Imperial exotic: early iron buildings for export

18 01 2013

In Victorian Britain, iron buildings were being exported all over the world, from South America to Australia, demonstrating (and actualising on the ground) the country’s expanding imperial ambitions. The very first buildings for export were made from timber, an early example being a portable hospital sent to a penal colony in Australia in 1790. As the constructive potential of cast and wrought iron began to be developed in structures such as bridges, mills and warehouses, so timber was gradually substituted for iron in many buildings for export. By mid-century, the manufacture of prefabricated iron buildings for the colonies had become a commercial enterprise, with houses, churches, hospitals, warehouses and factories exported in large numbers by specialised iron founders like Samuel Hemming, Edward T. Bellhouse, Richard Walker, John Porter and Charles D. Young.

1. 'Iron palace of King Eyambo', Illustrated London News, 1843

1. ‘Iron palace of King Eyambo’, Illustrated London News, 1843

The majority of these early prefabricated iron buildings were utilitarian in design, such as William Laycock’s iron palace for King Eyambo in British West Africa (1), which was erected in 1843 and opened for public exhibition in Liverpool before being exported. Widely reported in both local and national newspapers, this building exemplified a utilitarian ‘rational style’ in iron, although its metal plates and panels of were here mounted over a wooden skeleton. The Illustrated London News celebrated the iron palace as a rare example of the principles of construction dictating style, the reverse being the ‘prevailing view‘ in most early Victorian buildings.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

However, this appreciation of unadorned utilitarianism in iron construction was short-lived, particularly after the construction of the so-called ‘Brompton Boilers’ in 1856 (2), which were actually temporary buildings for the South Kensington Museum, designed and manufactured in Scotland by Charles D. Young. Consisting of a long rectangular iron covered by three elliptical roofs clad in corrugated iron, the building was vilified in the building press. In a reversal of the earlier celebratory imperial rhetoric connected with iron buildings like this, The Builder argued that ‘no New Zealander savage would erect such a structure so utterly and indefensibly ugly’. The central problem for The Builder and others was the context of this building: despite being intended as a temporary structure, it was nevertheless expected, as a public building, to symbolise, through ornament, the architectural values of high culture (particularly as it would house a national collection of ornamental art). Thus, its blank walls were ‘offensive’ to The Builder because they symbolised nothing, its arched roofs breaking the rules of architectural decorum by resembling ‘three huge boilers placed side by side’ rather than any recognisable civic building. As if responding to the harsh criticism of his handiwork, the manufacturer Charles D. Young explained in the introduction to his 1856 catalogue that founders like himself were now seeking input from architects in the design of prefabricated buildings to provide ‘greater scope for the display of architectural effect’.

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

One of the first publicly exhibited prefabricated buildings to demonstrate this shift was a bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt (3), designed by the engineer Robert Stephenson and manufactured by the London founder Henry D. Grissell, and erected on the Isle of Dogs in the summer 1858 (but still there in early 1860, its eventual fate unknown). Consisting of a series of ‘comforts and luxuries peculiar to Imperial Oriental life, including baths and divans’, the structure was based on a Greek cross plan with a lofty central dome surrounded by four smaller domes, the whole structure standing on a vast circular platform 120-feet in diameter that was supported over the water by a grid of 60 cast-iron columns. Its ornamentation was described as both ‘Oriental’ and ‘Saracenic’, the exterior elements made up of cast-iron filigree panels picked out with colour, the interior comprising painted glass in the domes, encaustic tiles in the walls and a ‘richly-ornamented chain’ from which the baths were suspended. As The Building News recognised, the kiosk was an effective advertisement for both designer and founder, its cast-iron ornament being ‘amongst the best samples we have seen’. In addition, its Saracenic style articulated what was perceived to be an enlightened imperial relationship between Britain and Egypt. If the kiosk demonstrated ‘the enlightened liberality and cultivated taste’ of the Viceroy of Egypt, it was also, for a time at least, an exotic vision of the orient in the heart of London. As described by The Illustrated London News, ‘if we conceive the brilliancy of an Eastern sun, and the clearness of an Eastern atmosphere, we may imagine the effect of this kiosk glittering with its reflection in the waters of the most classical river in the world’.

