Kathryn Ferry, The hidden histories cast in iron

Kathryn Ferry studied for her PhD at Cambridge University, researching the influence of Islamic design upon the career of architect Owen Jones. She subsequently worked as Senior Architectural Adviser to the Victorian Society in London and is now an independent scholar specialising in seaside history. Her next book, on eighty years of Butlin’s, will be published by Penguin in November. 


Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain; Myth and Modernity, Excess and Enchantment, by Paul  Dobraszczyk, Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, xvi + 310 pages, illustrated, £70 (hardback), ISBN 9781472418982


In the Postscript of Paul Dobraszczyk’s excellent book we are told that less than a quarter of all Victorian ironwork is estimated to survive today. Its proliferation and impact on Victorian people’s lives was epoch-making and yet, as Dobraszczyk makes clear, the modernity of iron, particularly in its cast form, presented such a massive challenge to the established architectural order that it was highly contested at the time and has been has been badly neglected as a subject of historical research ever since. As with so much of nineteenth century history there was a moral dimension involved which, at the most fundamental level, related to whether cast-iron was inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because of the fact that it was mass-produced and thus repetitious in its decoration.

The first condemnation of cast-iron as a deceitful sham came from A. W. N. Pugin, champion of the Gothic Revival, who criticised the early-nineteenth century habit of cloaking structural cast-iron in more conventional materials. During a period of technological experimentation such usage was determined, on a practical level, by the problem of low tensile strength and on a conceptual level by the sheer lack of precedent. It took time for cast-iron to reach its potential. Pugin’s views were nonetheless influential, not least because they helped inspire John Ruskin’s hatred of the material; from The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) onwards, he impugned cast-iron ornament as false, vulgar, cold and clumsy.  Ruskin’s opinion that machine-made cast-iron was a cheap substitute for true art, and as such a danger to “our national feeling for beauty” (1), may seem extreme. Yet its impact upon twentieth century historiography has obscured many more complex layers of moral meaning that, in Dobraszczyk’s work, have illuminated areas of urban social history that go far beyond the material itself.

Though they may be little known now, there were architects, engineers, manufacturers and theorists who believed that “the fusion of iron and ornament would both enact a reconciliation of art and technology and create a new, modern architectural language that drew on both history and modernity.” (3) This forward-looking vision must surely be given its voice alongside the Ruskinian conservatism that has helped create false dichotomies in Victorian architectural history.  Dobraszczyk’s book sets out to challenge the perceived ideological split between architecture and engineering, historicism and functionalism, ornament and structure. What makes it more compelling is the attempt to “redress the wider social and cultural contexts in which ornament in iron flourished, stressing, for the first time, the relationship between its theorisation, design and reception, or between its makers and users” (5).  Ordinary people enter the story in this book, a fact which would have pleased Charles Driver, one of the architects who embraced the democratising potential of cast-iron and encouraged his fellow professionals to do the same. In 1874 he accused Ruskin and his followers of “selfishness” because they wished to “keep all the good things to themselves, grudging their poorer neighbours any of them” (16).  Dobraszczyk’s study shows that there was often a strong middle-class impulse behind the purpose of iron structures designed for the improvement of said “poorer neighbours”. Most fascinating of all is the resistance this could generate, not from any moral or aesthetic objection to cast-iron, but from the perceived imposition of middle-class values it represented.

Dobraszczyk demonstrates that iron was not a passive element in the backdrop to urban life and that the idea of people either fearing or embracing it is far too simplistic. Few Victorians could escape it; whether in the form of public urinals, gas lamps and railways lines, or indeed in the context of increasing leisure time spent in iron shopping arcades or in parks with iron bandstands and seaside resorts defined by piers and towers, some of the most inventive cast-iron structures of the age. Focussing on such examples gives Dobraszczyk’s book a relevance beyond architectural history because the new windows it opens into the urban landscape will also be of interest to literary scholars, as well as social and cultural historians. It is further to his credit that Dobraszczyk chooses to commence with the least obvious subject of street furniture, ending with the more popular iron heritage of the railways. That public lavatories, lamps and gates have previously been deemed too ephemeral for in-depth analysis is exactly why they should be placed first.  In revealing some of the underlying messages they conveyed to Victorian users Dobraszczyk makes a case for meaning in even the most mundane cast-iron structures. Urinals, for example, were introduced to counter a growing intolerance for public urination from the 1820s. They became a staple of the massive illustrated catalogues produced by iron founders and could be highly original in their decoration. Yet they belonged to a grey area in the Victorian sensibility of public versus private; by circumscribing it, urinals paradoxically made the act of urination more visible challenging notions of obscenity and decency.

