By the late seventeenth century ornamental ironwork was widely used in English architecture. So much so that when the traveller Celia Fiennes encountered new ornamental iron gates by Huguenot craftsmen at Burghley house, she described them as ‘iron carv’d the finest I ever saw’. There is no doubt that ironworkers, for all the challenges of the material, sought the same dexterity of form and line that carvers had achieved in stone and wood. Iron with distinctive metallurgical properties was procured to achieve greater subtlety and precision, and techniques of cast and wrought iron were combined in a range of decorative features from gates to stair balustrades, to shop signboard brackets and the weather vanes of church spires. Smiths habitually made their own designs, conscious of the capability of their material and the challenges of the foundry, though designs for ironwork survive by architects such as Nicholas Hawskmoor and James Gibbs.
In England the most sought after craftsman in iron was the French Huguenot Jean Tijou who contributed to many major commissions of the late seventeenth century, such as St Paul’s, Hampton Court, Chatsworth, and Burghley House. Tijou published several of his most prominent works in a book of etchings entitled Nouveau livre de desseins inventé par Jean Tijou or A New Book of Drawings Invented and Designed by John Tijou Containing several sorts of Iron Worke…,. London, 1693, which included text in both French and English. The fashion for screening off the forecourt of great houses with fine iron railings did not survive the rise of the landscape garden in the later eighteenth century, so is now often known only from paintings, but for a period it provided the perfect showcase for the ironworker’s craft. The idea had spread out from Versailles and the grand houses of Louis XIV’s courtiers, arriving in England along with a host of other French inspired ornamental ideas. Soon iron became a potential alternative for staircase balusters, in some instances emulating the great acanthus-leaf creations associated with the circle of the carver Edward Pearce, as found in Caroline Park, Midlothian. More commonly, ironwork on staircases adopted the lighter openwork patterns of Tijou, pairing easily with fine cantilevered flights of Portland stone, as in Regent’s House, Trinity College Dublin.
Tijou’s printed plates were in wide circulation. James Gibbs owned an edition and it is likely that Richard Castle’s library also contained a copy. A scrapbook album associated with the architect Joseph Jarratt contains many plates for wrought ironwork by Tijou.
Dublin has a distinguished history of ironwork and was home to the Turner dynasty of iron founders active from the late seventeenth century, and responsible for remarkable technical achievements in the nineteenth century, including the famous palm houses at Dublin, Belfast and Kew. The stair balustrade of Regent House together with those of the Dining Hall and the Provost’s House were produced by the foundry of Timothy Turner. Staircases of stone with wrought iron balustrades were costly and found only in the most prestigious domestic settings such as Chatsworth and Easton Neston which served as exemplars in ensuing decades. In Dublin, two houses on Henrietta Street had Portland stone staircases with elaborate wrought iron balustrades. Numbers 9 and 11 Henrietta Street were built respectively for Thomas Carter, Master of the Rolls, and Sir Gustavus Hume, and both houses and their owners are associated with Edward Lovett Pearce and Richard Castle.
The composition of the balustrades from a series of vertical scrolled panels with a wider central panel on the landing was followed by Turner at Trinity College. In the public spaces of the Dining Hall and Regent House the stairs are of stone, while at the Provost’s House a timber staircase is unusually paired with an iron balustrade. However, the service stair of the Provost’s House which runs from basement to attic is entirely crafted in Portland stone with a bellied wrought iron balustrade also made by Turner’s foundry. A detailed bill from Turner for the Provost’s House survives showing the extent to which iron founders supported the work of other crafts, providing ‘holdfasts’ for the stone pilasters and entablature on the façade, fixings for the rusticated timber wainscoting, and bracketing for the plaster cornices. For 49 panels of ‘neat scroll work’ to the ‘great staircase’ at 18 shillings and six pence per panel Turner was paid the considerable sum of £45 6s 6d. In this period the annual salary of the College bursar was £50, though this was richly supplemented by benefits in kind. Turner also provided ‘ a piece of very large & very neat scrold Work’ over the front gate to Grafton Street.
David S. Mitchell, ‘The Development of the architectural iron founding industry in Scotland’ PhD The University of Edinburgh 2012
John Starkie Gardner, English ironwork of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1911),preface, Chris Topp; introduction, Bethan Griffiths and Peter Millington, Shaftesbury, 2012
Miriam O’Connnor, ‘Timothy Turner, an eighteenth-century Dublin ironsmith’ Irish Arts Review Yearbook Vol. 12 (1996), pp. 141-142
Samantha Twomey ‘Decorative wrought iron in England, Wales and Scotland, 1660-1720’, PhD University of Sussex, 2017
Saunders, E., “Biographical Dictionary of English Wrought Iron Smiths of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, Walpole Society, Vol. 67 (2005), pp. 237-384
A new booke of drawings invented and designed by Jean Tijou, London, 1693/4