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Old English Ironwork



Previous to the time of Lady Dorothy Nevill few persons seem to have made a really careful study of the history of old English domestic ironwork. Lady Dorothy, whom I knew quite well, spent a considerable part of her life in Sussex, and she found the cottages in the villages round about her full of interesting pieces of ironwork, so she started making a collection. There were fire-dogs and fire-backs, rush-holders, tongs, candlesticks, hooks and chains for the suspension of large pots, and various other pieces of domestic work which were especially interesting, because many of them had been produced close to where she purchased them. There was in early days a large iron-producing district in Sussex, near Heathfield. There were many furnaces, which at one time kept half the population in full employ, and many Sussex families owed their fortunes to these ironworks. Notably amongst these families Lady Dorothy refers to a family named Fuller.

Hammerponds still exist in many parts of Surrey and Sussex and give their names to villages, e.g. Abinger Hammer, and they have in many instances clear streams full of trout flowing out of them. The ironworks continued in force down to 1825, the last furnace in Sussex, Ashburnham Furnace, having been blown out in that year, after having steadily been worked by Lord Ashburnham up to that time, and when this furnace was destroyed it was said that its iron was among the very best that had ever been produced in the world.

Sussex ironwork was very highly esteemed, and it is said that the railings surrounding St. Paul's Cathedral, part of which are still in existence, were of Sussex workmanship.

All kinds of things that later on were made of different materials were at one time produced in iron, so much so that there are even in some of the Sussex graveyards iron gravestones, or monuments as they ought more strictly to be called.

When Lady Dorothy began to collect she was told that what she was buying was "absolute rubbish" she herself says so in one of her books, and I have often heard her say how much she was laughed at for collecting the local domestic implements. Presently, when she had got quite a good collection together, Sir Purdon Clarke pleaded that it might be transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there her collection still remains, and from the time that she began buying prices have gone up steadily. She concerned herself mainly with the small pieces, but occasionally she bought larger ones ; she had portions of balconies, iron lamp stands, one or two delightful gates, a very charming fender, a pendent lamp, and several other pieces that were quite attractive.    Some of the collectors who have followed her, and who had more space at their command than she possessed, have bought even larger pieces of fine ironwork ; for instance, one collector that I know has three splendid pairs of park gates, all of the most beautiful wrought foliage ironwork, the result of the ability of some amazingly clever craftsman.

There was an interesting exhibition of art metal work in May, 1898, which drew fresh attention to the importance of forging iron in artistic fashion, and which also was concerned with the carving and chasing of iron and steel, the manufacture of fine steel locks and keys, and embossing and beating brass and copper work. It attracted a great deal of attention, and on examination of the exhibits people could see that hardly any craft in the world can compete with the work of a good blacksmith. Alertness, touch and individuality are all fostered and are actually incorporated in the mind of a man who is to be a good metalworker. The sturdy independence and resourcefulness of a smith are a delight to a11 who come into contact with him.

It is rather sad to compare modern metal work with old work. Look, for example, on the handles that appear on various pieces of modern oak furniture. They are often of brass or bronze, which is out of place, and if they are of iron are merely mechanically produced things, instead of the hand-wrought drops, rings and handles which used to be made in earlier and simpler days.  The same thing applies to larger pieces of decoration, and collectors who are fortunate enough to get together pieces of good English ironwork, however small they be, will find in them a charm, by reason of their simplicity and artistic merit, that is wholly lacking in a great deal of the mechanically produced modern work. In an East Anglian church there is a wonderful bracket which supports the cover of the font, and the local smith, whose work it was, has allowed his fancy to run riot in the beautiful foliage decoration he has given in this piece of ironwork.

Fortunately, greater attention has been given to preserving good specimens of ironwork within the last few years than was the case in earlier times. In Victorian days beautiful old houses were pulled down and the railings, balconies and fanlights over the doors were all destroyed. Nowadays the London County Council is exceedingly particular about any such destruction in London, and transfers to its museum in Kingsland Road such of the fine pieces of the ironwork as do not find their way to the London Museum. At either of these museums the connoisseur will find a good deal to delight him in the way of wrought ironwork, and will rejoice in the effort that is now being made to preserve it, to show the modern craftsman what was done in other days.

Some of the pieces of domestic ironwork that collectors may find are a little puzzling at first glance. There is, for example, the pair of circles united by two crossbars on a stand, and surmounted by a ring, which is occasionally to be seen in old farm-houses, and which has a somewhat mysterious appearance. It was really a very simple thing, intended to receive clay pipes which had been smoked for a long time, and were then put into these two iron circles, and the piece of apparatus placed in the oven, surrounded by a wood fire, and the pipes, which were difficult in those days to obtain, were re-burned white as snow and brought out again for fresh use. I have seen these old pieces of iron brought into excellent service in the present day as door scrapers, and they are more picturesque than the ordinary scraper one can see on the doorstep of the modern house.

The rushlight holders were of various kinds; some were quite small, to stand on a table, others had tall iron stems set in a block of wood, that they might be placed near to a chair by a reader's shoulder, so as to give him increased light. Some of them were altered, so that the handle part formed a sort of candlestick, and as the small rushlight gave place to a rough form of tallow candle, so the holder was altered in order that the tallow candle might be placed in it.

Then there are the tinder boxes, which are often charming in their simple decoration, the rib on the top of the cover being easily made, and the one on the side of the box just suitable for the finger to hold it. The inside cover, with which the tinder was pressed, was often quite a pretty piece of metal work.

