A great deal of interest has developed in recent years in period cast iron garden furniture. While a number of distinguished American manufactures notably Mott, Wood and Perot, and Fiske, produced quality cast iron furniture in the United States, it is important to recognize the tremendous influence and contributions of the English foundries, Coalbrookdale & Co., and Andrew Handyside & Company.
By the second quarter of the 19th century a rapidly growing middle class was enthusiastically embellishing the exteriors of their homes with special emphasis on their garden ornamentation. Cast iron became the medium of choice for garden furnishings as well as architectural detail. It was strong and durable for outdoor use and could be made more quickly and less expensively than wrought iron, the more labor-intensive material previously used for both architectural decoration and outdoor seating. Casting methods allowed for a wide variety of styles, depth of detail and design creativity and could easily be produced in a range of sizes.
Coalbrookdale & Co. one of the most prolific producers of cast iron garden furniture in the 19th and early 20th centuries was established in Shropshire, England in 1709 by Abraham Darby who had discovered that coke was superior to charcoal as a smelting agent in the production of iron. Coalbrookdale was distinguished by its technical abilities, primarily in the detail and quality of its castings, and in the creativity of its designs most notably it’s garden seating. The foundry maintained a leading edge by hiring distinguished designers of the times such as John Bell and Christopher Dresser. Dresser, an industrial designer with a scientific background in botany, produced wonderfully organic and realistic designs for garden seating. A great number perhaps the majority of Coalbrookdale designs incorporate flowers and plants and other naturalistic elements. Coalbrookdale produced the Fern and Blackberry, Laurel and the Passion Flower patterns that were widely imitated in the United States.
While Coalbrookdale was known for its leading designs and the quality of its castings Handyside, the other major English source for cast iron garden ornament, established itself as a producer of classic urns or vases. Travelers returning from the Grand Tour wanted more than small bronze mementoes of the Medici, Borghese and Warwick urns and Handyside obliged by producing all three forms in a variety of sizes, as well as a variety of other styles, all of which were based upon classic forms.
The English Design Copyright Acts of 1839 and 1842 protected registered designs in metal for three years after the date of registration. Evidence of the manufacturer’s proprietary rights were either stamped on or cast into the piece in the form of a diamond shaped registration mark. Coalbrookdale consistently availed itself of this protection due in no small measure to the considerable effort and expense incurred to create new and trend setting designs through the talents of its carefully selected designers. Almost all Coalbrookdale pieces carry this diamond registration mark and many pieces contain both the registration mark as well as the Coalbrookdale name and model number. Handyside often did not mark or stamp its urns, but did occasionally affix a metal plate, with the firm’s name to the base of an urn or to the pedestal on which an urn might sit. Unfortunately, these identification plates have often been lost over time.
Designers from competing firms on both sides of the Atlantic and the English Channel did not hesitate to adapt or directly copy another manufacturer’s product making attributions of unsigned work sometimes difficult or impossible. Coalbrookdale, with its trend setting designs, is one of the most frequently copied. However, while it may be impossible to directly attribute an unmarked work to a specific foundry, the quality of the casting and the technical and esthetic superiority of the design and construction techniques often distinguish the finer foundries work from their imitators.