Look Back: Art History

Art and Science 1: Forging Art in the Industrial Revolution

Guest post by Patrick Allitt 

Nothing could be more utilitarian than the iron business, but that doesn’t make it unattractive.  As the industrial revolution picked up speed in the late eighteenth century, English painters recognized that glowing hot metal, flaming blast furnaces, and brawny men with hammers made superb subjects.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), for example, who specialized in scenes contrasting bright light and heavy shadows, saw the possibilities.  His Iron Forge (1772) shows the blacksmith’s assistant bending over a white-hot iron bar, just withdrawn from the furnace.

Caution: Please do not act this way around an actual iron forge. Joseph Wright of Derby, An Iron Forge, 1772. Oil on Canvas, Tate Britain

Caution: Please do not act this way around an actual iron forge.
Joseph Wright of Derby, An Iron Forge, 1772. Oil on Canvas, Tate Britain

It is the light source, which casts a warm glow over the proud blacksmith himself and his family.  His wife and daughter turn away from the intense heat, but a bold baby grins at Dad over her mother’s shoulder.  Has none of them read the manual about safety glasses, hard hats, long sleeves, and keeping away from fire hazards?

The next year, Wright followed up with Iron Forge Viewed From Without, a painting that Catherine the Great of Russia bought from him upon its completion for the Hermitage.  It’s set in the same smithy but now the iron itself is hidden from view by a silhouetted workman, making the glow it casts all the more dramatic.  The warm light of the forge contrasts with the cold exterior moonlight.

This painting remains part of the Hermitage collection. "An Iron Forge Viewed from Without," 1773, Oil on canvas.

This painting remains part of the Hermitage collection.
“An Iron Forge Viewed from Without,” 1773, Oil on canvas.

Coalbrookdale in Shropshire was the center of the iron industry in those days.  Three generations of the Abraham Darby family experimented with bigger and better methods of making iron, raised its quality, reduced its price, and showed Britain that this was to be the material on which its future prosperity would be built. Abraham Darby III amazed his generation by building the world’s first iron bridge.

Ironbridge in Shropshire. You can still walk over it today, 234 years after its construction.

Ironbridge in Shropshire. You can still walk over it today, 234 years after its construction.

It opened on January 1, 1781 and the proud local folk responded by changing the name of their town from Madeley Wood to “Ironbridge.”  So it remains to this day, and you can still admire and walk across the bridge itself.  Darby himself hired a Bristol-born artist, William Williams, to paint its picture.  Seen from river level, its heroic arch frames the smoking foundry works upstream, while storm clouds gather above.

William Williams, "The Cast Iron Bridge near Coalbrookdale," 1780, Oil on canvas, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

William Williams, “The Cast Iron Bridge near Coalbrookdale,” 1780, Oil on canvas, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

Williams had already painted several scenes of Coalbrookdale, again using smoke from the blast furnaces to echo cloud patterns in the sky.  In the best of these scenes, two men and two women in delightfully impractical clothing stand in the foreground, above the valley, chatting to each other and taking no apparent notice of the grimy work going on in the distance.

Who wouldn't dress in white to go watch steam trains in the country? Williams, "Afternoon View of Coalbrookdale, Shropshire," 1777, Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

Who wouldn’t dress in white to go watch blast furnaces in the country?
Williams, “Afternoon View of Coalbrookdale, Shropshire,” 1777, Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

A few years later, by contrast, German-born Philip de Loutherbourg painted the furnaces up close, to magnificent effect.

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801, Oil on canvas, The Science Museum

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801, Oil on canvas, The Science Museum

Great tongues of flame leap into the night sky, while a team of horses in the foreground drags a wagon across the blasted landscape.  Few authors of textbooks on the industrial revolution have dared to exclude this magnificent painting from their pages.  No wonder: its luminous reds and yellows, along with its powerful geometry, make it unforgettable.  It’s also cleverly ambiguous, leaving the viewer uncertain of whether it celebrates or condemns industrialization.

Let’s end with James Sharples’s The Forge (1849).  Sharples was the thirteenth son of a blacksmith and didn’t learn to read until he was sixteen.  By then he had been working in the foundry for six years. He carried buckets of hot rivets to the older men for twelve- or fourteen-hour shifts, and watched boilermakers sketching out designs on the foundry floor. He made his own easel and palette, then taught himself how to be a painter in oils, achieving his masterpiece at the age of 24.

James Sharples, "The Forge," 1847, oil on canvas, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

James Sharples, “The Forge,” 1847, oil on canvas, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

The scene comes straight from his experience, is less romanticized than those by Wright and Loutherbourg, but also uses the light skillfully to contrast the gloomy heights of the shop with the intense brilliance around the furnace itself.  The men’s purposefulness suggests a pride in a tough job well done.  Sharples has the distinction of being the only factory worker in 19th century England to become a successful painter and engraver.

This is the first post in my ART AND SCIENCE miniseries. Catch up with the other posts here:

Science and Art History: A Brief Hello 

Art and Science 2: Botanical Illustration and Beautiful Illusion

Art and Science 3: Secrets of Painting Revealed in X-ray

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