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Metal Work








In discussing the artistic aspect of metal work, we have to take into
account the physical properties and appropriate treatment of the
following metals: the precious metals, gold and silver; copper, both
pure and alloyed with other metals, especially tin and zinc in various
proportions to form the many kinds of brass and bronze; lead, with a
group of alloys of which pewter is typical; and iron, in the three forms
of cast iron, wrought iron, and steel. All these have been made to serve
the purpose of the artist, and the manipulation of them, while
presenting many differences in detail, presents certain broad
characteristics in common which distinguish them from the raw material
of other crafts. Whether they are found native in the metallic state as
is usual in the case of gold, or combined with many other minerals in
the form of ore as is more common with other metals, fire is the primal
agency by which they are made available for our needs. The first stage
in their manipulation is to melt and cast them into ingots of a size
convenient to the purpose intended. Secondly, all these metals when
pure, and many alloys, are in varying degree malleable and ductile, are,
in fact, if sufficient force be applied, plastic. Hence arises the first
broad division in the treatment of metals. The fluid metal may, by the
use of suitable moulds, be cast at once to the shape required, or the
casting may be treated merely as the starting-point for a whole series
of operations--forging, rolling, chipping, chasing, wire-drawing, and
many more. Another property of the metals which must be noticed is, that
not only can separate masses of metals be melted down and fused into
one, but it is possible, under various conditions, of which the one
invariably necessary is perfectly clean surfaces of contact, to unite
separate portions of the same or different metals without fusion of the
mass. For our present purpose the most important instance of this is the
process of soldering, by which two surfaces are united by the
application of sufficient heat to melt more fusible metal which is
introduced between them, and which combines with both so as firmly to
unite them on solidifying. Closely allied to this are the processes by
which one metal is, for purposes of adornment or preservation from
corrosion, coated with a thin film or deposit of another, usually more
costly, metal.

Though hereafter electro-metallurgy may assert its claim to artistic
originality as a third division, for the present all metal work, so far
as its artistic aspect depends upon process, falls naturally into one of
the two broad divisions of cast metal and wrought metal. Both have been
employed from a time long anterior to written history; ornaments of
beaten gold, and tools of cast bronze, are alike found among the relics
of very early stages of civilisation, and in early stages both alike are
artistic. The choice between the two processes is determined by such
considerations as convenience of manufacture and the physical properties
of the metals, and the different purposes in view. When a thick and
comparatively massive shape is required, it is often easier to cast it
at once. For thinner and lighter forms it is usually more convenient to
treat the ingot or crude product of the furnace as mere raw material for
a long series of workings under the hammer, or its patent mechanical
equivalents, the rolling and pressing mills of modern mechanics. The
choice is further influenced by the toughness generally characteristic
of wrought metal, whereas the alloys which yield the cleanest castings
are by no means universally the best in other respects. Iron is the
extreme instance of this: ordinary cast iron being an impure form of the
metal, which is too brittle to be worked under the hammer, but is
readily cast into moulds, being fluid at a temperature which, though
high, is easily obtained in a blast furnace. Wrought iron, however,
which is usually obtained from cast iron by a process called puddling,
whereby the impurities are burnt out, does not become fluid enough to
pour into moulds; but on the other hand, pieces at a white heat can be
united into a solid mass by skilful hammering, a process which is called
welding, and, together with the fact that from its great hardness it is
usually worked hot, is specially distinctive of the blacksmith's craft.
In no other metal is the separation between the two branches so wide as
in iron. The misdirected skill of some modern iron-founders has caused
the name of cast iron to be regarded as the very negative of art, and
has even thrown suspicion on the process of casting itself as one of
questionable honesty. Nevertheless, as a craft capable of giving final
shape to metal, it has manifestly an artistic aspect, and, in fact,
bronze statuary, a fine art pure and simple, is reproduced from the
clay model merely by moulding and casting. We must therefore look for
the artistic conditions in the preparation of the model or pattern, the
impress of which in sand or loam forms the mould; the pattern may be
carved in wood or modelled in clay, but the handling of the wood or clay
is modified by the conditions under which the form is reproduced. And
lastly, the finished object may either retain the surface formed as the
metal solidifies, as in the case of the bronzes cast by the wax process,
or the skin may be removed by the use of cutting tools, chisels and
files and gravers, so that, as in the case of many of the better French
bronzes, the finished work is strictly carved work. On the contrary,
much silversmith's work, as well as such simple objects as Chinese gongs
and Indian "lotahs," after being cast approximately to shape are
finished by hammer work, that is, treated as plastic material with tools
that force the material into shape instead of cutting the shape out of
the mass by removing exterior portions of material. Attempts to imitate
both processes by casting only, thus dispensing with the cost of
finishing, are common, but as they dispense likewise with all beauty in
the product, even if they do not substitute varnished and tinted zinc
for better metal, their success is commercial only.