Some of the ring handles, intended for entrance doors, and some of the iron latches for side doors, were exceedingly well made, charming pieces of smith's work. The principal part of the latch, on which the thumb was pressed, was so cleverly arranged that the thumb fitted exactly into the cavity, and the curve had a pleasant effect, very different from the straight flat look of a modern latch.

Then, again, the wrought-iron snaps of the lattice windows were often prettily made., At one cottage I went into I found that the latches of each window differed, and the ends of some of them were turned so as to bear some sort of resemblance to a bird, while others depicted a kind of flower, and the two latches in the principal room were curled up at the ends so cleverly that they represented tiny squirrels in wrought ironwork.

All these were made by the smith of the village, who was just allowed his own time to work out his own ideas.

In the same house I was attracted by the beauty of what was called the "peel," a large shovel with a very long handle, which was used for bringing the loaves out of the old-fashioned brick oven. The shovel was not a solid piece, such as one would have had in a modern spade or shovel, it was perforated by a very pretty design, representing a Tudor rose, with foliage and seeds, and the handle, instead of being perfectly straight and ugly, was forked at the end, and each of the two forks curved into a very pretty spiral. The blacksmith who had made it saw no reason why, in making an object that was for regular domestic use, he should not exercise his own personal skill upon it, and the result was a very pleasing thing, so good of its kind that it was quite worthy of being put away in the museum.

Fire-dogs, of course, are sometimes cast and sometimes wrought. The wrought ones are generally very delightful, both in shape and in decoration. Some of the most beautiful things that were ever made by village blacksmiths were keys for cabinets, or for doors, or even the big keys that were used for churches. Sometimes they are perfectly simple bows, but even when that is the case they are sufficiently smooth not to injure the fingers. Sometimes the blacksmith had his own sweet will, and I have seen charmingly wrought keys in which the initial letter of the family appeared, or in which there was a rough representation of a coronet, or of some object which formed a well-known part of the shield, as, for example, a lamb, a bird, or a kind of dragon, and in one important house the front and the back door keys were wonderful pieces of wrought ironwork, in which there was a bold attempt to represent the family arms in the bow of the key.

In Stuart times, locks and keys were regarded as suitable presents. Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset, Pembroke and Montgomery, kept a local smith in constant employ in making what were known as "stock locks"-great, solid rectangular locks, intended to protect the front doors of important houses, and provided each with its big, heavy key. Sometimes these locks were put into oak coverings, and sometimes they were just left in the natural wrought iron case, but in several instances, either on the keys or on the oak, she had her initials, "A. P." and the date, and then she made presents of these locks to those persons whom she desired to honour, and who were proud to have the fine wrought iron lock on their doors and to show that it was the gift of the great lady of the district, who was probably the landlord or the lady of the manor. There are several of these locks still in existence. There is one at Rose Castle in Carlisle; there are two or three in churches in Cumberland and Westmoreland, and several of the houses, including one charming residence called Colin Field, near Kendal, boast of the presence of one of these substantial and important locks.

One of the advantages of collecting ironwork is that many of the pieces can be brought into use. There is one house where, whenever I raise the knocker to announce my arrival, I covet the beautiful piece of English wrought ironwork that I see on the door.

There is another where the large handsome ring handles which issue from the mouth of some kind of mystic beast are equally delightful, and in a third there are three or four pairs of wrought iron tongs in the fire-place that are, every one of them, well worth examination. The largest would lift quite a big log, and its legs are curved so as to hold an awkward-shaped piece of wood, and it is finished in wonderful fashion with a strange dragon with a curly tail ornamenting each of its handles. The smallest of all, which was probably a pipe-lighter, and with which no doubt some small Sussex farmer picked up a piece of coal to light the tobacco in his pipe, is as dainty a bit of ironwork as one could wish to see. The two pieces to hold the lighted coal are two ivy leaves, cleverly wrought, veined and stemmed, very much like the actual leaf; but the smith never makes the mistake of preparing an actual copy, of forcing his ironwork to look exactly like the natural object he has before him. It resembles it; you can realise what was the motif for the work, but you do not find a scrupulous and absurd copy, but just a general and very charming effect. The intermediate pair of tongs has two strange hands, like the hands of some curious, angry monster, at its ends, with which the piece of coal is clasped, and there is a rough representation of a head in the middle where the legs of the tongs come together; and then of two more much smaller hands, which come out and form the handles of the tongs. The whole effect is curious and mysterious, but in taking hold of the piece of ironwork one realises how much of the spirit of the smith has gone into its manufacture, and how he delighted to produce something unusual and curious, and something that would show who had been the craftsman who had wrought it. For the same family a remarkable old box was made in the village for holding papers, and there again, the bands which clasped it are wrought into representations of the family crest, and the handles resemble stumps of a tree with foliage on them, very cleverly wrought, and very pleasing in effect.

Even those persons who are unable to collect ironwork would do well to look at it and to appreciate the charm of it, for, in the present days of rapid and mechanical production, there is hardly any good smith-work being made, and then only for the occasional few who admire it, and who are in a position to commission its execution. May one recall the delightful lines of Morris in "Sigurd the Volsung":

"The hammer and fashioning iron And the living coal of fire,

And the craft that createth a semblance And fails of the heart's desire.

And the toil that each dawning quickens, And the task that is never done,

And the heart that longeth ever,

Nor will look to the deed that is won."