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

In the autumn of 1866 another ornamental cast-iron kiosk was erected and displayed in London, this time on the site of the former International Exhibition in South Kensington, in preparation for export to Bombay (4 & 5). Just like its Egyptian predecessor, this kiosk failed to reach its destination, remaining in London until at least until the summer of 1869, apparently a victim of the 1866 international financial crisis. A result of the collaboration between the architect Owen Jones, the engineers Roland Mason Ordish and William Henry Le Feuvre, and the ironfounder Andrew Handyside, the kiosk consisted of an open cast-iron structure with a 10-foot grid of columns joined by ogee-shaped arches and surmounted by a diagonal lattice roof comprised of dozens of arabesque panels. The ornamentation was created by an all-encompassing structural approach only possible with cast iron, with the more utilitarian elements (the bolts in the roof structure and wrought-iron structural girders) ingeniously hidden so as not to compromise the ‘light appearance of the structure’. This subjugation of structure to ornament demonstrates just how much the design of prefabricated iron buildings had changed since the 1840s, this particular example not only being ‘one of the most elaborate examples of ornamental iron work ever seen’ but also serving as an effective advertisement for Handyside’s work and the company’s aesthetic ambitions. Yet, as the illustration in The Builder showed (5), this kind of elaborate orientalist ornamentation was also tailored to its intended geographic and climactic context – an imagined exotic, tropical site in India – and used by an equally exotic Indian aristocracy indulging in luxurious leisure. In this way, this kiosk was not only exporting an exemplar piece of English structural and ornamental ironwork, but a vision of how England imagined the exotic otherworld that it laid claim to.





Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830

 

                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.





Mass ornament: Parisian love padlocks

3 08 2012

Love padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris

On the extraordinary cast-iron extravaganza that is the Pont Alexander III in Paris are a group of padlocks attached to the legs of an ornamental crab. At the time I saw them, I thought they were isolated tokens of eternal love offered by daring tourists – small padlocks inscribed with hearts and the names of the enamoured couples. Only the next day, approaching the Pont de l’Archevêché, just south of Notre Dame, did I realise the full significance of these love padlocks. From a distance, the bridge sparkled and gleamed in the bright sunlight; only closer did I see that its simple lattice railing was covered in a multitude of padlocks, completely obscuring the structure behind. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of multi-coloured padlocks hung down in great bouquets of metal, many with coloured ribbons attached, overlooking that great emblem of Parisian romance, the cathedral of Notre Dame. Only a scattering of locks adorned the other side of the bridge, facing an altogether lesser symbolically-charged urban landscape.

Love padlocks on the Pont Alexander III in Paris

Only later that day did I discover that these Parisian love padlocks are part of a world-wide phenomenon, with the first appearing in cities in the early 2000s and now adorning a diverse range of urban structures, including Tower Bridge in London, Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne, the Ponte Milvio in Rome, the Butcher Bride in Ljubljana, and the ‘Mother-in-law’ bridge in Odessa. In all cases, lovers fix their locks to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public monument and, in an action symbolising their everlasting love, throw away the key. Despite periodic clampdowns by municipal authorities – many of Paris’s padlocks were removed in 2010 – there seems to be an unstoppable momentum behind these tokens of eternal passion.

Individual padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The unity of the mass on the Pont de l’Archevêché

It’s difficult to explain the sheer extent of this phenomenon; according to one source, the affixing of love padlocks in Rome can be attributed to the practice first being depicted in the novel I Want You (2006) by the Italian author Frederico Moccia; while those in Serbia can even be traced back before the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, the proliferation of these love padlocks clearly points to a growing need to express, in a concrete, public and collective form, the deepest desires of couples in their individual unions. I would argue that love padlocks create a form of mass urban ornament, at once highly subjective but also cooperative, forming an ornamental whole out of a multitude of basic components. So, on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the seeming chaos of the individual padlocks resolve themselves into a pattern when viewed from a distance;  some have even been spray-painted in different colours – presumably by a third party – to create a further sense of aesthetic unity.

