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Antique And Old Metalwork

Iron and Steel

Iron can be divided into two types: with little carbon content it becomes malleable and is steel or wrought-iron, and with more than the minimum of carbon remaining in its composition it is cast-iron and inclined to be brittle. Probably the greatest use of the metal in the past was in the making of armour and arms. Armour was used both for protection in battle and in jousting, and for ceremonial purposes. In the first instances it was designed not only to resist blows from lances and cudgels but to deflect them and upset the opponent's balance. Ceremonial equipment on the other hand, displayed the art of the armourer to the best advantage and exhibited his prowess at ornamenting a suit in the most striking manner. Fine armour of either type is now extremely rare outside museums, and even if it was available very few collectors have space in which to display it adequately. Embellishment takes the form of engraving, gilding, raised patterns, and damascening: inlay in gold and silver.

Swords and other hand weapons were often highly decorated; early ones of fine quality are rare, but seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury examples can be found.

Firearms have received a great amount of study in the last few years, and the value of a good pistol has risen enormously. The subject is a very wide one and cannot be dealt with briefly. Mechanisms for firing the charge of gunpowder and ejecting the missile can be divided into recognizable types that make dating possible, but only within wide limits. From the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries the powder was ignited by means of a wheel-lock, a hardened toothed wheel which attempted to strike sparks from a piece of flint-comparable to a cigarette-lighter. Its successor, introduced early in the seventeenth century, was the flint-lock, in which a piece of flint gripped in steel jaws was sprung down on to the powder and ignited it as it struck the steel powder-pan. This method endured until early in the nineteenth century, when a small cap, containing chemicals that detonated on being hit, known as a percussion cap, was invented. The cap was placed near the powder, and when the trigger was pressed the hammer fell and the gunpowder was exploded by the cap.

With the settlement of America, there was a big demand for reliable firearms that could be made cheaply and in quantity. While all guns and pistols had been loaded from the muzzle, a practical breech-loader was invented in America in 1810. An important part in the development of firearms during the nineteenth century was played by Samuel Colt, born at Hartford. Connecticut, in 1814. He invented, manufactured and continually improved an automatic revolver, and his name remains linked inseparably with such weapons throughout the world.

The Italians and Germans were foremost in the making and decoration of armour, and allied crafts were the making of ornamented caskets and strong-boxes with locks and keys in elaborate designs. While Continental guns were generally preeminent, with the development of the pistol English firearms were often as good as any others made in the eighteenth century.

Japanese armour is not greatly appreciated outside its native land, but swords and daggers are collected widely. The Japanese metalworkers were amazingly skilful in tempering and watermarking blades during manufacture, and their artistry was matched by that of the men making handles and mounts. Many of the mounts (known as Tsuba) are of iron inlaid with gold and silver in designs illustrating religious and other stories little known in Europe. The handle (Kodzuka) of the short dagger is also frequently the subject of similar decoration.

The most popular use of cast-iron was for the fireplace, where its hard-wearing qualities gave admirable service: as andirons, on which logs were supported: as firebacks to prevent the heat from damaging the building and to reflect it into the room; and in the form of grates to burn the coal which replaced wood. Much of this equipment for English homes from the fourteenth century onwards was made in Sussex, where ironworks prospered for as long as the forests of the county -yielded wood for their furnaces.

In recent years attention has been given to nineteenth-century garden furniture made of iron, and for this purpose it seems admirably suited. The use of iron for furniture had several advocates in the 1830's, and many designs were published for chairs and tables in which it was used for the supports. The iron bedstead was introduced also at about that date, but did not become widely popular until twenty years later. In the words of a Victorian designer: `where carved work, or much ornament, is to be executed in furniture, cast iron will always be found cheaper than wood'. In spite of this, the public was not convinced of its merits and little iron indoor furniture survives. In Germany, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, a method was found of casting very delicate tracery in iron, and jewellery was made from the metal. Surprisingly close imitations of bronzes were made there also from iron.


Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Its use in prehistoric days is outside the scope of this book and the most important examples that will concern readers are those made in Italy and elsewhere from the sixteenth century and onwards. The making of bronze articles and figures calls for great skill. Most were made by the `cire-perdue' (lost wax) process, which can be described briefly as follows: the piece is modelled thinly in wax on a core of dry clay, the finished wax is then covered in a coat of clay. Holes are left so that molten metal can be poured in to take the place of the wax, which is melted and runs out. The outer clay coating is broken off, the inner core chipped away, and the article finished by hand to remove any roughness or imperfections. Thus, it can be seen that each single bronze has to be modelled individually and with care, and that each version of the same original is slightly different from the others. All old bronzes were made by this method, which is still in use. The making of bronzes by means of a number of removable and re-usable small moulds, each of which leaves ridges on the article where it is joined, came into use in the nineteenth century. Traces of these ridges usually remain visible and their presence is taken generally as a certain sign of modern manufacture.

Among Italian modellers may be mentioned: Donatello, Andrea Briosco (called Riccio), Jacopo Tatti (called Sansovino) and the Flemish-born Giovanni di Bologna. German makers include the Vischer family, and the French sculptors Falconet and Clodion often had their work cast in bronze. The Frenchman Guillaume Coustou modelled the-f gures of rearing horses, known as the Marly Horses, about 1745. They were made in bronze, and in metals imitating bronze, in very large numbers in the nineteenth century. A number of good bronzes were made in England in the eighteenth century, but little is known yet about them.

Chinese.and Japanese bronzes of great age and great size have been made fo,r many hundreds of years, In addition to figures there are some fifteenth-century bells at Pekin weighing about fifty-five.tons each and standing fourteen feet high. Chinese bronze altar-vessels of the Shang-Yin (1766-1122 B.c.) and Chou dynasties (1122-249 B.c.) are particularly fine and rare. Most have been buried for many centuries, and contact with earth has resulted in corrosion of the surface. Inevitably, these bronzes have been copied at later dates, but the true patina (ageing of the surface) presents a very difficult problem to the faker and it is one that is seldom solved with success.

Mention must be made of the very many fine bronze figures made in India and Siam (Thailand) in the sixteenth century A.D. and earlier. Some of the latter are gilt, and most are remarkably beautiful. The finer examples remain in the East or are in Western museums, but a few appear on the market from time to time. Reasonably good examples can sometimes be bought quite cheaply.

In west Africa, the skilful bronze and brass workers of the kingdom of Benin perhaps learned their craft from the Portuguese, with whom they had traded from the late fifteenth century. Their work is highly individual and much is very beautiful, but it is scarce and good specimens are obtainable only rarely. Examples were brought to Europe by a British punitive expedition which captured Benin city in 1897, and there are fine collections from this source at the British Museum, the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, Dorset, the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, and in the possession of the Government of Nigeria.


The most popular surviving form of brassware is probably the domestic candlestick. These were made usually in pairs, and are rarely older than the middle of the seventeenth century. At that time they were on domed circular bases, with a pan to catch drips of wax halfway up the stout central column. Early in the eighteenth century, shaped bases and tall stems with grease-pans at the very top came into fashion. With variations from time to time, this style continued in use until the candle was no longer the principal illuminant in the home.

Brass was made into dishes of various sizes, often with embossed designs of Biblical scenes with inscriptions on the borders. These are sometimes still to be seen in use as alms-dishes in churches.

Chandeliers of brass with curved branching arms were made in England and also on the Continent. Many of them date from the seventeenth century, but most have been made more recently in response to continual demand.


This is the French name (literally or moulu, moulded gold) for articles and furniture mounts made of bronze and gilded. The piece having been made in bronze, was carefully and finely finished by chiselling and polishing and then coated with a mixture of mercury and gold. This amalgam was subjected to heat and the mercury evaporated leaving the gold deposited on the surface. Finally, the gold was burnished where required, or left matt.

