Rage against the machine:
Victorian cast iron and its critics

by | Features

In today’s world the previously fluid and protean notion of ‘taste’ appears to have almost vaporised. The problem is that ‘taste’ has been deconstructed out of any meaningful existence. It wasn’t however always like this. The Victorians may have argued about what constituted ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste but at least they agreed that the concept was still useful. Paul Dobraszczyk looks at the battleground of ‘taste’ in the 19th century over the hugely popular fashion for Victorian cast iron.

Paul Dobraszczyk is a researcher and writer based in Manchester, UK. He has written and edited six books on visual culture and the built environment from the 19th century onwards. He is a visiting lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and is also a visual artist and photographer.

Victorian Cast iron dome made by the Coalbrookdale Company for the Great Exhibition

Cast iron dome made by the Coalbrookdale Company for the Great Exhibition, 1851

Rage against the machine: Victorian cast iron and its critics

For many visitors to the Great Exhibition in London, held in 1851, one object among the 100,000 on show stood out as exemplifying the reconciling of mechanical reproduction and art: an enormous cast iron domed pavilion manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company in Shropshire. Entirely produced by the industrial process of casting iron, the dome presented a rich array of sculptural motifs that self-consciously imitated the earlier tradition of hand-made decoration in wrought iron – pilasters in the form of oak stems overlaid with leaves, acorns and tree branches; sculptural objects like the eagles standing on top of the pilasters, and another eagle hidden inside is pierced by the arrow of the eagle slayer at the bottom. The Illustrated London News showed how the pavilion was used: a refined zone of pianoforte music as one would find in countless Victorian novels.

Such decorative extravagance in Victorian cast iron would reach its apogee in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In Historic Scotland’s remarkable (and, at only £6, remarkably good value) reproduction of the 2-volume 1882 catalogue of the Scottish iron manufacturer Walter Macfarlane, we can see the astonishing levels such extravagance reached: thousands of designs – all from unique moulds held in the company’s enormous Glasgow factory – arranged on the pages like a dreamworld of unending choice, not perhaps dissimilar to today’s IKEA catalogue. But all this ends in the early 20th century, when the production of cast iron went into terminal decline, with most of the great iron manufacturers going bust after 1945: Macfarlane’s enormous Possilpark foundry being demolished in 1967. Despite being embraced by many in the 19th century, decorative cast iron was consistently attacked by a range of critics, the most vociferous being John Ruskin.

arranged on the pages like a dreamworld of unending choice, not perhaps dissimilar to today’s IKEA catalogue

Image: Showroom of Walter Macfarlane, as seen in the company’s 1882 catalogue

Cast iron bench that Ruskin encountered in the Lune Valley

Cast iron bench that Ruskin encountered in the Lune Valley

Victorian Cast iron objects in the Gothic style

Cast iron objects in the Gothic style, as satirised by A.W.N. Pugin in 1842

Cast iron kiosk designed by Owen Jones in 1860

Cast iron kiosk designed by Owen Jones in 1860

Ruskin occupied a towering position in art and architectural criticism from the late 1840s to the end of the century and is still today revered by many as an enlightened polymath who railed against the excesses and contradictions of Victorian design and society. He also had an abiding hatred of cast iron and often unleashed torrents of abuse on ornament made from this material. In January 1875, the middle-aged Ruskin was out walking in the picturesque Lune Valley in Lancashire when he discovered the motif of a cast iron serpent on the legs of two benches, put up for contemplation of the surrounding views.

In his collection of essays Fors Clavigera, published later in 1875, this serpent motif mutated into a symbol of all the hellish consequences of rampant industrialisation produced by the work of manufacturers avid for profit – an infernal dragon that needed to be slain by all the honest workmen of Britain to restore the country’s moral standing. Ruskin’s equating of cast iron with the devil was the logical outcome of his long-standing hatred of the material., which he variously condemned as a deceitful, false, vulgar, cold, clumsy and paltry pretence to art: a cheap substitute for the real thing that, is allowed to proliferate in Britain, would ‘obliterate all our national feeling for beauty.’

This strong feeling – and it was not just Ruskin who went into paroxysms of vitriol over cast iron – resulted from a fundamental belief that machines should not try to imitate what the human hand had done unaided for centuries, and that there was something unique – something of the human soul – imparted into objects made by hand. Thus, attempts to create ornament using machines that imitated the intricacies of handicraft were seen by many critics as immoral – rather like a charlatan passing themselves off as someone they are not.

