Of Cast Iron
Cast iron is nearly our humblest material, and with associations less
than all artistic, for it has been almost hopelessly vulgarised in the
present century, so much so that Mr. Ruskin, with his fearless use of
paradox to shock one into thought, has laid it down that cast iron is an
artistic solecism, impossible for architectural service now, or at any
time. And yet, although we can never claim for iron the beauty of
bronze, it is in some degree a parallel material, and has been used with
appreciation in many ways up to the beginning of this century.
Iron was already known in Sussex at the coming of the Romans. Throughout
this county and Kent, in out-of-the-way farm-houses, iron fire-backs to
open hearths, fine specimens of the founder's art, are still in daily
use as they have been for three hundred years or more. Some have Gothic
diapers and meanders of vine with heraldic badges and initials, and are
evidently cast from models made in the fifteenth century, patterns that
remained in stock and were cast from again and again. Others, of the
following centuries, have coat-arms and supporters, salamanders in the
flames, figures, a triton or centaur, or even a scene, the Judgment of
Solomon, or Marriage of Alexander, or, more appropriately, mere
pattern-work, vases of flowers and the like. However crude they may be,
and some are absurdly inadequate as sculpture, the sense of treatment
and relief suitable to the material never fails to give them a fit
With these backs cast-iron fire-dogs are often found, of which some
Gothic examples also remain, simple in form with soft dull modelling;
later, these were often a mere obelisk on a base surmounted by a ball or
a bird, or rude terminal figures; sometimes a more delicate full figure,
the limbs well together, so that nothing projects from the general
post-like form; and within their limitations they are not without grace
In Frant church, near Tunbridge, are several cast-iron grave slabs about
six feet long by half that width, perfectly flat, one with a single
shield of arms and some letters, others with several; they are quite
successful, natural, and not in the least vulgar.
Iron railings are the most usual form of cast iron as an accessory to
architecture; the earlier examples of these in London are thoroughly fit
for their purpose and their material; sturdily simple forms of gently
swelling curves, or with slightly rounded reliefs. The original railing
at St. Paul's, of Lamberhurst iron, is the finest of these, a large
portion of which around the west front was removed in 1873. Another
example encloses the portico of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. The railing
of the central area of Berkeley Square is beautifully designed, and
there are instances here, as in Grosvenor Square, where cast iron is
used together with wrought, a difficult combination.
Balcony railings and staircase balustrades are quite general to houses
of the late eighteenth century. Refined and thoroughly good of their
kind, they never fail to please, and never, of course, imitate wrought
iron. The design is always direct, unpretentious and effortless, in a
manner that became at this time quite a tradition.
The verandahs also, of which there are so many in Piccadilly or Mayfair,
with posts reeded and of delicate profiles, are of the same kind,
confessedly cast iron, and never without the characterising dulness of
the forms, so that they have no jutting members to be broken off, to
expose a repulsive jagged fracture. The opposite of all these qualities
may be found in the "expensive"-looking railing on the Embankment
enclosing the gardens, whose tiny fretted and fretful forms invite an
experiment often successful.
It must be understood that cast iron should be merely a flat
lattice-like design, obviously cast in panels, or plain post and rail
construction with cast uprights and terminal knops tenoned into rails,
so that there is no doubt of straightforward unaffected fitting. The
British Museum screen may be taken to instance how ample ability will
not redeem false principles of design: the construction is not clear,
nor are the forms sufficiently simple, the result being only a high
order of commonplace grandeur.
Even the lamp-posts set up in the beginning of the century for oil
lights, a few of which have not yet been improved away from back
streets, show the same care for appropriate form. Some of the Pall Mall
Clubs, again, have well-designed candelabra of a more pretentious kind;
also London and Waterloo Bridges.