The French developed the art of designing and making furniture mounts from ormolu, and were equally proficient at making clockcases, candlesticks, inkstands and other suitable pieces from the same material. Much thought was given to the mounting of porcelain in ormolu, and vases and figures with bases and other enhancements were valued highly for decoration. They fetch high prices today, but only if the mounts are genuinely of the eighteenth century. From 1745 to 1749 a tax was levied on ormolu, and pieces were stamped in a similar manner to silver. The mark is a letter `c' beneath a crown, but as it was in use apparently for no more than four years specimens bearing it are rare.

German ormolu is not dissimilar to French, although seldom as highly finished. In England, the firm of Boulton and Fothergill, of Soho, Birmingham, made good ormolu at the end of the eighteenth century.

Old ormolu is sometimes found with the gilding in good condition, but frequently it is worn away on the surfaces exposed to wear. In the past more has been ruined by careless handling than by wear and tear; its greatest enemy is metal-polish, which should never be used on it. As with Sheffield plate, ormolu can be replated electrically but the appearance of the old cannot be reproduced exactly.


Pewter is an alloy of tin with small additions of lead and other metals. Although it was in use for many centuries, and was displaced finally by pottery and porcelain, little remains that is earlier than the seventeenth century. It is a soft metal and subject to corrosion from the atmosphere, and it is perhaps remarkable that so much that is old has survived. The making and working of the metal was regulated by the Pewterers' Company of London from the mid-fourteenth century, and their rules stated that a worker should provide himself with a personal mark to be stamped on his wares. This mark or `touch' was struck on a touch-plate belonging to the Company, but in 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed the Pewterers' Hall and all its contents. The system was recommenced in 1668 and continued until the early years of the nineteenth century. At Edinburgh and in other places, a similar method was used.

In addition to the official `touch' of the maker, many men added extra marks which were completely unofficial and bore a strong likeness to the hall-marks on silver. This resemblance was no more than superficial, and it is to be regretted that dateletters were not used on the metal.

Pewter was used for the making of domestic articles for everyday use; candlesticks, jugs, plates and dishes, tankards, spoons, and so forth. Most English pewter is devoid of decoration and relies on its good plain shaping for effect. Occasionally ornament in 'the form of engraving is found.

Continental pewter, on the other hand, frequently has decorated knobs and handles in the form of cast figures, and is often engraved.


This is an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc, which resembles silver; it is slow to tarnish, wears well and was used occasionally in the eighteenth century for making candlesticks, fenders, grates and other articles. Paktong was imported into England from China, whence came also a pure zinc known as Tutenag. The two were often confused by writers.


There is no single volume dealing with the vast subject of metalwork in general, but the following books are on separate aspects: Iron and Steel: Handbook of Ironwork, by J. Starkie Gardner, Victoria and Albert Museum; Iron and Brass Implements of the English House, by Seymour Lindsay (1927).

Bronze: Italian Bronze Statuettes, by W. Bode, in three volumes, published in 1907-8 is the standard work. The Wallace Collection Catalogue; Sculpture, by J. G. Mann (1931)* describes and illustrates many examples.

Brass: Dinanderie, by J. Tavenor-Perry (1910) deals with the brassware made in and about the Belgian town of Dinant in the late Middle Ages.

Ormolu: There is no book that deals exclusively with this, but the Wallace Collection Catalogue, French Furniture, By F. J. B. Watson (1956),* describes and illustrates many examples.

Pewter: Old Pewter, its Makers and Marks, by Howard H. Cotterell (1929) is the standard work. A useful introduction is Old British Pewter, 1500-1800, by A. V. Sutherland-Graeme; a Victoria and Albert Museum `Small Picture Book', British Pewter (1960)* illustrates and describes typical examples.

Paktong: Information on this metal is in Tutenag and Paktong, by A. Bonnin, published at Oxford in 1924.