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.

Yorkshire Post - Property - - PROPERTY -

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

PIC­TURE: JIM MO­RAN

METAL MAN: York-based black­smith Don Barker at work.

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