Into the New Iron Age: Modern British Blacksmiths

Into the New Iron Age: Modern British Blacksmiths

Reviewed by: Cynthia Vega

"It all entered our minds like a thunderbolt. Up to that conference I had been interested in historic ironwork but modern work meant nothing to me, mainly because I had never seen any really good examples... I have never known any conference like it, the very air was electric - it is no exaggeration to say that it changed our lives."

This is how Amina Chatwin, in her new book, "Into the Iron Age: Modern British Blacksmiths," describes the International Conference on Forging Iron that was held in Hereford, U.K. in 1980. The conference brought together the best metalworkers from around the world, exposing British blacksmiths, many of whom were working with traditional methods and designs, to new techniques and design concepts.

Capel Garmon Firedogs Fine artistic blacksmithing in Britain predates the Romans' entry into that country. Chatwin recounts the history of creative forging from Celtic times to the 1800's with an abundant array of well-chosen photographs to illustrate the evolution of techniques and styles in ironwork. Many of the early works were quite elaborate, but by the mid 18th century forge work had become simpler in design, partly due to economic constraints. While Chatwin describes this style as "very English and very elegant," British ironwork had begun to "settle into a formula. Unfortunately, ironwork in this country crystallized at this point and remained there for the next two hundred years."

The increased use of cast iron and the industrial revolution in the 19th century further contributed to the relegation of the once vibrant art of blacksmithing to the classification of a dying art. "This does not mean that there were no good smiths working in the 1930s and '40s," Chatwin tells us, "on the contrary there were many doing technically excellent work - but they were rare, and the patterns they used were based on the past."

Mackintosh lights in library at Glasgow School of Arts

Strangely, the Art Nouveau movement, so prevalent on the Continent, seems hardly to have touched British ironwork. Chatwin devotes a chapter to some of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco influenced metalwork in other countries such as the work of artists like Emile Robert in France and Antoni Gaudi in Spain, and gives mention, as well, to the Arts and Crafts movement in England. The avant garde architectural ironwork of Charles Rennie Mackintosh is covered in a separate chapter. Although of the same period, Mackintosh departed from the curvilinear style of Art Nouveau by using straighter, simpler lines. His work was ridiculed at the time, but is now, according to Chatwin, recognized and revered as one of the precursors of modern ironwork.

Ribbon Gate by Martin Reeves
At least as interesting as the history in Chatwin's book, are the profiles of the modern British blacksmiths themselves. Chatwin gives special mention to blacksmiths who have worked creatively with iron for a long while and then devotes the second half of the book to artists "who have found, or are finding, their own identity, within the overall Modern Movement." Amina Chatwin writes in a style which is both unaffected and knowledgeable. The book is exceptionally well-researched, and the artists' profiles are personal as well as informative. The liberal use of high quality photographs alone make this book one that artists will want to refer to frequently out of interest or for inspiration. Perhaps most important is the obvious enthusiasm the writer has for the art of blacksmithing which gives the book a sense of vitality and makes it a pleasure to read.
Grave Memorial by Michael Roberts
Above: Grave Memorial, later patinated green. The objects symbolic of the life story of the person.
By Michael Roberts

Into the New Iron Age

Cynthia Vega
ArtMetal Editor/Curator: Enrique Vega

Last Updated:Fri, Aug 25, 1995