nostrils.

True. It was a piece of interior ironwork. Its "housey," toasted, domestic smell was quite distinct. I learned that however old the iron may be, and however long it may have been removed from the house, this smell becomes apparent when the iron is heated. There may be some chemical explanation of this strange way in which iron seems to draw into itself some of the atmosphere of the house. I can guarantee its authenticity from my own personal experience.

(b) A Brief General History.

The basis of wrought-iron decoration is the iron bar—flat, square, or round; the design was built on or around this bar, either bound, curled, hammered, or arranged as a trellis.

Smiths of the Gothic period seldom invented ornament; they relied instead on the designs handed down by their fathers. Many also found inspiration in old illuminated manuscripts, and copied the flowers, sprays, rosettes, and elaborate initials from the margins of the parchment—a laborious task, working this in iron!

Church tracery and cusping were, however, also to become a fount of ideas, and in the Late Gothic period, when the illuminated MS. were superseded by pen-drawings with graceful curves, many an old Smith sought to imitate these flourishes also.

Before the thirteenth century, decorative iron was chiefly used on wood, especially as hinges to chests and doors, and to make the latter defensive. Designs at first were conventional and geometrical, of beasts, birds, and ships.

Then the thirteenth century dawned, and Gothic architecture developed. An increasing civilisation lessened the necessity for defensive ironwork, which grew less cruel and forbidding, and flowed into natural curves and foliage, as there arrived one of the most brilliant periods in the history of metal.

A great point to remember is that till the close of the thirteenth century all ironwork was manipulated at welding heat. This handling of red-hot metal called for an immensely quick and alert hand; its results were charming, but exact repetition of a design in, say, a pair of hinges was impossible.

In the fourteenth century decorative ironwork almost died out. There is an extraordinary dearth of examples. The Smith does not come into his own again till the dawn of the fifteenth century, when he reappears, adapting his ideas to the vast progress made by Architecture; making use of woodwork devices, like the mortise and tenon; and piercing plate-iron into tracery patterns, placing one sheet upon another to vary the effect.

Smiths' wages in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries were about 4½ d. a day; and we learn with interest that in 1394, "by reason the great nuisance, noise, and alarm, experienced in divers ways by the neighbours," no Smith was allowed to work by night.

The fifteenth century, like the thirteenth, closes with a flourish, then once again wrought-iron drops a little out of the historic picture. I feel that the coming of the Italian workmen, skilled in casting bronze, contributed towards the Smiths' decline. Much of the sixteenth century is very barren of ironwork. So much timber was consumed in feeding the furnaces used in manufacturing iron (which meant serious deforestation of the country) that no less than three Acts were passed in Elizabeth's day forbidding further ironworks. The country's timber must be saved! Oak trees were most used in making iron½and Elizabethans needed the oak for their all-important navy.

So, for the second time, Smith-craft declined. (Its next full awakening was not to come till the seventeenth century and the arrival of the greatest patrons of the Smith—William and Mary, in 1689.) But fertile brains were already seeking to counteract the effects of the Government's prohibition of timber using. By 1619, Dud Dudley, a natural son of Edward, Lord Dudley, had succeeded in manufacturing iron with coal, instead of with charcoal in the old way.

Those whose interests were bound up with the old ways of manufacture by charcoal at once combined to persecute him. He fought them valiantly, but the struggle was unequal and after many misfortunes—and a taste of prison—he died without disclosing his secret. It was not until 1713 that pit-coal was successfully used again in the making of iron, and not till forty years after this date that it became general—a historic example of how vested interests can delay progress, in this case for a good century.

It is worth remarking that decorative iron was inclined to flourish in peacetime rather than during a war, since naturally the Smiths, in a war period, would have much of their time and energy devoted to forging weapons.

It is a pity that English architects made so little use of decorative iron for their gates till well after the mid-seventeenth century. Gates were first high, and of wood; later they were curved down in the centre according to the Italian fashion —the old defensive notion surviving in the form of decorative spikes at their heads. Still later their wooden panels were pierced and replaced with iron vertical bars—this form was the immediate ancestor of the open-work iron gate, which soon appeared.

The great courtyard gates were, of course, governed by the width of coaches of the period. High stone gate-piers, capped with urns or balls, came with the lowered gate and the wave of Italian fashion; these persisted till after the Restoration, when pilasters of open ironwork replaced them.

