Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Cast Iron

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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 interest.

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 and character.

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 traditional methods.

(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 importance.

(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.