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  • Ornament and Purity: Macfarlane’s Drinking Fountains
  • Paul Dobraszczyk (bio)

In victorian towns and cities, public drinking fountains were perceived as signs of purity and temperance, moral agents in the street that would promote better behaviour.1 This kind of symbolism had a long history: in the ancient world, water, and particularly water from fountains, was associated with fertility, purity, and abundance; later, the Christian tradition emphasized water’s role as a symbol of chastity and its power as a cleansing agent, both moral and spiritual. In the Victorian period, public drinking fountains were linked with the work of one particular organization, the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. Founded in 1859 by the Quaker philanthropist Samuel Gurney and the barrister Edward Wakefield, this London-based group drew on the precedent set by the municipal authorities in northern cities, such as Liverpool, that had begun providing free drinking fountains in the mid-1850s after taking control of the urban water supply.

Like its northern forebears, the association promoted the building of free drinking fountains in London with two main aims: first, to provide a healthier source of water for the city’s working-class citizens than that offered by London’s corrupt private water companies; and, second, to promote temperance. Providing “pure” water from drinking fountains as an alternative to alcoholic beverages was a way of gaining support and money from the powerful Victorian Temperance Movement and was also an appealing alternative to the legal coercion adopted by some temperance extremists.

After the first of the association’s drinking fountains was opened, with great ceremony, in Snow Hill in the City of London on 21 April 1859, London’s building press closely followed the evolving designs of fountains and provided a record of the spread of the movement beyond London. Many of the association’s fountains were commissioned from architects, resulting in a mixture of Gothic Revival and classically inspired designs, with a welter of symbolic ornament. As demand for inexpensive fountains increased, cast iron was readily adopted for many of the fountains erected in poorer districts of London—for example, in plain mural fountains that were built into or attached to walls. Whether extravagant or basic in design, made out of cast iron or stone, the association’s fountains were heavily criticized by the building press as either absurd in their ornamental excess or ugly in their utilitarian cast iron (“London Drinking Fountains” 666–67). Both extravagant decoration and plain utility were unworthy representatives of the lofty notions of purity and temperance promoted by the association and wholly endorsed by the building press.

Against this background of criticism, the appearance in 1860 of a number of new ornamental cast-iron drinking fountains made by Glasgow manufacturer Walter Macfarlane generated a much more positive response. [End Page 17] In a canny move characteristic of Macfarlane, the company developed its first ornamental fountains in early 1860, soon after the inauguration of the association; the first of their kind was unveiled in Glasgow in June 1860. The ornate design of the first fountain related in part to its commemorative function, celebrating, as it did, Queen Victoria’s inauguration of the Loch Katrine Waterworks, which supplied fresh water to the rapidly expanding population of Glasgow. Its eclectic decoration brought together a host of symbolic motifs: royal emblems and inscriptions associated with its commemorative function; urban heraldic imagery that referred to the provenance and location of the fountain; naturalistic aquatic flora and fauna symbolic of the purity of the water; and Gothic griffins associated with the guardianship of precious objects—in this case, a special kind of water, water originating in the Scottish Highlands and safer and purer than the existing supply. The overall effect was described as “rather Alhambraesque” by London’s Art Journal, a reference to the Saracenic cusping in the arches of the canopy. The Art Journal believed this style was particularly well suited to drinking fountains, as the style was “invariably associated in the mind with the dry and sultry East, where the gushing water is more to be desired than the ruby wine” (“Iron Drinking Fountains” 25).

If this Eastern symbolism might seem to go against a Christian emphasis...


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