The Nearly Lost Art of Iron

Circular Grille, French (Amiens), c. 1700. Wrought iron and rolled iron, cut and embossed, 39-3/8 diameter x 2-3/4 in. Ré́union des Musé́es Mé́tropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4231

Clark Art Institute
Circular Grille, French (Amiens), c. 1700. Wrought iron and rolled iron, cut and embossed, 39-3/8 diameter x 2-3/4 in. Ré́union des Musé́es Mé́tropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4231
Rescued from the dustbin of history, remnants of the wrought iron that once decorated Paris are currently exhibited in a treasury of works on loan at the Clark Institute of Art.

Rescued from the dustbin of history, remnants of the wrought iron that once decorated Paris are currently exhibited in a treasury of works on loan at the Clark Art Institute.

Clark Art Institute

Draper’s Sign, “The Dry Tree,” French (Paris), c. 1600–1625. Wrought iron, stamped and polychromed, 43-5/16 x 31-1/8 x 5-15/16 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4030

“It’s only the second time that a major exhibition of the treasures at the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles has been organized abroad.“

Alexandra Bosc, curator of decorative arts at the Rouen museum.

For centuries wrought iron was everywhere in Europe, forged by hand into hanging signs, church lecterns, locks, kitchenware, and architectural features. Then in the 19th century, it started to disappear. Materials like steel and glass became more fashionable, while radical urban renewal projects leveled old structures. Their ironwork ornamentation was often melted down for reuse, or thrown in the trash. Jean-Louis-Henri Le Secq Destournelles, a painter and photographer, noticed the vanishing of this artistic heritage in Paris. Between 1853 and 1870, many of its historic streets were destroyed under the plan of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, replacing them with broad avenues lined with uniform architecture.

Le Secq salvaged ironwork from these Parisian ruins, and from those scraps his collection grew. Now the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles in Rouen is among the world’s leading museums of antique ironwork. “This material used to be ubiquitous, but it seems to have fallen out of our visual vocabulary, even though wrought iron still appears in many places, from balcony railings on old buildings to ornaments in old cemeteries,” said Kathleen M. Morris, the Sylvia and Leonard Marx director of collections and exhibitions and curator of decorative arts at the Clark Art Institute.

Through September 16, 36 objects from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles are on view in The Art of Iron at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The two museums are part of the French American Museum Exchange (FRAME), which supports partnerships between institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. "It's only the second time that a major exhibition of the treasures at the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles has been organized abroad," said Alexandra Bosc, curator of decorative arts at the Rouen museum. The Art of Iron follows the 2015-16 Strength and Splendor: Wrought Iron from the Musée le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

The pieces at the Clark range from menacingly spiked 18th-century dog collars to a 17th-century snake-shaped water spout. “I tried to select objects of great quality, as well as diversity, both of which are indications of the character of the holdings of that museum,” said Morris. Whether a blooming metal rose on an 18th-century florist’s sign, or an inventive 1823 safe door outfitted with an alarm pistol that fired when the lock was tampered with, they reflect how ironsmiths worked hot metal for a diversity of purposes. Architectural grilles, like an elegant 1700 circular example from Amiens that may reference the rose windows of the city’s cathedral, demonstrate wrought iron’s use in allowing air and light circulation in buildings before glass windows. A hefty 17th-century cooking pot on an hook, elegantly tooled with patterns, recalls the material’s role in the home when most meals were made over open fires.

“Some of the forms are instantly recognizable in terms of function, such as a wrought-iron gate,” Morris stated. “Others are more mysterious, such as a bear muzzle, or a 17th-century depiction of a tree in wrought iron. I love that they all tell a story—some of them more apparent than others.” The signs in particular were made to pictorially communicate an establishment’s purpose, essential before widespread literacy and the 18th-century introduction of address numbers. For instance, a cabaret’s bat-shaped sign told passersby that this was a place to enter after dark.

Balcony Grille, French, 18th century.
Clark Art Institute

Balcony Grille, French, 18th century. Wrought iron and rolled iron, cut and embossed, 20-7/8 x 53-1/8 x 5-1/2 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4233

Cabaret Sign, “Bat,” France
Clark Art Institute

Cabaret Sign, “Bat,” France, possibly 19th century, modified in the 20th century. Wrought iron and rolled iron, carvedand embossed, green glass, 25 x 24-3/8 x 2-3/8 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.2003.4.1

Coffee and Spice Mill (left), Small Safe Door (right)
Clark Art Institute

LEFT: Benoit Tivelier the Elder (French, active in Saint-Étienne, 18th century), Coffee and Spice Mill, 1749. Wrought steel and rolled steel, finished with file and chisel, with turned brass, 12-3/16 x 8-7/16 x 5-5/16 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.1930. RIGHT: Small Safe Door, French, 1823. Walnut, forged steel, and gilt brass or bronze, pistol, 25-1/4 x 17-1/8 x 2-5/8 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.2003.1.117