Spray-painted padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The notion of these love padlocks as a mass ornament can be related to the work of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Writing about Berlin in the 1920s, Kracauer argued that urban ornament can be seen as evidence of a counter-current to the rationalising and ordering tendencies of the modern metropolis, dominated by planners and other controlling forces. For Kracauer, ornament provides access to a different kind of city, one that gives free reign to the subjective world of the individual – a ‘field where civilisation’s process of repression has met resistance’. In this sense, personalised ornamental expressions in everyday life – making doodles, fashioning hairstyles, even cooking – are important signs of the individual’s contribution to the whole; they represent the ‘will to art’, implying the possibility of new relationships to space and city. I would argue that love padlocks are a significant contemporary instance of this ‘will to art’. They inscribe on the modern city – with its abstract circulations, regulated movements and absence of historical memory – a subjective piece of history, representing both a concrete  moment, a subjective memory and a utopian form of time, that is, in the everlasting and the eternal love that has been promised.





Representing the nation: the Thames Embankment lamps

22 05 2012

1. Dolphin lamps on the Albert Embankment, London

The dolphin lamps lining the Thames embankments (1) in London have arguably become just as iconic symbols of the city as its more high-profile monuments, such as Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. But how do commonplace objects like lamps gain such symbolic resonance?

Built in stages between 1862 and 1874 by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Thames Embankment transformed London’s riverscape by reclaiming marshy land next to the river and constructing wide carriage- and foot-ways and a high granite retaining wall, stretching over three miles in total. After they had considered the question of lighting the embankment, the Board of Works took the unusual step of displaying proposed designs for lamp standards on the Victoria Embankment in March 1870, in order to gauge public opinion before selecting a final model; and the lamps were widely illustrated in the building and metropolitan press (2 & 3).

2. The Coalbrookdale lamps as seen in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

Central to the responses to the lamps was how they would be affected by mass repetition in cast iron; after all, many hundreds would be required to fill the three miles of the new riverfront. The Illustrated London News clearly favoured the lamp manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company: an ornamental fantasia consisting of an altar-like support, surmounted by cornucopias, overflowing with ‘their gifts of plenty’, and the central lamp pillar entwined with the figures of two boys, exchanging a burning torch (2). This newspaper, and others, was impressed by this lavish ornamentation, the cornucopias symbolising the ‘rewards of British commercial industry, as displayed on the banks of the Thames’; the trident and caduceus in the adjacent panels, ‘the mercantile spirit and maritime enterprise of the nation’; the two boys symbolising the ‘energy of the nation’, one that was clearly derived from its industrial prowess.

3. Vuillamy’s dolphin lamp (left) and Bazalgette’s tripod (right) in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

In the event, the Coalbrookdale lamp was rejected in favour of the other two designs: a dolphin lamp designed by George Vulliamy, architect to the Board of Works; and a rather more restrained design by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette, comprising a base of bent lion’s legs and paws (3). As commentators argued, the aesthetic impact of both of these designs would benefit from repetition, as opposed to the Coalbrookdale example; in large numbers, Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps would create an ‘admirable effect’ from a distance (1); while Bazalgette’s tripod, because it was ‘well drawn, modelled and finished’,  ‘will certainly bear repetition better than either of the others’ (4). In addition, both of these designs were modelled on established precedents: Vulliamy’s entwined pairs of dolphins were adapted from the Fontana del Nettuno (1822-23) in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome; while Bazalgette’s came from the more general model of the classical tripod, usually employed in antique vases and candelabras.

4. Bazalgette’s lamps on the Chelsea Embankment.

When the Victoria Embankment was opened in 1868 it was celebrated in the press as directly comparable – even superior – to the engineering feats of ancient Rome and also as superior to similar developments in contemporary Paris, itself being remodelled and promoted as a new kind of imperial city. Thus, the new lamps on the embankments, modelled on Roman precedents but with their visual impact enhanced by insistent repetition, were perceived as enhancing London’s status as the preeminent imperial city ‘to which no other European capital presents a rival’.

5. One of Vulliamy’s Sphinx benches, installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1874.

The symbolic potency of Vulliamy’s lamps was significantly enhanced by the addition of further cast-iron street furniture in the late 1870s, to mark the opening of Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1878 after its tortuous four-year voyage from Egypt. In 1874, anticipating the arrival of the obelisk, Vulliamy designed benches that featured sphinx and camel-shaped armrests (5 & 6). This collection of street furniture extended the historicist concept of the obelisk, enhancing both its spatial reach and its overtly patriotic and imperial associations; the obelisk and its associated benches in effect reappropriated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions to Britain, with London’s new monument also vying for visual supremacy with an existing obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moreover, the older dolphin lamps also gained an enhanced status through the new Egyptian ornaments; their own imperial associations with Rome were now conjoined with those of Egypt and the implied succession of Britain over France as the pre-eminent imperial nation.

