- Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain: Myth and Modernity, Excess and Enchantment by Paul Dobraszczyk
Histories of material objects—a cast-iron cooking pot, glass flowers, or a terracotta pot—are often illuminating, revealing the context of their making and subsequent history. Histories of materials, such as iron or steel, tend to be more focused on the industry concerned rather than how the material was used and what its different meanings were in time and place. Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain takes the latter path, giving us a history of a class of objects united by their material.
Cast iron is not a complex material to make and is very easy to produce in decorative forms. Paul Dobraszczyk’s approach is to link the material to its use as an ornamental as well as structural material, and to set the industry’s growth firmly in the context of debates about the appropriate use of ornament in nineteenth-century Britain. The author starts with John Ruskin’s hatred of the material, which he equated with the satanic, embodying all that was cheap, vulgar, false, cold, and clumsy. This was again reflected in twentieth-century modernists’ disdain for ornament, as in Sigfried Giedion’s comments about “decorative sludge.” The introduction sets the context for the critical reception of cast iron in all its variety, whether it was vulgar or patriotic, repetitive or revelatory, excessive or abundant, and the extraordinary range of debates that it engendered.
The author then examines the growing use of cast iron in different architectural contexts—the street, the seaside, shopping arcades, civic market halls, and railway stations. He argues that street furniture actively [End Page 271] helped to shape urban space. Structures such as public urinals or drinking fountains can be considered as reproducing social relations. Fountains were perceived as moral agents promoting better behavior, whereas urinals brought a private act into the public space, making it conspicuous and a potential focus for obscenity and graffiti. The role of cast iron in creating and shaping the environment was even more strongly demonstrated in the development of seaside architecture, especially in that “edgeland” between the land and sea. Balconies with sea views, railings on seafront promenades, piers with their dangerous spaces for fleeting romances, bandstands and artificial worlds of entertainment containing aquaria, pavilions, and winter gardens—all contributed to creating the unique character of the British seaside town.
The role of cast iron in civic buildings such as urban shopping arcades, market halls, and exhibition halls is then examined. Here, in combination with wrought iron, the material articulated notions of the civic through a focus on the idea of improvement in both the environment, public health, and morals. Squalid open markets, “shambles,” and disorderly spaces were replaced by light, airy, and controllable buildings. Their exteriors were constructed in conventional brick or stone, while the interiors were entirely glass and iron, giving them a dual architectural identity. This dual identity was most apparent in railway stations with their conventional facades and vast train sheds behind. Here both ornament and structural boldness created transitory spaces where journeys began and ended, and dreamlike phantasmagoric spaces which appealed to the imagination.
Dobraszczyk’s principal focus is ornament and its use in different architectural contexts. He has a sure grasp of the variety of motif, the debates about ornament, and the prevalence of certain types in particular spaces or places. He is frequently illuminating about why, for example, Moorish styles were so popular, or oriental styles such as Japanese. He is alert to the geography of regional difference. What does he not cover? Other buildings used cast iron, such as technical colleges, factories, or even museums, but with some notable exceptions, such buildings were not sites of extravagant ornament.
The book is lavishly illustrated, with many unfamiliar structures and locations, as well as illustrations from journals and catalogs which can provide some surprises. For example, the Prospectus of the Chadburn Brothers, 1851 (p. 41) shows a fascinating amalgam of...