Established by Abraham Darby I (1678–1717) in 1709 as an iron foundry in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, for the first 120 years or so its output was wholly utilitarian, from cooking utensils to steam engine cylinders to England’s first cast-iron bridge (1779–80), spanning the River Severn at the nearby Ironbridge Gorge. Although by 1820, the Coalbrookdale Company was considering closing, in the 1830s the decision of Francis Darby (1783–1850), Abraham I’s great grandson, to add art castings to the Company’s output, using iron as a cheaper alternative to bronze, stimulated a recovery. The foundry’s early successes in this field were made possible by its discovery of the optimum composition of sand for its moulds: with grains sufficiently cohesive to retain the model’s more delicate lines but loose enough to allow the escape of gases which would otherwise be trapped as bubbles creating a pitted surface to the iron which no chasing tool would remove. In 1846, the Art-Union magazine devoted eight pages of its August issue to a laudatory account of the foundry, comparing its products favourably with those of the leading French iron foundries. The establishment in the following year of a close working relationship with the RA Schools-educated sculptor John Bell further secured Coalbrookdale’s reputation as a maker not merely of decorative work but also statuary, in iron and, from 1851 at the latest, bronze. In 1849, the Coalbrookdale Company was awarded the Gold Medal of the Society of Arts. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, it was awarded a Council Medal (the highest tier of medal) for the overall excellence of its exhibits, while Bell was awarded a Prize Medal for Coalbrookdale’s bronze cast of his Eagle Slayer. Against this acknowledged excellence of execution, however, should be set the adverse reaction to the display of some of the work: at the centre of the Crystal Palace’s west nave was the Coalbrookdale Dome, a 30-feet-high, open-work, rustic fantasy enclosing an iron cast of Bell’s Eagle Slayer, the slain eagle fixed by an arrow to the dome’s underside, an assemblage the Illustrated London News described as ‘an absolutely inexcusable piece of bad taste’. Also in the exhibition, the Coalbrookdale Gates, by the Company’s design manager, Charles Crookes, was afterwards permanently sited in Kensington Gardens. The 1862 International Exhibition at South Kensington saw a second set of ornamental gates, its pillars topped with ‘Victory’ figures by Bell; these gates are now at Warrington. Publicly sited sculptures cast by Coalbrookdale include: statues of James Montgomery, Sheffield (bronze, 1861) and Oliver Cromwell, Warrington (iron, 1860–62, both by Bell); John Robert Godley Christchurch, New Zealand (bronze, 1865, by Thomas Woolner); and Edward Colston (bronze, 1895, by John Cassidy), erected in Bristol, toppled in 2020 by Black Lives Matter activists, now retained in a damaged state by Bristol Museums; Temperance fountains at Queen Victoria Street, London (bronze figure, 1861, by Wills Bros); and Southsea Esplanade, Hants (1893, bronze figure by Bell, iron canopy by Joseph Kershaw); and memorial lamp standards at Chelsea Embankment (iron, 1870, by Timothy Butler). Following the death of the last member of the Darby family in 1926, the Coalbrookdale Company was absorbed into a succession of other companies; operations at the foundry ceased in 2017.
Bibliography: Art-Union, August 1846, pp. 219–26 (‘The Iron Works of Coalbrookdale’); Builder, 29 March 1851, p. 198 (‘Sculpture and Iron. The Great Exhibition’); T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Kensington and Chelsea with Westminster South-West, Watford, 2023, pp. 18–19, 397–98; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Liverpool, Liverpool, 1997, pp. 90, 107, 254; R. Cocke, Public Sculpture of Norfolk and Suffolk, Liverpool, 2013, pp. 158–59; Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851. Reports by the Juries …, London, 1852, pp. xcvi, 174–75, 498, 500, 502, 685, 706; Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History; Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, 1851. Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue (3 vols), London, 1851, vol. II, pp. 659–61; Illustrated London News, 9 August 1851, p. 193; Mapping Sculpture; E. Morris and E. Roberts, Public Sculpture of Cheshire and Merseyside, Liverpool, 2012, pp. 226–28, 241–42; NPG British Bronze Founders; G.T. Noszlopy and F. Waterhouse, Public Sculpture of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire, Liverpool, 2010, pp. 68–69, 70, 125–26, 133; D. White and E. Norman, Public Sculpture of Sheffield and South Yorkshire, Liverpool, 2015, pp. 124–26.
Terry Cavanagh March 2023