Whistlestop tour of ironwork at BathIRON seminar

NHIG BathIRON seminar – Thursday, 14th June 2018

Around 60 delegates from a wide range of backgrounds converged on the Guildhall on the first day of BathIRON for our seminar Heritage Ironwork: an Endangered Species.  It was an eclectic line-up of speakers and an eclectic audience with various levels of interest and experience, but the aim was to give a ‘whistlestop tour’ of ironwork from the perspective of diverse disciplines: conservators, engineers, architects, metalwork designers and makers, and historians.

To open proceedings, John Wallis of Dorothea Restorations took us through the process of making iron before giving an overview of joining and moulding processes, and distinguishing between wrought and cast iron. Bethan Griffiths of The Ironwork Studio gave a brief introduction to the long history of ironwork, from the utilitarian through to the era of conspicuous consumption when it was all about flamboyance, allowing designers and makers to demonstrate major technical and artistic accomplishment. Ironwork has come in and out of fashion over the centuries, for example when picturesque naturalistic landscapes were all the rage there was no call for gates and railings.  Bethan considered the different aesthetic qualities or wrought and cast: wrought being slim, detailed, refined, and light, whereas cast is ponderous with lots of heavy pattern, but pointed out that often they complement each other well – 19th century train sheds, for example, being a great triumph of wrought and cast used in harmony in appropriate roles. She looked also at several examples of successful collaborations between architect and craftsman producing outstanding work, for example the choir screen in Hereford Cathedral by Gilbert Scott and Skidmore, and closed with a reminder that heritage doesn’t stop, it is ongoing and being added to all the time.

Jo Kelly’s exploration of Design and Symbolism Through the Ages covered a wide range of examples, from obscure animals that blacksmiths had to invent for lack of familiarity, and the many messages locked into heraldry, to the tulips in the Queen’s House staircase in Greenwich which apparently stem from the story of star-crossed lovers Shirin the Queen of Persia and Farhad. Following this, Dr Michael Forsyth of Bath University delved into the war effort in Bath with Gates into Rifles.  The morale boosting exercise of encouraging people to remove and donate their ironwork as raw war materials left a city bereft of its ornament.  At the time, the blackout was in place the tops of many Bath railings were painted white to guide people at night. Although railings that protected dangerous drops were left in place and the main cull was from residential squares and suburbs, several iconic streets such as Royal Crescent were ‘at risk’. The Landsdown Crescent gas lamp overthrows were given a reprieve from the war effort and the donated finials were recently reinstated by residents.

Dr Amy Frost, curator of the Bath Architecture Museum, explored Knobs and Knockers and other overlooked ironwork. Door knobs and strikers became popular in the second half of the 18th century, the waist height knobs usually painted black so that they would ‘disappear’ as the door was considered the thing worth looking at.  Door striker designs were mass produced for over a hundred years so it is difficult to date them, but they generally follow architectural styles of their era so Regency ones,, for example, tend to be more ostentatious and elaborate.  Amy questioned the idea of value and how we tend to dismiss these smaller architectural features, but they document a particular moment as much as anything else. “If people discard all the ‘unimportant’ details of a building the character will be lost.”

Keynote speaker Professor Mark Horton of Bristol University spoke on Iron and the Coast, largely from an archaeological perspective. While 4th century Scandinavian Nydam boats had wooden keels with nails the only metalwork, by the 8th century a technological transformation had taken place which made Viking Ships constructed of iron possible.  The public were initially sceptical about iron as a ship building material but after the triumph of Brunel’s SS Gt Britain there was a move away from timber construction. The Great Eastern, which was used for laying trans-Atlantic cables, still survives in part on the beach where it was left to rot.  Professor Horton focused on the challenges of conserving boats made of iron and wood in a wet, salty environment but his talk was also peppered with interesting asides, such as the name for ‘clinker’ boats being onomatopoeic from the ‘clink’ of the riveting process.

To close, Geoff Wallis covered the important area of how to care for your ironwork, including available repair treatments and how to select a suitable practitioner, much of which advice is available on the NHIG website and publications.  The day ended with a walking tour of Bath’s ironwork, which dramatically over-ran it’s allotted time-slot because there was so much to see and talk about.


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