Iron ages: Metalwork at the V&A

The history, form and function of European ironwork


This elegant book provides the reader with an excellent introduction to the history of decorative ironwork in Britain and Europe, based largely but not exclusively on the collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The author, Marian Campbell, is deputy curator of the Department of Metalwork in that museum and has extensive knowledge of her subject, which is lucidly displayed here.

The book is arranged in three clear sections. Part I provides a brief history, tracing the development of decorative ironwork from early records in Asia Minor through to the twentieth century. There is discussion of ironwork for both ecclesiastical and domestic use, and of stylistic change through the Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, rococo and Neo-classical periods.

Part II identifies and discusses the forms and functions of decorative ironwork, beginning with its role in the architectural setting (for instance in balconies, doors, gates, inn signs and weather-vanes), and following with sections on domestic objects such as firedogs and firebacks (of which the V&A has a particularly fine collection), cooking equipment, lighting and furniture. Iron in the church is covered in a separate section, and finally there is a short section on small scale ironwork such as jewellery, including an illustration of a German cast-iron lady’s fan of extraordinary delicacy, produced for the International Exhibition of 1862.

Part III, which is considerably shorter than the two preceding parts, gives an outline of ironwork production techniques, providing the essential distinction between wrought- and cast-iron working, and includes a paragraph on decorative finishes.

Most of the illustrations are in the form of black and white photographs, which are used to advantage to show the linear patterns produced by so much decorative ironwork. Where colour pictures are included, it is usually to show the use of gilding, or polychrome paints applied to what was generally a black iron finish, or the inclusion of other colourful materials, such as Wedgwood blue Jasperware in a set of cut steel buttons of about 1790. Illustrations of individual designs, contemporary engravings, company brochures and photographs of ironwork in original settings all help to place the subject within the context of the history of architecture and the decorative arts in Britain and Europe.

There is a well-organised list of material for further reading, and mention of other places where information about decorative ironwork can be found. There is a list of other museums in Britain, Europe and the US where collections of ironwork can be seen, and there is a brief but useful index.

Although short, this book gives the reader a valuable overview of a subject in which the diversity of objects produced from one material, iron, is breathtaking. It is sometimes difficult to gauge the size of some of these pieces from the photographs, and it might have been helpful to have included dimensions in the descriptions. Above all, this book will certainly encourage the reader to visit the vast first-floor gallery at the V&A where so many of these pieces are to be found.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Iron ages'