Up to the time of William and Mary, the Smith's work in gates was vigorous, free, and unhampered—pleasing, but rather obviously the work of a man without architectural training, working without supervision, and employing his favourite devices of tulips, roses, and C-scrolls as he fancied.

A man's own natural sense should be used in judging any iron gate. Is it, one should ask, a good gate? Does it swing easily, despite its age? Is it strongly fashioned? Is the ornament pleasing, or is it over-ornate, suggesting the use of some alien material, and obscuring the view beyond the gate? Above all, is it contrived—as should be all exterior metal work—so as to give the least opportunity for moisture—that ancient enemy of iron—to lodge and cause destruction?

A gate or grille should allow a fine stretch of trees and park, or a sacred object in a cathedral, to be seen and enjoyed, and yet should interpose a barrier of strength between the scene and the beholder. With such ideals in mind, we can examine the coming illustrations with some profit.

Plate No. 1 (top right) is the lower portion of the grille from St. Swithun's Shrine, Winchester. It is reputed the oldest ironwork in England, being of the twelfth century. The use of the collar and of the moulded clip is noticeable here, proving these to be very early devices. The ingenuity of the terminal flowers is delightful, the old Smith has found a pleasing design by the use of a collar binding two C-scrolls, his centre petal being simply folded over.

A sufficient explanation is given beneath each of the following illustrations. Plate No. 1 (bottom left) shows signs of having been repaired (compare the top collar, which is genuine, with the two middle collars, which are obviously later additions). This is a panel from the gate of a manor house at Tottenham. Plate No. 3 (bottom), the cresting of an early eighteenth-century gateway, is composed of scrolls, with leaves and berries, surmounted by a flaming vase. It is interesting because, although now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, it betrays amateurish details. The straight lines of the outside triangle, ending in a curve, are very bad and inartistic in shape; the right-hand one has, I suspect, been clumsily repaired. One might even suspect later additions; particularly I suspect the central acanthus which flowers out in a most unnatural curve, and covers up part of the spiral of the original design.

The central upright is made of flowers whose petals have been hammered and folded over; the acanthus leaves are not welded on, but are riveted; this may be plainly seen in the way the thin "scarf" of the iron is turned over the corner of the design to make a firm fixing.

The ironwork of France, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had its influence on England—an influence which can still be traced in the work of many old ornamental engravers then living, even though much of her glorious work perished in the Revolution, or was reforged to make weapons.

In both countries the master Smith was still much inspired by architects and engravers; Jean Berain and Daniel Marot, both Frenchmen, were important sources of metal-work inspiration.

We pass on to further illustrations, such as the fine panel from one of the gates of Bridewell Hospital, Plate No. 1 (bottom right). This, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is a reproduction of some originals presented by Sir William Withers. It is a fine piece of work, partly welded and partly riveted (one can see on the photographs the small pins joining pieces of the acanthus leaf to the main curves).

The magnificent gates in St. Mary Redcliff Church, Bristol (Plate No. 4) are worthy of close study. Few modern Smiths would care to construct them for the sum of £110, as did William Edney, Smith, in 1710. The panels between stonework and standards are modern additions, made in order to fill the space of the gateway, since originally these gates were part of a screen between the nave and the chancel.

The bottom panels are separated from the upper ones by a narrow frieze containing scrolls. In the superb triangular design above are blazoned the city arms, which, surmounted by helmet and crest, are finely framed with scrolls and cast urns.

Bristol is rich indeed in her ironwork. The next photograph is of gates in Temple Church (Plate No. 5). These now serve as grilles to the north and south aisles. They were erected in 1726, and in one of the monograms appear the initials "W.E.," which leads one to suspect that their maker may have been William Edney.

These gates, unlike the previous ones, have no frieze between the upper and lower panels; nor is the design quite so perfect. Over-use of acanthus scrolls somewhat obscures the main curves. The gates have shaped heads adorned with yet more scrolls; these gates are blackened, which rather enhances their effect.

The next gates are from St. Nicholas Church, Bristol (Plate No. 6). They have been moved from an earlier position, and widened to fill their new place. The cast urns with drapery pendants are very like those at Temple Church. Like the Redcliff Church gates, these have a frieze between upper and lower panels. Their date is probably Queen Anne.


Excerpted from DECORATIVE IRON AND METALWORK by R. Goodwin-Smith. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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