The fire-grates, both with hobs and close fronts, that came into use
about the middle of the last century, are decorated all over the field
with tiny flutings, beads, and leaf mouldings, sometimes even with
little figure medallions, and carry delicacy to its limit. The better
examples are entirely successful, both in form and in the ornamentation,
which, adapted to this new purpose, does no more than gracefully
acknowledge its debt to the past, just as the best ornament at all times
is neither original nor copied: it must recognise tradition, and add
something which shall be the tradition of the future. The method
followed is to keep the general form quite simple and the areas flat,
while the decoration, just an embroidery of the surface, is of one
substance and in the slightest possible relief. Other larger grates
there were with plain surfaces simply framed with mouldings.
Even the sculptor has not refused iron. Pliny says there were two
statues in Rhodes, one of iron and copper, and the other, a Hercules,
entirely of iron. In the palace at Prague there is a St. George horsed
and armed, the work of the fourteenth century. The qualities natural to
iron which it has to offer for sculpture may best be appreciated by
seeing the examples at the Museum of Geology, in Jermyn Street. On the
staircase there are two large dogs, two ornamental candelabra, and two
figures; the dogs, although not fine as sculpture, are well treated, in
mass and surface, for the metal. In the same museum there is a smaller
statue still better for surface and finish, a French work signed and
dated 1841, and, therefore, half an antique. But for ordinary
foundry-work without surface finish--probably the most appropriate,
certainly the most available, method--the little lions on the outer rail
at the British Museum are proof of how sufficient feeling for design
will dignify any material for any object; they are by the late Alfred
Stevens, and are thoroughly iron beasts, so slightly modelled that they
would be only blocked out for bronze. In the Geological Museum are also
specimens of Berlin and Ilsenburg manufacture; they serve to point the
moral that ingenuity is not art, nor tenuity refinement.
The question of rust is a difficult one, the oxide not being an added
beauty like the patina acquired by bronze, yet the decay of cast iron is
much less than is generally thought, especially on large smooth
surfaces, if the casting has been once treated by an oil bath or a
coating of hot tar: the celebrated iron pillar of Delhi, some twenty
feet high, has stood for fourteen centuries, and shows, it is said,
little evidence of decay. It would be interesting to see how cast
spheres of good iron would be affected in our climate, if occasionally
coated with a lacquer. In painting, the range of tints best approved is
black through gray to white: the simple negative gray gives a pleasant
unobtrusiveness to the well-designed iron-work of the Northern Station
in Paris, whereas our almost universal Indian red is a very bad
choice--a hot coarse colour, you must see it, and be irritated, and it
is surely the only colour that gets worse as it bleaches in the sun.
Gilding is suitable to a certain extent; but for internal work the
homely black-leading cannot be bettered.
To put together the results obtained in our examination of examples.
(1) The metal must be both good and carefully manipulated.
(2) The design must be thought out through the material and its
(3) The pattern must have the ornament modelled, not carved, as is
almost universally the case now, carving in wood being entirely unfit
to give the soft suggestive relief required both by the nature of the
sand-mould into which it is impressed, and the crystalline structure of
the metal when cast.
(4) Flat surfaces like grate fronts may be decorated with some intricacy
if the relief is delicate. But the relief must be less than the basis of
attachment, so that the moulding may be easily practicable, and no
portions invite one to test how easily they might be detached.
(5) Objects in the round must have a simple and substantial bounding
form with but little ornament, and that only suggested. This applies
equally to figures. In them homogeneous structure is of the first
(6) When possible, the surface should be finished and left as a metal
casting. It may, however, be entirely gilt. If painted, the colour must
be neutral and gray.
Casting in iron has been so abased and abused that it is almost
difficult to believe that the metal has anything to offer to the arts.
At no other time and in no other country would a national staple
commodity have been so degraded. Yet in its strength under pressure, but
fragility to a blow, in certain qualities of texture and of required
manipulation, it invites a specially characterised treatment in the
design, and it offers one of the few materials naturally black available
in the colour arrangement of interiors.
W. R. LETHABY.
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