Time to rail against the loss of vital street decoration
Many of the nation’s railings were lost during the war but Yorkshire is helping fire a revival of the heavyweight architectural trimmings. Edward Waterson reports.
ONCE ubiquitous, iron railings now tend to be overlooked and undervalued.
The earliest railings date from the 15th century. New industrial processes in the 18th century promoted the use of cast iron, when architects such as Robert Adam recognised its value as an embellishment to buildings and found it very useful for casting classical forms. Cast iron proved to be remarkably adaptable and durable, with a life measured in centuries.
Nowadays, nearly all railings are made of steel, with cast finials (that’s the bits on top) and posts. Wrought iron is used in only the most historic of locations, such as the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, there is only one place in the entire world still producing true wrought iron and that’s near Thirsk.
Chris Topp of Carlton Husthwaite is busy manufacturing railings for landmark buildings such as Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and Hampton Court. He even made the weather vanes for St Pancras Station and castings for the Palm House in Adelaide, Australia. Coupled with the name of Don Barker of York, it is fair to say that we have some world-class practitioners right on our doorstep.
They are following a long tradition going back to 1837, when John Walker founded Walker’s Iron Foundry in York. From his works in Dixon’s Yard in Walmgate, Walker at first stuck to railings and iron work in Yorkshire but by 1847 he had been granted a Royal Warrant as “Iron Founders and Purveyors of Smithy Work to the Queen”. He supplied gates and railings to Queen Victoria at Sandringham and, in 1850, to the British Museum. Like his modern day successors, Walker exported to the colonies, with customers including the Botanical Gardens in Mauritius and the Maharaja Holkar of India.
One of the joys of cast iron railings is that you can have just about any design you want. Georgian railings tended to be fairly plain, with interest added by decorative finials and posts. As the 19th century progressed, designs became more intricate. Soon, even modest houses were not considered complete without the finishing touches of decorative railings. In death it was considered smart for the rich to have railings round their tombs. A lighter touch came along as the Arts and Crafts movement produced some beautifully detailed designs, often harking back to medieval times.
As Chris Topp says: “By the 19th century railings weren’t put up to keep people out. They were put there for their aesthetic value and were an integral part of the design of a building. If you remove them, something fundamental is missing from the whole composition”.
Removing them, sadly, was the order given by Churchill during the Second World War. People were encouraged to give aluminium pots and pans to the war effort. The authorities also removed thousands of tons of ornamental railings. However, this proved to be more a morale booster than of practical use, as the cast iron could not be converted into weapons. These railings were simply dumped at sea in vast quantities. It is said that river traffic on the Thames had to be guided by pilots because their compasses were so strongly affected by the quantity of iron below. Across Yorkshire and the rest of the country buildings were denuded of their railings. Few survived but those that did were generally left in case their removal created a safety hazard. This is most often seen in cities, where railings were employed to prevent pedestrians falling into basement light wells.
Nowadays, railings are almost always painted black but it wasn’t always like that.
Architectural historian Ivan Hall is a specialist in Georgian colour schemes. “Georgian railings were invariably painted mid-blue with gilded trimmings. Various pigments were used but one of the favourites was ground glass. In the 1840’s architect Humphrey Repton recommended a bronze finish using gold or copper dust on a green background. The Victorians even differentiated between the classes, with green considered more appropriate for the servants at the rear of the building”. Other favourites included dark blue, red and chocolate brown.
Never again shall we see iron railings on the scale of the interwar years but with the increased popularity of city living, people are looking afresh at railings and their repair.
Specialists in the classical style, such as architect Digby Harris of Francis Johnson & Partners emphasise the importance of scale. “There is a tendency to replace iron railings with something that is all together too lightweight. It is sad to see people with the best of intentions ending up with spindly railings and undersized finials”.
Refurbishing railings is not always prohibitively expensive and greatly adds to the value of a period house. Getting it right is no more expensive than getting it wrong, so do go to an acknowledged expert in the field. If a number of decorative finials are missing, a firm like Don Barker can supply authentic replacements for as little as £15, with a £10 fitting fee, depending on quantities.
So the next time you stride down the street, spare a thought for the humble railing. It has a story to tell.
This company is a specialist in architectural metalwork and historic wrought ironwork. Clients have included Hampton Court, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey. www.christopp.co.uk
Don is an artist blacksmith whose forge is renowned for its traditional hand-forged wrought ironwork, its ecclesiastical ironwork and its bespoke modern ironwork. It also specialises in restoration.
Past commissions have included the new public entrance to Westminster Abbey. www. donbarkerblacksmith.co.uk
This form of architects specialises in the design of new buildings in classical and traditional styles and repair and restoration of historic buildings, www.francisjohnsonarchitects.co.uk
METAL MAN: York-based blacksmith Don Barker at work.