6. Camel bench on the Victoria Embankment, installed in 1874.

Not all critics were impressed by this overinflation of significance of the lamps: Percy Fitzgerald, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1880, argued that the lamps on the embankment were ‘too trifling in character to need such massive bases’ and, in a telling comparison, condemned Vulliamy’s ‘attenuated’ lamp posts in contrast to those found in Paris, which he regarded as ‘elegant’ objects. In Fitzgerald’s view, the magnification of the significance of the embankment lamps through their constructional forms did not match up with their aesthetic or symbolic ambition: in short, they were not worthy representations of the preeminent world city. The fact that they have since become iconic symbols of London suggests that this critic was misplaced in his opinions.





Death by ornament: the Sailors’ Home gates, Liverpool

9 05 2012

The Sailors’ Home gates, returned to Liverpool in 2011

Until it was demolished in 1974, the Sailors’ Home in Liverpool was a neo-Elizabethan tour-de-force by the Liverpool architect John Cunningham (1799-1873), with invaluable research on its history published by Stephen McKay here. Launched in 1844, the Sailors’ Home project was intended to provide itinerant seamen a place of board and lodging in the city as well as a morally improving environment, with a reading-room, library and savings bank.

The Sailors’ Home with the gates shown spanning the main entrance, c.1900

The ornamental cast-iron gates were installed in 1851, soon after the Home opened, and were designed by Cunningham in collaboration with a local ironfounder Henry Pooley (1803-78), who had already provided ornamental railings and columns for the building’s interior. The gates served the dual purpose of protecting the savings banks attached to the Home and barring entry to seamen who might wish to gain entry to the building after the strict 10pm curfew. The extravagant ornamentation in the upper part of the gates mirrored the motifs in the sandstone carvings above the building’s entrance and included a welter of nautical motifs – sails, entwined fish, scallops and shells, ropes, horns, and wheels – crowned by a Liver bird, the most familiar heraldic motif of the city. Below, the ornament mirrored that of the balcony railings inside the Home with their exotic double-tailed mermaids supporting tridents and anchors and surrounded by a lattice network of rope.

Nautical motifs and the heraldic Liver bird in the upper section of the gates

This extravagant ornament was related to the gates’s function as a bar, protecting the security of the building and keeping out unwanted boarders. As seen in photographs of the gates in situ, the ornament of the upper parts filled the area above the entrance, making access impossible when the gates were closed. In addition, Pooley had originally proposed additional spikes to be installed on top the gates to make them more secure, but this had been abandoned after one of the mangers of the Home had expressed his ‘fears as to the consequences which might result … to drunken belated boarders’.

Exotic twin-tailed mermaid in the lower section of the gates

Indeed the intimating aspect of these ornamental gates would have more serious repercussions than mere symbolic threat. In the year after they were installed, a woman was killed by the gates after one of the lower panels, weighing half a tonne, fell on top of her. The unfortunate victim – Mary Ann Price – was the wife of the Home’s porter and had been standing next to her husband when the gate slid from its grooves because the chain holding it in place had been detached. Although the subsequent death of Mrs Price was found to be accidental, Pooley was heavily criticised for failing to ensure the safety of the gates and for being slow to redress the defect afterwards.

In an extraordinary instance of lighting striking twice, the gates were to kill again: in November 1907, a local policeman was crushed to death by the gates after he sought shelter in the Home’s entrance during a violent hailstorm. Seeing the porter struggling with one of the gates, the policemen went to help but was ‘overpowered by the heavy mass’ which crushed him so severely that ‘he was at once rendered unconscious’ and later died in hospital. Although personally liable for the death, the authorities of the Sailor’s Home wrangled over the compensation to the policeman’s widow, believing that the chains that supported the gates were more than adequate and that human error was responsible for the fatal accident.

The gates outside Avery’s historical museum in Soho, Birmingham.