We have thus three characteristic kinds of surface resulting from the
conditions of treatment, marking out three natural divisions of the art:
and be it noted that questions of surface or texture are all-important
in the arts; beauty is skin deep. First, the natural skin of the metal
solidified in contact with the mould, and more or less closely
imitative of the surface of the original model, usually for our purposes
a plastic surface; secondly, there is carved, technically called chased,
work; and thirdly, beaten or wrought work, which in ornament is termed
embossing.

Superimposed on these we have the cross divisions of the crafts
according to the special metal operated on, and in the existing
industrial organisation the groups thus obtained have to be further
divided into many sub-heads, according to the articles produced; and
finally, another commercial distinction has to be drawn which greatly
affects the present condition of handicraft, that is, the division of
the several trades into craftsmen and salesmen. There can be no doubt
that the extent of the existing dissociation of the producing craftsman
from the consumer is an evil for the arts, and that the growing
preponderance of great stores is inimical to excellence of workmanship.
It is, perhaps, an advantage for the workman to be relieved from the
office of salesman; the position of the village smith plying his calling
in face of his customers might not suit every craft, but the services of
the middleman are dearly bought at the price of artistic freedom. It is
too often in the power of the middleman to dictate the quality of
workmanship, too often his seeming interest to ordain that it shall be
bad.

The choice of a metal for any particular purpose is determined by
physical properties combined with considerations of cost. Iron, if only
for its cheapness, is the material for the largest works of metal; while
in the form of steel it is the best available material for many very
small works, watch-springs for instance: it has the defect of liability
to rust; the surfaces of other metals may tarnish, but iron rusts
through. For the present only one application of cast iron concerns
us--its use for grates and stoves. The point to remember is, that as the
material has but little beauty, its employment should be restricted to
the quantity prescribed by the demands of utility. Wrought iron, on the
contrary, gives very great scope to the artist, and it offers this
peculiar advantage, that the necessity of striking while the iron is hot
enforces such free dexterity of handling in the ordinary smith, that he
has comparatively little to learn if set to produce ornamental work, and
thus renewed interest in the art has found craftsmen enough who could
readily respond to the demand made upon them.

Copper, distinguished among metals by its glowing red tint, has as a
material for artistic work been overshadowed by its alloys, brass and
bronze; partly because they make sounder castings, partly it is to be
feared from the approach of their colour to gold. Holding an
intermediate position between iron and the precious metals, they are the
material of innumerable household utensils and smaller architectural
fittings.

Lead, tin, and zinc scarcely concern the artist to-day, though neither
plumber nor pewterer has always been restricted to plain utilitarianism.
Gold and silver have been distinguished in all ages as the precious
metals, both for their comparative rarity and their freedom from
corrosion, and their extreme beauty. They are both extremely malleable
and very readily worked. Unhappily there is little original English work
being done in these metals. The more ordinary wares have all life and
feeling taken out of them by mechanical finish, an abrasive process
being employed to remove every sign of tool-marks. The all-important
surface is thus obliterated. As to design, fashion oscillates between
copies of one past period and another. A comparison of one of these
copies with an original will make the distinction between the work of a
man paid to do his quickest and one paid to do his best clearer than
volumes of description. Indeed, when all is said, a writer can but
indicate the logic that underlies the craft, or hint at the relation
which subsists between the process, the material, and the finished ware:
the distinction between good and bad in art eludes definition; it is not
an affair of reason, but of perception.

W. A. S. BENSON.





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