Drinking fountains, by contrast, were about embedding ideas of cleanliness and purity in the streetscape, moral agents for temperance aimed at promoting better behaviour among the working populace. Municipal authorities in northern cities began providing free drinking fountains in the mid-1850s and from 1859 the movement gained impetus with the foundation of the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. The first, mainly stone, designs for the Association were criticised for their failure to reflect the movement’s lofty ideals but in 1860 the Glasgow foundry of Walter Macfarlane launched a number of new ornamental cast-iron drinking fountains that found greater favour. The basic ‘Alhambresque’ model featured a central fountain with bowl and attached drinking cups, surmounted by a highly enriched dome on four elaborate columns. Symbolism within the design included naturalistic aquatic flora and fauna as evidence of the water’s purity; Gothic griffins associated with the guardianship of precious objects and cusped arches in the canopy that suggested the Alhambra and, simultaneously, the high regard for fountains in the dry Islamic ‘East’. Such visual cues clearly pleased sponsors but the intended working class users might be less impressed. Dobraszczyk provides the example of the 1881 opening ceremony for a Macfarlane drinking fountain in Kirkintilloch, the tone of which was brought down by an enterprising local publican’s offer of free beer and the resultant “demoralising scene” (110).

Walter Macfarlane is undoubtedly one of the heroes of the book, a consummate salesman whose skill in advertising is highlighted in the first chapter: his huge factory was an advert in its own right; he had a showroom clustered with his wares, an image of which appeared in the voluminous catalogue he produced; he made pieces for exhibitions and, as the most successful of a group of Glasgow-based iron founders, exported across the globe. Architect Charles Driver worked with Macfarlane to design cast-iron gas lamps for the new London thoroughfare of Southwark Street in 1865. His name also recurs throughout the book, having taken the time to understand the process of casting, the better to design for it. The same was true of another key figure, the architect Owen Jones. Though he is under-appreciated today, Jones was a household name in the Victorian period thanks to his involvement with the Crystal Palace, in both its incarnations. As well as being an exponent of cast-iron, Jones promoted Islamic ornament and polychromatic design. In every chapter of Dobraszczyk’s book his influence is noted, from inspiring the Islamic patterns on urinals and seaside pier railings to designing prefabricated iron buildings for export and advising on the colours to paint Derby’s cast-iron Market Hall. That details such as these mattered is made evident in Dobraszczyk’s thorough unpicking of the meaning of cast-iron ornament across a range of different contexts.

At the seaside cast-iron physically defined the Victorian promenade and even extended it beyond the waves in the form of pleasure piers. If Dobraszczyk overstates the extent of Oriental-style architecture around the coast he nonetheless makes some interesting points about the use of iron in framing spaces for leisure and maintaining divisions between the classes, for instance on the piers that used entrance tolls as a way to maintain exclusivity. The middle-class desire for order is also exposed in the civic ornament of covered shopping arcades and the beautiful iron and glass interiors of market halls like Bolton, intended to bring regulation to the boisterous proceedings of traditional outdoor markets. Along the length of the nation’s railways, so fundamentally of iron and so crucial to its rapid dissemination as a building material, cast-iron ornament provided the opportunity to fuse function and decoration. The challenge was met in different ways at different places but the perspective Dobraszczyk brings is a fresh one that should interest anyone who has ever stood in a Victorian station and looked up at the decorated columns and canopies; for those who have not it will provide an incentive to do so in future. Dobraszczyk quotes the English Illustrated Magazine, which in 1893 asserted that even though stations had become well established in the life of the city, most of the thousands of people who used them every day had never really “seen” them (260). This assessment might well be extended to the presence of cast-iron in our streetscapes more generally and it is perhaps this lack of “seeing” that has allowed the loss of three quarters of what was once there. Dobraszczyk’s book is an important step towards reclaiming the cast-iron landscape of Victorian Britain and a model for seeing it on its own terms instead of through the prism of distrust and disgust that was only ever one side of the story.

Kathryn Ferry

Independent scholar


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