This outstanding mid-Victorian cast-iron garden chair was designed by Sir Christopher Dresser and made in England in 1870 by the famous Coalbrookdale Company established in 1709 in the Severn Gorge, (later called Ironbridge Gorge), Shropshire. Dresser had an enthusiasm for designing for industry and between 1867 and 1872 worked for the Coalbrookdale Company designing hall stands, hall chairs and garden furniture. The garden chair was designed for export in a convenient 'flat pack' in that it comprised three separate pieces, two sides and a back, cross bracing and a seat formed from wooden slats. It can be said to embody the Industrial Revolution in that it was made at its birthplace and probably exported to Australia by ship where it would be assembled.
The Coalbrookdale Company was operated by the Darby family who were ironmasters in the Severn Valley for generations. They had already established a leading position in the iron industry when in 1709 Abraham Darby (1677-1717) pioneered the technique of smelting iron ore with coke in place of charcoal. It proved that iron could be made with the apparently limitless resources of Britain's coalfields rather than the depleted reserves of its forests. This was the greatest single step forward in the history of iron making and the foundation of the industrial revolution. It freed Britain from industrial stagnation and multiplied the demand for coal thereby initiating the profound change in power from, as Lewis Mumford called it, "the technology of wood, wind and water to the technology of carboniferous capitalism".
The Coalbrookdale foundries and industries were at the centre of early British industrial development. In 1723 the firm produced the first cast-iron cylinders for Newcomen engines, which enabled them to be made much larger and more powerful to drain mines of water. In 1781 Abraham Darby III, grandson of the first Abraham Darby, built the world's first iron bridge across the Severn and in 1797 they made the first cast-iron beams and posts for construction of the first fireproof textile factory. The firm's influence extended even further as the famous engineer, Richard Trevithick, worked with the Coalbrookdale Company to build the world's first steam locomotive which ran in 1804. By the middle of the nineteenth century the company was the largest foundry in the world and built the great iron gates to London's Crystal Palace exhibition which displayed the industrial development and achievements of Britain in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Indeed, the Coalbrookdale Company had a sumptuous display of their products at the Exhibition. An example of this chimney piece, the design for which was registered on 8 November 1850, may well have been on display. It appears in the company's register as No. 130 and was certainly still being advertised in the firm's 1875 'Catalogue of Castings' as No. 22 on page 113.
Coalbrookdale became the centre of the iron-casting industry in England. Virtually everything that had previously been made of wood, metal or even ceramics could be produced in cast iron. The company ended up producing a large range of industrial, art and domestic products including garden vases and pot stands, garden chairs like this one, hall and hat stands, door knockers, mirror frames, public statues and fountains, gas brackets as well as all kinds of Victorian kitchen equipment from hot water boilers to fish kettles and pots and pans.
Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) was one of the first designers to successfully bridge the gap between art and industry in Victorian England. He was a prolific and versatile designer in many different materials and wrote extensively on design theory. He was very influential in his own time and his philosophies anticipated the direction of twentieth century design. The chair is representative of Dresser's early stylistic synthesis of medieval and natural motifs.
Bracegirdle, Brian 'The Archaeology of the Industrial Revolution', Heinemenn, London, 1974.
Margaret Simpson, Curator