Victorian Society study-days are an excellent way of learning about architecture and art from acknowledged experts, and I particularly enjoyed Function and Fantasy: decorative iron and Victorian architecture at the Art Workers’ Guild on March 24th 2012.
The leader, Paul Dobraszczyk, author of the fascinating book Into the Belly of the Beast (Spire 2009), fielded a high-performance team of specialists on iron-founding, railways, the seaside, prefabricated iron buildings for export and conservation.
From the outset, Paul made it clear that in the Victorian age cast-iron was particularly exciting because it was the first completely new building-material for several hundred years. There were structural problems involved in using cast- and wrought-iron, many of which were eventually resolved as cheap steel became available towards the end of the nineteenth century.
When we recognise the innovatory qualities of a material we now take for granted it’s easier to understand the sheer exuberance of the Victorians’ use of decorative ironwork in every kind of structure from shop-fronts to fountains, bandstands to urinals.
I was interested to hear David Mitchell, who spoke about Scottish iron-foundries, firmly knock on the head the legend that the decorative ironwork which Australians call “lace” was exported from the UK as ships’ ballast. No-one in their right mind would use such a material simply as dead weight.
The more likely truth is that the Australians used pig-iron ballast to cast the ironwork which embellished so many of their nineteenth-century houses, pubs and public buildings.
For details of future Victorian Society events, see http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/events.