Behind this was a Victorian obsession with truth, perhaps most vociferously expressed by the architect A. W. N, Pugin who, in the early 1840s, condemned machine-made ornament as a ‘deception’ because it encouraged ‘cheap imitations of magnificence’ that resulted in design monstrosities – ‘glaring, showy and meretricious ornament’, or, a ‘a false show’. Of course, such arguments led to an emphasis on the taste of the would-be buyer of these kinds of objects – generally much cheaper than hand-made equivalents, they were feared by more refined critics as spreading a taste for the ostentatious, a form of vulgarity.

Yet, throughout the 19th century there was another strand of thinking that celebrated the machine and its reproductive powers as a revelatory wonder. Responding to the thousands of machine-made ornamental objects on show at the Great Exhibition, the architect John Burley Waring felt ‘wonder and pleasure’ at the sight of the machines that created those objects – that is, steam engines, which he believed rendered ‘the individual’s creativity universal’ by spreading their ‘generous thought’ to the many rather than the few. In this context, mechanical reproduction of ornament was celebrated as art’s democratizing agent that could be no more condemned than the printing press, which did the same for literature centuries earlier.

Taking up Waring’s argument with direct reference to cast iron, the architect Charles Driver argued in 1874 that those, like Ruskin, who railed against mechanical reproduction were guilty of ‘selfishness’ because they wished to ‘keep all the good things to themselves, grudging their poorer neighbours any of them.’ For architects like Driver who embraced cast iron, developing ornament appropriate for mass repetition became a central concern, whether seen in Owen Jones’s adoption of Islamic patterns for cast iron in his architecture of the 1850s and 1860s; Driver’s florid naturalism in pumping stations, seaside and railway buildings from the 1850s onwards; or Thomas Jeckyll’s eclectic Japanese-influenced designs of the 1870s.

an explosion of variety in their product ranges, from small-scale objects to entire buildings

Image: Llandudno pier, 1877, designed by Charles Driver

Page from the 1882 Victorian Cast iron catalogue of Walter Macfarlane

Page from the 1882 catalogue of Walter Macfarlane

Victorian cast iron gates designed by Thomas Jeckyll in 1872 now installed at Heigham Park Norfolk

Gates designed by Thomas Jeckyll in 1872, now installed at Heigham Park, Norfolk

In the last quarter of the 19th century, manufacturers of ornamental cast iron, often with the assistance of architects and designers, answered those who criticised their tendency to produce aesthetic monotony with an explosion of variety in their product ranges, from small-scale objects to entire buildings. So, for example, in Walter Macfarlane’s 1882 catalogue, potential and existing customers were presented with thousands of ornamental designs that offered unprecedented product differentiation.

Thus, in late century, the essentially mechanical nature of cast iron and its implied repetitiveness was countered by an extraordinary variety that gave customers a degree of choice that would help preserve their sense of individuality. For this extraordinary variety is no mere whimsy – after all, by the time this catalogue was published in the early 1880s, Macfarlane was operating a world-leading business; each product in this catalogue was targeted at a specific buyer or buyers to provide them with a sense of individuality amidst the world of mechanical reproduction.

In a sense, we can turn around both aspects of Victorian taste – the association of mass-produced decoration with vulgarity and the deadening qualities of the machine – into something positive if we think differently about what happens to a work of art – from the smallest object to an entire building – when it is made and reproduced by means of a mechanical process. Why is the imitation of hand-made products by machines a form of deceit to be shunned by any decent moral person with any pretence to having good taste? Even in the Victorian period there were a few brave critics who ventured to disagree with the likes of Ruskin. In 1873, the architect Henry Whitaker used the analogy of female cosmetics to argue that art itself was a form of deception because it ‘softened the asperities of everyday life’. For him, cast iron ornament was a ‘glory of modern civilisation’ because in its ‘more general distribution of God’s gifts’ it was a great ‘humanising influence’.

Yet, of course, this did not last. Already by the end of the 19th century, steel had largely replaced cast iron in structural work in metal; and steel was produced by an entirely different method from cast iron and was much more difficult (and therefore expensive) to fabricate into ornamental forms. Indeed, nearly three quarters of all ornamental ironwork was destroyed in the 20th century – by patriotic fervour in the second world war, modernist fervour in the decades that followed, or just neglect throughout. In a sense, the utopian meaning inscribed in all that has vanished has been taken over by the vast world of consumption that we now live in; yet, I think that, in contrast to the electronic devices of today – with their seeming infinite variety yet increasing sameness – the mass-produced objects of desire of the Victorian period express more clearly – if more strangely – how questions of taste are always infused with our dreams and desires.


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