Sunday, 27 December 2009

Cutler's Hall, Warwick Lane EC4

Benjamin Creswick must have regarded the Cutlers Hall commission as his personal property from the moment it was announced. After all, he had been apprenticed as a grinder to a cutler in Sheffield before health problems forced him to change to Art, so he knew the trade uniquely well.
Creswick was a protege of Ruskin and was establishing his London studio when the the Cutler's Company was evicted from its ancient Hall near Cannon Street by the construction of the Metropolitan Line in 1886. A new site was bought in Warwick Lane and their architect, T. Taylor Smith, produced Neo-Jacobean designs.
Creswick used terracotta, a favourite material of Ruskin's, to create a frieze dedicated to the dignity of manual labour, with added social comment.
There are four panels running from left to right. On the left is Forging, the process of heating long thin steel bars and forging them together to form a strong, hard blank for knife blades. The figure on the far left is tempering a pair of hot scissors by plunging them into a tub of water. The next is forging a pair of scissors. The man holding a table knife in a pair of tongs is the 'maker' or 'smith', and the man with the hammer is a 'striker'.
The next panel shows Grinding, which proceeds from right to left. A pair of workers roll in a new grinding wheel, passing a young man bringing a box of blank blades. A man sets the blades for grinding as his mate harangues him for payment of his union dues or 'natty'. A grinder dresses the stone and the another grinds the edges, following which a young 'glazer' checks them for defects.
A man takes a box of the finished blades to the next process...
Hafting, or attaching the bone or ivory handles. On the left, a man files a handle on his workbench - note the large vice. Next to him, a man fills the handles with the compound that secures them to the blades, watched by his son who has brought him his dinner. Next, a group of workers stands at a glazing frame with a pedal-powered polishing wheel or dolly. One of the group is turning to give sage words of advice to an apprentice who is drilling holes for rivets while his companions scrape the handles and hammer the rivets home. The man on the end gives the finished work a wipe and holds it up the light to check that it is true.
The last group shows cutlers fitting scissors. The old man on the left is resting on his hammer, lost in 'sad reflections', apparently. A small boy pokes the fire for the scissor hardener while a man pedals a lathe to bore the pivot holes in the blades. To the right, the scissors are 'glazed' on a wheel before the edges are filed and the scissors finished and checked by the bloke on the right.
Apparently, Creswick intended the frieze to be an accurate portrayal of modern cutlers, but all it does is expose how mired in tradition the Sheffield table-trade cutlers were. It was the late 1880s and everything is muscle-powered from the forge bellows to the lathe. There is some line shafting in the Grinding panel that hints at steam power but otherwise the entire process seems to be unchanged from the previous century. Some of the workers are even wearing knee breeches.
Sheffield's tableware makers resolutely refused to modernise and were undercut first by the Germans and finally by the Chinese. Today just one remains, William Turner, and ironically the company was founded in 1887, the very year Creswick made this frieze.


Capability Bowes said...

What always impresses me about your posts is your seemingly endless knowledge of background details about what we are looking at. Now, is this because you are super-intelligent, or are you like us lesser mortals and do lots of research? If the latter, where exactly did you pick up all the details about the industrial processes and what each figure is actually doing?

Chris Partridge said...

I'm super-intelligent, if course hahahahahaha I knew I wouldn't be able to write that with a straight face.
My main sources are Pevsner and The Public Sculpture volumes. The London Encyclopedia often helps. And, of course, Google.
In this particular case, the activities on the frieze are described in some detail in Public Sculpture and a plaque inside Cutler's Hall.
But I am always impressed by the way many owners of buildings respond to requests for help.