For a few years prior to undertaking the short course ‘Conservation and Repair of Structural and Architectural Metalwork’, I’d been hearing from friends in the conservation community how amazing the short courses are at West Dean College in Chichester, UK. At the midpoint of my career, I also found myself wanting to further explore conservation methodologies for built architectural heritage and large technology—especially materials comprised of iron alloys. This had a lot to do with patterns in the types of projects I had been working on. My work as an objects conservator in commercial practice means I am often contracted by organisations and councils to assess and repair large iron works or sites with metalwork components, so I considered learning how my UK colleagues approach these materials invaluable. When the opportunity came up to undertake further professional development in this area, it seemed like the perfect use of the funding provided by the ADFAS mid-career scholarship.
Beginning in the late 18th century, the Industrial Revolution heralded dramatic changes to the human experience, and iron played a tremendous role in this process. An increasing British influence in Australia from 1788 onwards ran parallel with the rise of iron as an important building material, the legacy of which is scattered through Australia and many of its historically significant sites. As objects that are both aging and often exposed to outdoor conditions, many iron architectural objects in Australia exhibit significant deterioration—often impacting their structural integrity and originally intended functions.
‘Conservation and Repair of Structural and Architectural Metalwork’ was hosted by West Dean College and led by Geoff Wallis and his son John of Dorothea Restorations. After perusing the complimentary ‘Metals’ guide in the Practical Building Conservation series (Historic England) we were given on the first day, it was clear that our instructors and many of the course presenters have played a huge role in shaping the English approach to conserving architectural metalwork. From whom would the course be better delivered?
The course was structured as roughly three-parts lectures and case study review to one-part practical experience in West Dean’s new blacksmithing forge. Lecturers included individuals working in industry, academia and government, and topics ranged from cathodic protection and material composition and manufacturing processes to repair and mitigation strategies. While incredibly informative, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the hands-on experience in the forge was my favourite element of the course. In one session, we practised extracting lead-lined wrought iron rails from stone and relining with molten lead. A casual walk around Melbourne’s streets and you can see these same architectural features failing as the iron corrodes. While I understood the mechanisms involved with this process and how to repair them in theory, I now feel much more confident in implementing these remedial works. Additionally, the course was illuminating as to different ways I can improve as a conservator by learning and practising new, traditional and craft-based hand skills. I am keen to continue my learning in other metalsmithing areas, and have since returning from the UK undertaken some blacksmithing courses.
Many thanks are due to ADFAS for providing the funds that made this opportunity possible. Their commitment to Australian arts and their preservation is commendable. Additional thanks also to AICCM, Grimwade Conservation Services, West Dean College and the many presenters who contributed to this course.