The spark that kindled BathIRON was a desire to share the living and thriving craft of the blacksmith as widely as possible, while drawing attention to our precious ironwork heritage, and promoting a greater understanding of the high level of skill involved in its care. This triumphant project had a fitting finale when we celebrated the official opening of the transformed bandstand at FireFOLK, a family festival of folk music and blacksmithing in Bath’s Parade Gardens.
A showery afternoon was followed by a beautiful sunny evening and the crowds poured in for what was – as promised – a foot-stomping evening of upbeat music, fabulous street food and a sell-out charity bar. The audience were enthralled by the live forging demonstrations that produced four unique hand-forged artworks, some of which were auctioned off on the night, although a few are still available. But the highlight of the evening was surely the opening of the bandstand by the Mayor of Bath, who in thanking all those who had brought the balustrade to life, once again underlined the importance of keeping our heritage crafts alive. The ‘birth’ of the new ironwork was celebrated in a very special moment created by experimental composer Nathaniel Mann, who used the communal ringing on hammers on anvils to invoke the spirit of the iron. And then the party really started, with a heaving, jumping crowd enjoying the diverse music of local folk bands well into the night.
By way of background, BathIRON aimed to bring together the worlds of the craft practitioner and the heritage consultant in a joint celebration of a vibrant craft skill which has its roots in ancient times but still plays a vital role in our modern world. It was the vision of NHIG Secretary Andy Thearle, who is an active ironworker in the city of Bath and the World Heritage City provided an ideal context for this project, as its wealth of historic fabric means there is also a pressing need to nurture the heritage skills that built the city and continue to maintain it.
Today the storehouse of ancient blacksmithing skills lies mainly within the modern artist blacksmithing movement, who are its guardians. With this in mind, Andy looked about for an artistic project that would appeal to the modern smith while keeping its feet firmly planted in traditional techniques. The bandstand in Parade Gardens presented itself as the obvious choice, with its poorly-made, utilitarian balustrade crying out for a radical rebirth. And despite the logistical issues that a site with no vehicle access would present, Andy put forward a design that won conservation officer approval. Being a bandstand, the obvious design cue was music, so a competition was launched through Bath Spa University to compose the piece whose score would become the core feature of the balustrade. Jake Garratt’s Hammer & Anvil, based on an old English folk song about a blacksmith, won the day and hundreds of staves, notes, rests and clefs went into production, as volunteers began the process of realising this piece of music in iron. Simultaneously, calls went out to the blacksmithing community for nominations of Masters to design the eight musically-themed panels that break up the score.
The design of the main balustrade took its inspiration from first-floor Bath ironwork: delicate, detailed, fine and decorative – jewellery for buildings. And although the final piece is very much new work, a visitor from the Georgian period would recognise instantly how it was made. Dynamic, contemporary and unique, it nevertheless honours the skills of our forebears and is a fitting testament to the city’s craft origins.
After delaying the project for a year to concentrate on fundraising, with a few months to go were still well short of our target. The launch of our crowd-funding campaign proved a turning point in harnessing both local and national support. 800 treble clefs were hand-forged by volunteers, around 700 of which have now been sold, and our ‘Sponsor a Note’ campaign allowed supporters to dedicate notes on the balustrade as tributes to loved ones. All but a handful of notes have now been sponsored (you can read all the dedications here) but there are a few left so be quick if you want to sponsor a note and four of the eight Master panels are still available (email firstname.lastname@example.org for further info).
After all the preparation and build-up, the four days of BathIRON passed in a flash. There were so many different kinds of people passing through – from local school children to world-renowned blacksmiths – and so much going on. Central to the whole event were the eight forging teams who brought each of the eight unique music-theme Master panels to life. This concept, whereby a Master leads a team with mixed experience and skill, including students, was key to the positive energy and spirit of camaraderie that pervaded the event. Another highlight was Austrian blacksmith Master Walfrid Huber’s talk on his recreation of the hinges on the doors of Notre Dame in Paris, alongside a world premier screening of The Devil’s Blacksmith which tells his story.
Once the balustrade had been finished and galvanized, it was time to start painting. After consulting with a highly regarded local historic paint consultant, we chose colours that were available in Georgian times, and gilded details were picked out to add richness and heighten the visual impact, unifying the very different creative flourishes of the Master panels. As a result, the whole piece is not only lively and playful but helps to alter public perception that ironwork should be black, when historically it was anything but. A painting party held in the Ironart workshop in Larkhall, was just one of many instances where the local community got behind the idea and supported the project with willing enthusiasm. Finally the day came for installation and again a stalwart team turned up in Parade Gardens to fit the balustrade in time for our celebration event FireFOLK at the end of May 2019.
Hopefully the story of BathIRON (you can read a full write up here and watch the film here) will inspire others to embark on similar projects elsewhere, and perhaps generations that follow will even be inspired to learn an ancient craft skill, fired up by their experience of this event.