Once described as the king of trades, blacksmithing is seen by many as an art that belongs to the past. A new festival coming to Bath in June brings the fire of the blacksmith back to the centre of the city. Photography by Shona Cutt
Can you name ten notable pieces of ironwork in Bath? If not, you might be surprised at how many you might recognise – the gates of Royal Victoria Park, the lantern brackets outside the Roman Baths, the Guildhall market entrance and the Bartlett Street gantry are just a few examples.
Ironwork has been used since ancient times, from circa 4,000 BC. In fact iron used to be a precious commodity – Iron Age tribes commonly used iron bars in exchange for goods. In simple terms, there are two main types of iron – wrought iron, heated and hammered (forged) by a blacksmith, and cast iron, a liquid iron produced in a furnace and poured into moulds.
Before the Middle Ages, wrought irons were mainly used to make weapons and tools. During medieval times wrought iron was increasingly used and valued not just for its strength but for its decorative qualities. The material was extremely expensive so ironwork was only commissioned by those who could afford it, namely the privileged classes and the church, especially for door furniture, gates and screens.
After the introduction of the blast furnace from Europe, it became possible to produce greater volumes of iron, the use of the furnace allowing a more effective way of drawing the iron out of the stone. In 1708, Abraham Darby took over a blast furnace in Colbrookdale, Shropshire and proved that coal could be successfully used to smelt iron. The mass production of cast iron had begun.
Now cheaper to produce, iron was then used more widely. The ‘pig iron’, which was the crude iron produced by the blast furnace, got its name from the way the output of the blast furnace was sand cast into ‘pigs’, with the casting shapes resembling the shape of a litter of piglets being suckled. This iron became the primary product for wrought and cast iron
WROUGHT IRON PRODUCTION
To create wrought iron, the pig iron would go to a finery where the blacksmith would start to convert the iron, which was high in carbon, to a wrought iron. ‘Wrought’, meaning ‘to work’, meant working the iron to get rid of the unwanted impurities and the carbon which made the iron brittle. The iron could be refined a number of times, producing different grades of wrought iron, with the level of refinement reducing the impurities and increasing the iron’s quality. Types of wrought iron ranged from crown iron and merchant bar to best, double best and triple best. The cheaper wrought iron was used for general purposes such as stock fencing. Decorative ironwork needed a more refined bar, with fewer impurities, which is less prone to cracking and easier to work when hot. Refined wrought iron is also used where strength is a key factor, such as when making chains for ships.
By the late 1700s wrought iron had become a mass-market product, but from the mid-19th century, as the industrial era took hold, changes to the way iron was produced saw a decline in the production of wrought iron.
The Bessemer process developed by Henry Bessemer (1813–1938) introduced a way of making iron to produce our modern-day mild steel in 1856. As a result, between 1870 and 1900, the volume of wrought iron produced had reduced from three million tons to a million tons, whereas steel production went from zero to five million tons. Whereas steel has an advantage over wrought iron, being stronger and cheaper to produce, blacksmiths continued to favour the working properties of wrought iron for architectural work.
BLACKSMITHING IN DECLINE
As the machine age took hold – and especially with the introduction of electric and gas welding during the First World War – traditional blacksmithing skills became less relevant. Iron could now not only be worked cold by machine but be fused together without the blacksmith’s skill of fire welding. The declining demand for blacksmithing products led to the closure of the last wrought-iron works in 1970 – ever since then, wrought iron has only been available as a material rerolled from scrap.
IRONWORK IN BATH
The majority of ironwork around historic Bath is wrought and cast iron. Both practical and decorative, features range from railings, overthrows, gantries, lamp posts and window baskets to window grills, staircases, gates, canopies and boot scrapers.
One of the most notable examples of ironwork in Bath are the Skidmore Lights in Bath Abbey, which were designed by Sir Gilbert Scott (1811–1878) and made by Francis Skidmore (1816–1896), a famous architectural metalworker. During Skidmore’s working life, he created many beautiful pieces for churches and cathedrals throughout Britain and beyond. His red Victorian chandeliers were installed in the abbey in the 1870s during the major restoration work undertaken by Sir Gilbert Scott. They originally lit the Abbey using gas and were converted to electricity in 1979.
Most of the ironwork we see around us now is painted black, but up until the 1800s, architectural metalwork was painted different colours, such as grey, stone and blue. After 1800 green, bronzes and reds appeared. Ironwork only started to be painted black after the 1930s with the advent of fast-drying alkyd resin paints – but black still wasn’t commonly used until the 1960s. You can often see the original colours beneath as the upper layers of paint flake off period ironwork.
BRINGING BACK THE BLACKSMITH’S SKILLS
It’s clear we are surrounded by ironwork that is part of our city’s history. When period iron features deteriorate, however, as they inevitably do, there’s nothing to replace them – and it’s only the expertise of the blacksmith that can restore and recreate them properly. So a general lack of knowledge and awareness of traditional ironwork and specialist blacksmithing skills threatens to have a detrimental effect on the historic fabric of our city.
That’s where the BathIRON Festival from 14–17 June comes in, an event that aims to bring the blacksmith’s skills to the heart of the city. It will celebrate the craft of the blacksmith and of heritage ironwork skills and help spread an appreciation of the historic ironwork that surrounds us.
The festival is organised by the National Heritage Ironwork Group (NHIG) in association with the British Artist Blacksmiths Association (BABA) and the Institute of Conservation (Icon). The focal point is the live creation of a brand new balustrade for the bandstand in Parade Gardens. Based on an original composition by a music student from Bath Spa University and with additional panels designed by master blacksmiths, the score of the musical composition will form the balustrade, and will be forged in the fire over the four days to create a striking piece of public artwork.
As well as being the centre of the creation of the bandstand balustrade, Parade Gardens will house forging tents throughout the festival housing master blacksmiths and other blacksmiths producing the balustrade itself. There will also be demonstrations of casting bronze and iron and have-a-go forging for adults and children, along with a contemporary ironwork exhibition, a conservation exhibition, live music by the Bath Folk Festival, an ironwork trail around Bath and pop-up forging demonstrations around the city. A series of talks in the Guildhall on Thursday 14 June will explore how we can promote the survival of this threatened aspect of our shared heritage. The day’s programme will also include a walking tour of Bath’s heritage ironwork. On Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 June a programme of talks for craft practitioners will be held in the Guildhall, including a private screening of The Devil’s Blacksmith documentary about Walfrid Huber’s recreation of the magnificent Notre Dame hinges.
Your discovery of the art of the blacksmith can start even before the BathIRON Festival with the forge-in at Ironart at the Larkhall Festival on Saturday 5 and Sunday 6 May where you can see blacksmiths developing pieces for the balustrade in a working forge.
“Culturally blacksmiths have been hugely important within our society,” says Andy Thearle, secretary of the NHIG. “BathIRON and the forge-in where the bandstand will be made will give visitors an appreciation of the heritage skills of the blacksmith and about why it’s important to keep them.”
Thearle explains that blacksmithing has an inescapable connection to the earth. “Blacksmithing uses fundamental elements – fire, water, air and iron drawn from the earth. It’s elemental. So the idea of the Bath Iron event is that people will be drawn in to the activity happening around the fire. That urge is within all of us.”
BathIRON Festival of Ironwork, Thursday 14 – Sunday 17 June, 10am – 6pm, Parade Gardens and around the city. BathIRON Festival is free. Entrance to Parade Gardens £1.50/80p, free for Discovery Card holders.