The tragic history of the gates may have accounted for the decision to remove them from the Sailor’s Home in 1951. After the Birmingham ironfounder W. and T. Avery took over Pooley’s company in 1948, the gates were offered to Avery and installed outside their historical museum in Soho, Birmingham. Here they were altered to swing like conventional doors rather than slide apart, the upper parts of the gates supported by a wrought-iron frame. The gates remained here until 2010 when they were dismantled to be restored before being returned to the Soho site. However, at the same time, a campaign was launched in Liverpool to lobby for the gates to be returned to their original location in the city, despite the fact that the Sailors’ Home itself had been demolished in 1974.

The gates today, restored to their original location in 2011

Unveiled on 18 August 2011 by the leader of Liverpool City Council, the gates now stand in their former location in Paradise Street, painted in green and gold to match their original colouring. Now fitted securely inside a steel frame, they no longer function as gates, but rather as a memorial to a vanished history. For all around the gates, Liverpool has been newly transformed: from a post-industrial landscape of ruin and decay to a glittering array of glass-fronted high-end shops and department stores. Opposite the newly-installed gates, the shiny transparent frontage of John Lewis now fills the space where the Sailors’ Home once stood. If the gates were meant to bring an historical presence back into this radically dehistoricised environment, they also reinforce the absence of that history, the once-deadly ornament now constrained and domesticated within its sanitised framework and hegemonic surroundings.





Ornament and memory

27 03 2012

Cast-iron capital, Skipton station, Yorkshire, 1880

‘All I remember of Pilsen, where we stopped for some time, said Austerlitz, is that I went out on the platform to photograph the capital of a cast-iron column which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy … was the idea that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.’

For Austerlitz, the eponymous narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel, the repressed memories of his traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany keep resurfacing in unexpected and disturbing contexts. These memories form the basis for the novel’s narrative structure – a kind of stream-of-consciousness text with no chapter or even paragraph breaks. But why might an ornamental cast-iron column in a provincial Czech railway station stir long-submerged memories?

Liverpool Street Station, London, 1875

Sebald, of course, doesn’t give an answer, but it’s something to do with the ‘puce-tinged encrustation’ on the iron capital which makes it seems almost alive and therefore conscious and capable of memory – of remembering Austerlitz when he was a child. A ridiculous idea, no doubt, but one that I find has strong resonances with radical notions of ornament developed by the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer just at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s.

Paddington Station, London, 1852-55

Like other intellectuals of his generation (particularly Walter Benjamin), Kracauer was worried that the modernists’ banishment of ornament would lead to it returning in a ‘dislocated, unmediated’ form that could be utilised for the strengthening of totalitarian power – think the Nuremburg Rally or Nazi propaganda films. Yet, Kracauer also saw a radical potential in ornament. In his autobiographical novel Ginster (1928), the protagonist – an architect – challenges his own sense of alienation in modern Berlin with a developing notion of ornament – encompassing much more than conventional visual decoration and including accidental ornament (creating by the smudging of a window), schoolboy doodles, or the patterns in decaying walls. Kracauer’s broad notion of ornament allows the individual to ‘resubjectivize’ the increasingly objective and rationalised modern city by fixed visual images that mediate the present and the past, thus breaking down the distance between the individual and the whole.

York Station, 1877

It’s precisely this function of ornament that infuses Sebald’s Austerlitz with its narrative potency. Without him knowing it consciously, the cast-iron column in the railway station mediates present and past, partly because its visual appearance – covered in the encrustations of decay – provokes its appropriation as an object that is both present and bears witness to its history. And cast iron seems peculiarly suited to this kind of mediation. In countless railway stations, Victorian cast-iron ornament remains part of  structures that are at once powerfully present and also connected to a past, nebulous as that connection may be.

Preston station, 1880

From their inception in the 1830s, railway stations have functioned as potent symbols of modernity – the onward rush of technology – but also places of immense stillness – of waiting, where time past flows into time present. And, within these spaces, if one cares to stand and look, as Austerlitz did, the cast-iron ornament (especially if it’s rusted or stained) reminds us of these slippages in the sleek image of the modern. They are places where the whole is perceived – the milling crowds, the endless departures and arrivals of modern life – and, paradoxically, where we feel our individuality most strongly and the deep well of memories that we all carry.

