Mystery
Glenn Adamson

Mystery

Glenn Adamson
Rubber, cast iron, and papier mache were wonder materials in the 19th century – capable of taking any form that artificers gave to them. It may be difficult to recover the strangeness and novelty of such materials today, but we can make a start by considering a cast iron stove made in about 1780. The manufacturer was the Carron Company in Falkirk, Scotland, a frequent collaborator of Robert Adam, who designed the Kimbolton cabinet discussed in the previous chapter. Certainly the academic neoclassicism of this stove suggests his involvement, but it is not authorship that I am concerned with here – nor was it the identity of the designer that would have incited curiosity at the time. For this was the very latest in modern domestic equipment, not only in stylistic terms but because of its function and materiality as well. Cast iron was not a new technology at the end of the eighteenth century. It had been used for centuries in making shallow castings, such as the decorated fireback plates that were used in hearths. From the mid-seventeenth century, similarly fabricated cast iron plates were used as the sides of box-like stoves for heating. (Benjamin Franklin had invented a version of this design in 1741.) But a freestanding cast iron stove like the one made by Carron would have been a remarkable novelty. Its manufacture was possible because of two recent innovations in the iron smelting process: first, the use of coke – a hot-burning, processed form of coal, introduced by Abraham Darby in 1707 – and second, the introduction of steam engines to pump air powerfully and steadily through the furnace. These improvements produced a casting iron free of impurities, which could be molded in sand into highly detailed, volumetric forms. Andrew Ure exclaimed over its extraordinary plasticity:
it is capable of being cast into moulds of any form… of being sharpened, or hardened, or softened at pleasure. Iron accommodates itself to all our wants and desires, even to our caprices; it is equally serviceable to the arts, the sciences, to agriculture, and war; the same ore furnishes the sword, the ploughshare, the scythe, the pruning-hook, the needle, the graver, the spring of the watch or of a carriage, the chisel, the chain, the anchor, the compass, the cannon, the bomb.
Though it is certainly possible to overplay the ease of working this newly improved material (as Ure did), it was indeed essential to the industrial revolution, playing a key role in engineering projects, the manufacture of machines, decorative art, and architecture.
The smelting and molding of cast iron required many skilled hands. In fact, the early story of the Carron works (which were founded in 1759) is essentially that of a drafting campaign to lure artisans up from Coalbrookdale to Scotland, to build the blast furnaces and associated equipment: “masons and bricklayers and millwrights and bellows makers,” as one of the founding partners wrote to another. Pattern-makers were also required to make wooden models for every casting (on which more in chapter three). As Ellen Marie Snyder has noted in her study of Victorian iron furniture, “some of the most highly trained workers in American industry were found in iron casting.” Even so, there is no doubt that the material played an important role in sidelining craft within the narrative of modern progress. It is the now familiar story, in which artisans continued to be vital to production but were nonetheless effaced. The simple fact that iron could be molded at large scale led to heroic narratives in which a single engineer, rather than a team of skilled contributors, was assigned sole authorship for huge public projects like bridges and tunnels. And iron also engendered an extreme form of identification between prominent improvers and technology (Henry Maudslay – the maker of the Bramah and Co. lock described at the beginning of chapter one – went so far as to be buried under an iron tomb monument). Unlike wrought iron, cast iron cannot subsequently be worked by hand by a blacksmith, so the “movement” of casting, to use Barthes’ term, seemed to contain the entire making process. This was one kind of making where artisanal processes were displaced directly by an industrial one, as Samuel Smiles noted in the 1860s:
since the invention of cast-iron, and the manufacture of wrought-iron in large masses, the art of hammer-working has almost become lost; and great artists… no longer think it worth their while to expend time and skill in working on so humble a material as wrought-iron. It is evident from the marks of care and elaborate design which many of these early works exhibit, that the workman’s heart was in his work, and that his object was not merely to get it out of hand, but to execute it in first-rate artistic style.
Almost a century before Smiles was writing, the Carron stove already exemplified the shift that he is describing. Not only is it “plastic” in its surface quality, with no evident marks of the hand anywhere on it, but it freely imitates other materials that would have been worked by hand at the time, rendering them all in one undifferentiated black mass. There is the central vase form of the stove, drawn from pottery (or perhaps stone, given its size); the moldings that run along the edges of the supporting plinth, which emulate woodwork; the decorative swags and rams’ heads, which imitate ormolu mounts; and the vent that centers the base, which seems to echo the furnace in which the stove itself was made. This indiscriminate quality, in which any form could be achieved regardless of that form’s origin in another material, was both striking and (as we will see) ultimately concerning to observers. Over the course of the nineteenth century it only became more evident, as iron was used to imitate not only other crafts, even lace, as well as a diversity of natural forms from snakes to branches to clusters of grapes. As one historian cogently puts it, “the euphoric enthusiasm felt in the nineteenth century for cast iron which was being produced in ever better ways and ever greater quantities led to a desire to make everything, absolutely everything, in that material and using that technique.” Though this kind of substitution may seem like other early modern trompe l’oeil objects, in which one material was substituted for another (a particularly common practice in ceramics), in fact the two types of imitation are antithetical. Despite the name, trompe l’oeil does not so much deceive the eye as engage it, inviting the viewer to inspect the mastery expended on a feat of imitation. In the case of the iron stove, by contrast, one look is enough to tell the viewer that the cast iron could be made into any form the moldmaker pleased. A handmade trompe l’oeil object is a triumph of craft over material; cast iron was a triumph of material over craft.
