London — For almost as long as I can remember, I have been a collector of old cast iron. Scraps of this and that have entered my collection over the years and few have ever left it. Other antiques have come and gone, but the cast iron has survived two trans-Atlantic removals. In fact, two years in Canada enlarged my collection with several pairs of oil lamp brackets.
The fashion for domestic furniture in cast iron has had its ups and downs over the last century and a half - mostly down and only briefly up. This is hardly surprising, since iron furniture is necessarily heavy, and - for some - too cold. But its heyday in the second half of the 19th century produced some delightful pieces that are not at all out of place in the modern home. Heavy in terms of sheer weight it may be, but when cast in light and exuberant foliate scrolls it is anything but ponderous in appearance.
Cast-iron furniture is essentially a high Victorian phenomenon. It was a very minor product of the Industrial Revolution, during which the prowess for casting iron in ever increasing scale resulted in some very fine buildings and bridges. It was also seen by some enterprising manufacturers as a means of increasing production capacity. Factories that produced industrial boilers, railway engines, and cooking pots, found that they could extend their market by producing decorative pieces. The medium was very successful when applied to small decorative tables, hat and umbrella stands, and, of course, garden seats. Bargains in this area are hard to find. Garden seats in Victorian fern and rustic designs and pub tables that have legs modeled with figures of Britannia are now so popular that a market in reproductions is well established. But there is room for ingenuity if one cannot take the obvious, but costly route.
Architectural fragments are becoming very much the thing in providing interesting and decorative touches to a home. Victorian iron foundries produced quantities of decorative grill panels to cover open ducts of central heating systems in public buildings. These become available as many of these buildings become redundant. A single panel makes an excellent basis for a coffee table when set in a wood or metal frame. Single cast-iron balustrades from once-glorious staircases can be bought for very little when not part of the whole, and turned into table lamps. Two of them could even form a log holder to stand beside a fireplace. Shelf brackets are problably the cheapest items in this range and can be bought in antique shops for a few pounds. Similar brackets with turned-up ends, designed to support lavatory cisterns, are hardly recognizable when found holding up a glass shelf.
This is part of the fun to be had in collecting off the beaten track. Who would guess that the iron finial of a garden pergola I know of was once part of the railing around the Royal Terrace of the Adelphi in London, built by the Adam brothers in 1770 and destroyed in 1936?