Hellifield station, Yorkshire, 1880





Utopian ruins: Fountain Gardens, Paisley

19 03 2012

Fountain Gardens, Paisley in March 2012

Paisley is a satellite town of Glasgow that has all the characteristics of post-industrial grimness: soot-blackened buildings, ruins of its once-thriving textile industry, and a grand Victorian High Street now in sad decline, with boarded-up shops the most recent reminder of its precarious fortunes. I headed out there on a train from Glasgow Central on a bright March morning; fifteen minutes later in Paisley, rain-sodden clouds had gathered, whipped up by a ferocious westerly.

The fountain when it was built in 1868

I had come to see the town’s Fountain Gardens, a philanthropic gift to the citizens of Paisley in 1868 by a local resident, Thomas Coats, made wealthy by the manufacturing industries that had seen the town grow rapidly in the mid-19th century. Coats had purchased the gardens from their private owners and then remodelled them as a civic space: ‘where the toil-worn mechanic may breath the fresh air’ or more refined citizens be reminded of the ‘public gardens of continental countries’. Such an ‘interchange of civilities’ between classes would enhance social harmony in the town, guided by the example of Coats himself in his munificent act of generosity.

Upper part of the fountain, March 2012

This kind of private philanthropy was common in Victorian towns and cities, particularly where industrialisation had perhaps led to feelings of guilt among the wealthy manufacturing elite about the often appalling social conditions of their workers. In Fountain Gardens, Coats wanted to create a new form of civility – a reconciliation of worker and master – symbolised by the central feature of the gardens, the fountains themselves. As described in a lavish publication celebrating the opening of the Gardens, the fountain was an exceptional example of ornamental cast-iron manufacture, made by the Sun Foundry (George Smith & Co) in Glasgow and unlike any other example produced before or since.

The opening of Fountain Gardens, as depicted in 1868

Described as ‘Franco Italian’ in character, the fountain was 30-ft high with a 12-ft basin on the ground supporting four further basins, divided into sections by four heavy buttresses and a series of ‘bold and well-defined’ curves. As described in The Builder, the wealth of ornament was extravagant and included, from bottom to top, a circular border cast in imitation of huge blocks of rock thrown together, inside which sit four life-size representations of walruses; in the basin above are cherubs holding crocodiles; those above are encrusted with crystals, floriated capitals, sea-horses, bulrushes, and dolphins and, at the top, a group of herons surmounted by a cluster of aquatic plants.

One of the four life-size cast-iron walruses (minus tusks) in March 2012

Such extravagant decoration was viewed as ‘creditable to the taste and liberality of Mr Coats and the artistic skill of its constructors’. In addition to the gardens functioning as the ‘lungs’ of the town, the ornaments of the fountain would provide both a lesson in artistic taste and also a utopian representation of nature and industry reconciled, mirroring the social reconciliation that was anticipated in the Gardens themselves. Those who attended the opening of the Gardens on 26 May 1868 seemed to confirm this. The whole town rested for the day, held together in common ‘by one strong swelling impulse to do something in the way of expressing a great common feeling’. All political and personal differences were put aside and the townsfolk acted ‘harmoniously’, joining a procession through the town that culminated in the opening of the Gardens and the turning on of the fountain waters.

Rust-streaked cherub holding a crocodile, March 2012

Today, of course, the rusting fountain stands in melancholy isolation in the Gardens – now little more than a large patch of grass surrounded by bleak 1960s apartment blocks. The cast-iron walrus tusks have all been removed, as have the shells and small animals that once clung to the surrounding imitation rocks; the cherubs and crocodiles are streaked with rust; and the waters long since turned off. Like so much Victorian cast iron, this fountain is now a ruin; yet one that nevertheless reminds us, by force of its melancholy present-day situation, of its once potent utopian symbolism, expressed in 1868 by a long-time resident and notable local poetess:

‘When the daily task is done,
‘Neath the shady arbour rest
With the friend thou lovest best
Husband, father, rest thee now,
Wipe the toil-stains from your brow;
Come, with wife and children dear,
Peaceful beauty greets thee here
Here enjoy the leisure hour;
And may rock, and fount, and flower
With deep love thy soul embue
For the beautiful and the true’