Circular Grille, French
Clark Art Institute

Circular Grille, French (Amiens), c. 1700. Wrought iron and rolled iron, cut and embossed, 39-3/8 diameter x 2-3/4 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4231

Strong Box, German
Clark Art Institute

Strong Box, German (Nuremberg), 18th century. Rolled iron, ornamented with wrought iron, cut and chisel-finished, 16-3/4 x 28-9/16 x 17-5/16 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.2010.6.2a

Bracket and Florist’s Shop Sign, French
Clark Art Institute

Bracket and Florist’s Shop Sign, French, 18th century. Wrought iron and rolled iron, cut, polychromed and gilded, bracket: 33-1/16 x 52-3/16 x 2-3/8 in.; sign: 28-1/8 x 20-11/16 x 4-15/16 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.2011.0.199

Shop Sign, “The Crowned Dolphin,” French
Clark Art Institute

Shop Sign, “The Crowned Dolphin,” French, possibly 18th century. Rolled iron, cut, 17-3/4 x 17-3/4 x 1/8 in. Réuniondes Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4215

Grille, Italian
Clark Art Institute

Grille, Italian, 18th century. Wrought iron, polychromed, 33-7/8 x 25-5/8 x 1-5/8 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4513

Clark Art Institute

Grille, Italian, 18th century. Wrought iron, polychromed, 33-7/8 x 25-5/8 x 1-5/8 in. Réunion des Musées Métropolitains, Rouen, Normandy, LS.4513

The signs in particular were made to pictorially communicate an establishment’s purpose, essential before widespread literacy and the 18th-century introduction of address numbers.

Before he was a champion of iron, Le Secq was a middle-class Parisian who studied sculpture and painting. Then his curiosity was piqued by the newly invented photography. In 1851, he was hired to photograph historic monuments in the north and east of France, where he encountered the Gothic cathedrals of Reims and Strasbourg. “It’s probably then that he became fascinated by ironwork ornamentation, particularly present in the churches,” Bosq explained. That attraction developed into an obsession, as he rescued iron ornamentation from ruined buildings in Paris. "The whole 19th century was a period when the know-how in wrought iron was gradually lost—it was replaced by the semi-industrial technique of cast iron, producing objects through sand casting techniques—and so it's certainly also by nostalgia for a disappearing craft that he became passionate about this technique,” Bosq said.

Le Secq was not alone in noticing this fading heritage. One of the signs in The Art of Iron is for a Paris wineshop called “À l’Homme Armé,” and features a man in armor sitting on a cannon, enjoying a glass, bordered on two sides by grape vines. The shop was photographed by Eugène Atget, who documented streets and storefronts before their demolition during the Haussmann years with a similar attention to old world details. The connection between the sign and photograph is especially valuable as Le Secq rarely recorded the exact provenance of the ironwork.

When Le Secq died in 1882, his younger son Henri Le Secq des Tournelles (who added a space in their last name) took up the iron mantle. He was exceptionally keen on amassing encyclopedic series. In the exhibition catalogue, Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau, curator of public sculpture for the City of Paris, relates how Henri searched for “an entire set of surgical instruments” and that “his collection of women’s chatelaines, totaling 226 objects, was the most important of its kind ever assembled.” He was an eccentric presence in the flea markets and secondhand stories, dressed, as he was described in a 1956 article, “in his signature grease-stained black morning coat, its buttons coming loose, topped off by a grimy hat and always carrying a ratty old bag in which he crammed his finds; he looked more like a homeless tramp than a rich collector of antiquities.”

Styled as he was in Dickensian squalor, the young Le Secq was as studious with his acquisitions as his father. He loaned more than 1,000 iron objects to the 1900 Exposition Universelle, where they were so popular that the collection remained in Paris for 20 years as part of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Then Le Secq approached the city of Rouen with an offer to donate the collection in its entirety, and in 1921 it was opened as a museum in the former church of Saint-Laurent.

As Le Secq, who was the museum’s curator until his death in 1925, jubilantly wrote: “It’s all done! The collection belongs to the city of Rouen, for Rouen to preserve, select, keep a vigilant watch over, and give immortal youth to … and thus it will not perish! More fortunate than some of its sister collections, it will not be broken up by the fiery blast of an auction.”

The now over 16,000 ironwork objects in the Rouen museum are still installed in the old Gothic church. At the Clark, the examples are in the Tadao Ando-designed Michael Conforti Pavilion, contrasting the hand-forged material to the modern lines and glass walls of the luminous space. Although The Art of Iron is a small sample of the objects in Rouen, it encapsulates the now obscure craftsmanship of iron, and the passionate collecting that preserved its history.

“It's hard to give an impression of the depth and quality of the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, since their collection is vast,” Morris said. “But, the quality and ingenuity of the works on display at the Clark provide a glimpse into what lies at that museum in great profusion.”

About the Author

Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

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