Because cast iron manufacture was a particularly dramatic case of technology exceeding the capabilities of the traditional artisan, it led immediately to the idea of the blacksmith as a figure rooted in the past, or at best the pastoral scenery of the countryside. This is one of the earliest and clearest instances in which the craftsman was increasingly distinguished from the industrial worker. In the early 1770s, Joseph Wright of Derby had created a series of five paintings in which he showcased his talent for light effects by focusing on the process of metal forging. In each canvas, the focus is provided by a glowing ingot of iron, which illuminates a group of figures gathered round. Three of these images are set in a blacksmith’s shop, and two in a “modern” forge, but the treatment is virtually identical, down to the details of the architectural surroundings. Also unchanged is the glowing ingot at the center of the picture, an icon of raw potential, matter yet to take form. (A similar painting of Wright’s shows a medieval alchemist in his shop, dramatically underlining this theme.) So similar are the dominant figures in these paintings – strong, poised men in worker’s shirtsleeves – that they could be the same person, with only a slight change of costume. Yet there is one important difference: while the blacksmith still plies his trade with concentrated effort, hammer in hand, the forge man is free to fold his arms and direct his glance sideways toward his family, as the powered drop-hammer does the work. As David Solkin has pointed out, though both workers are ennobled through their bearing and dress, which have “the free-flowing grace of classical draperies,” there is a suggestion here of the moral benefit to be reaped from the introduction of industrial processes. We see here an early visualization of the theme that would become more and more common over succeeding decades. The artisan, while never despised, was increasingly located in the past. The blacksmith was now to be “ye olde blacksmith,” no less virtuous (indeed, even more so) but increasingly detached from progressive sensibilities.
The blacksmith continued to be an emblematic figure in this discursive shift, no doubt precisely because of the unusually vivid contrast (which Wright was among the first to notice) between forging by hand and large-scale casting. John Holland, writing in the 1830s on The Progressive Improvement and Present State of the Manufactures in Metal, devoted many pages to industrial work and little space to hand forging. He did note, however, that the natural habitat of the “modern blacksmith” was in “villages remote from the large towns,” where he “may be seen to assume not merely his real importance as a mechanic, but his relative consequence as a member of society, by presenting that factotum character, which not only indicates that he is an indispensable artificer in iron and even steel, but which has led to his figuring in poetry, romance, and even music.” And indeed, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith” (1841), certainly the best-known description of an artisan in Romantic literature, would famously position him as a figure of complete self-reliance, detached from any compromising ties to the external world:
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
Almost needless to say, such idealistic images bore little relation to the actual lives of rural blacksmiths of the eighteenth or nineteenth century – they were no doubt physically strong, but they were certainly not independent of market forces. Most worked as smiths only part of the year, often trading their services in kind with other agricultural laborers; like any independent business-owner they were enmeshed in involved financial relationships with those both inside and outside their communities. They were in conscious and active competition with goods being brought in from urban manufactories, and often engaged in piecework, serving distant markets as a way to supplement their income. The fantasy of the blacksmith as a heroic character who “owes not any man” was a modern production, every bit as much an invention as the cast iron foundry that served as his conceptual opposite. So rapidly and thoroughly did this way of thinking penetrate thinking around the craft that it formed the basis of blacksmiths’ own self-perception, at least to judge from a portrait of the Philadelphia blacksmith Pat Lyon, painted in 1826-7 by John Neagle. In this case, the artisan stage-managed the terms of his own romanticization, explicitly directing the artist to paint his own garments and tools:
I wish you, sir, to paint me at full length, the size of life, representing me at the smithery, with my bellows blower, hammers, and all the etceteras of the shop around me.... I wish you to understand clearly, Mr. Neagle, that I do not desire to be represented in the picture as a gentleman-to which character I have no pretension. I want you to paint me at work at my anvil, with my sleeves rolled up and a leather apron on.
In actual fact, Lyon may not have been a gentleman but was certainly an entrepreneur, with a profitable lockmaking business; he also supervised the construction of fire engines, and attained a prominent position as a Philadelphia businessman. But what was most important to him, in the years just before his death, was that he be presented as an autonomous, idealized figure, hammer in hand.

 

Extract from The Invention of Craft (London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013)
Captions:
• Robert Adam, designer (attributed to) stove, ca.1780. Made at Carron Iron Co., Falkirk, Scotland. Cast iron. © Victorian and Albert Museum, London.
• Edward Schott, fan, ca. 1862. Made at Ilsenburg-an-Harz, Germany. Cast iron. © Victorian and Albert Museum, London.
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