The afterlife of objects: the Coalbrookdale gates

9 02 2012

1. The Coalbrookdale gates at the International Exhibition in 1862

When the Coalbrookdale Company exhibited a lavish set of ornamental cast-iron gates at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, they were building on a well-established reputation for ‘artistic’ castings. Celebrated by the Illustrated London News as ‘pure and rich in character’ (1), these gates were probably created as a gift for Queen Victoria to guard her rural residence at Sandringham; evidenced in their combining of highly naturalistic motifs – flowers and leaves – and the Prince of Wales’s feathers braided in a wreath of laurels over the centre of the gates. The eminent Victorian sculptor, John Bell, designed the figures standing atop the pillars as well as some of the other Coalbrookdale exhibits shown behind the gates – a statue of Oliver Cromwell and an ornamental umbrella stand.

In the event, it seems that the Queen snubbed the offer of the gates for her Sandringham estate – the story being that, on seeing the gates at the Exhibition, she took offence at the nearby statue of Cromwell and, by association, decided that all the Coalbrookdale Company’s products might be tainted with republican sympathies. After the Exhibition, the gates and the Cromwell statue went back to Coalbrookdale and languished there in a warehouse for many decades.

2. Warrington's heraldic motifs incorporated into the gates

3. The gates with Macfarlane's new lamps, installed in 1895

Yet, both objects had an afterlife. In 1893, Frederick Monks, a wealthy iron founder from Warrington, discovered the gates at Coalbrookdale and offered them as a gift to his home town. They were re-erected at the entrance to Warrington’s town hall, the royal regalia replaced with the heraldic motifs of the town (2). At the same time, the Glasgow iron founder, Walter Macfarlane, erected many ornamental lamps in the town, including two flanking the gates, as well as a new railing extending around the park surrounding the town hall (3). With a great deal of civic ceremony, the gates were opened on 28 June 1895 – the date of Warrington’s most important annual festival, Walking Day, when garlanded children paraded around the town in a visual spectacle of civic boosterism (4). The gates quickly became a source of local pride, the product of an act of personal philanthropy that provided an aesthetic and decorative reference point in a disheartening urban landscape. They also proved to be a spur for similar acts of public giving and Monks himself bought the Cromwell statue for Warrington in 1899, with another local bigwig, Sir Peter Walker, donating a lavish ornamental cast-iron fountain, made by Macfarlane and installed in the park beyond the gates (5).

4. The opening of the gates on Walking Day, 28 June 1895

5. Ornamental cast-iron fountain installed in the park behind the gates in 1899

Yet, the story doesn’t end there. For, in March 1942, all these cast-iron objects were at the centre of a fierce debate when the War Government required that many towns and cities remove their cast-iron fittings to be reconstituted as munitions. It seems that the citizens of Warrington willingly gave up the ornamental fountain to be melted down but resisted attempts to do the same to its railings and gates. Residents objected to the brutal assault on their private property and the mess that was often left behind. While many of the town’s gates were being made into guns, the Coalbrookdale examples survived, perhaps because they now represented the town as a whole, rather than any one individual; and they continue to do so today, providing a vision of luxurious abundance in an otherwise rather nondescript post-industrial townscape (6).

6. The Coalbrookdale gates today





Study day on decorative iron and Victorian architecture

19 12 2011

Saturday 24 March 2012 — Book here

10am to 5.30pm. Art Workers’ Guild, 6 Queen Square, London, WC1N 3AT.

A study day organised by me (Dr Paul Dobraszczyk) exploring the development of decorative cast iron in Victorian architecture.

Victorian architects and theorists made a clear distinction between ‘building’ and ‘architecture’: for them, a building became architecture only when historical references were invoked. The development of new constructive materials, in particular cast iron, directly challenged this perceived distinction. A new material possessed no history: how, therefore, could it be architectural?

Dragons in the Kirkgate Market Hall, Leeds, 1901-04

The development of decorative cast iron in architecture – the subject of this study day – was seen as a solution to this problem, and it flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century when it was applied in an astonishing variety of contexts: street furniture, exhibition buildings, seaside architecture, railway stations, industrial buildings, glasshouses, museums, market halls and arcades. it was a time when some architects, engineers and theorists believed that the fusion of iron and historical and natural motifs would both enact a reconciliation of art and technology and also create a new, modern architectural language.

'Birdcage' bandstand, Brighton, 1883

Despite much new research on the structural use of iron in this period, its decorative use in britain has received no significant attention from historians since the early 1960s, mainly as a consequence of its condemnation by influential champions of architectural modernism. in the light of the waning of modernism’s dominance and a questioning of its nineteenth-century origins, it is high time for a reassessment of this rich but neglected subject.

Tracery, Paddington railway station, 1854

Talks include:

Iron and its Critics Dr Paul Dobraszczyk, University of Manchester

Iron and the Railways Dr Steven Brindle, English Heritage

Seaside Architecture and Iron Professor Fred Gray, Sussex University

Scottish Ironwork David Mitchell, Historic Scotland

Iron and Victorian Shopping Dr Paul Dobraszczyk

Exporting Iron Buildings Jonathan Clarke, English Heritage

Conservation of Ornamental Iron Ali Davey, Historic Scotland

To book your place go here and download the booking form.

Water fountain, Glasgow Green, 1893





Seeing and being seen: seaside balconies

20 10 2011

Iron balconies proliferated in the Georgian period, when large estates of terraced housing were laid out in newly developed suburbs of cities and towns across the country. The uniformity of these terraced buildings was relieved by balconies at the first-floor level, which were both decorative embellishments and useful escape routes in the event of fire. Early balconies were constructed of wrought iron but, as their popularity grew, this was increasingly substituted for cast iron which could be reproduced far more easily and cheaply.

1. Balcony in Cheltenham, c.1820

Early cast-iron balconies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries tended to be influenced by the prevalent architectural style of neo-classicism, a popular example being the heart and honeysuckle motif derived from designs by the architect Robert Adam in the Adelphi (1774) in London and seen in many balconies in Cheltenham and other spa towns (1). In the first decades of the nineteenth century, designs were increasingly drawn from pattern books created by architects or founders, which were effectively forerunners of iron manufacturers’ catalogues developed later in the century. Yet, even as the range of designs proliferated from the 1820s onwards, balconies attached to Georgian terraces tended to present a uniform appearance in keeping with neo-classical principles. Thus, when balconies developed into covered verandas, such as in many of those in the Clifton area of Bristol (2), they nevertheless maintained a uniformity of both design and construction, following without deviation the exacting line of the first-floor windows.

2. Balconies & verandas in Clifton, Bristol, c.1820

3. Bow windows and balconies in Kemp Town, Brighton, 1820s

The strict adherence to architectural convention seen in spa balconies was not followed in their seaside equivalents. Brighton’s Georgian estates – Kemp Town and Brunswick Town – were built in the 1820s after royal patronage of the town led to an extended building boom, attracting wealthy visitors and residents mainly from London. In Kemp Town, the balcony was developed into an architectural centrepiece, whether as part of a terrace of bow windows (3), projecting bays on the first floor level (4), or a continuous but disjointed series of railings, verandas and projections (5). In the eyes of late nineteenth-century observers, the bay window was one of the defining features of seaside architecture, which in Brighton, depending on your preference, either presented ‘a brilliant face’ to the sea or created a sense of ‘sad monotony’. In 1898, The British Architect questioned what it termed the ‘morality’ of seaside bay windows. It viewed the consequence of a desire for access to sunshine and sea air being an architecture of competition, extravagance, even excess, with the ‘amiable bellies’ of bay windows jostling to get the best view of the sea.

4. Projecting bay windows in Kemp Town, Brighton, 1820s

5. Balconies in Kemp Town, Brighton, 1820s

John Piper saw this ‘blossom and riot’ of the seaside balcony as a consequence of the primary focus of the Georgian seaside visitor: to look at the sea. This activity of looking out distinguished seaside balconies from their counterparts in spa resorts, which, as part of a unified architectural façade, were primarily to be looked at, a symbol of the occupants’ elevated social status to those who looked on from outside. With seaside balconies, the extent of one’s ability to look at the sea became the mark of status; what resulted was the competitive extravagance we see in the balconies of Brighton’s Kemp Town terraces. Such extravagance would later extend to seafront hotel buildings; when Brighton’s Grand Hotel was opened in 1865, The Building News felt unable to describe the building because its entire front was concealed by six tiers of ‘elaborate balcony railings which seem hung in rows like gilt gingerbread at a fair’ (6).

6. Balconies on Brighton's Grand Hotel, 1865








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