Bradley's cover image


Year of Award: 2011 Award State: Western Australia Trades > Metal Work
The Park Family Churchill Fellowship to research and develop advanced techniques for the production, restoration and conservation of traditional ironwork - UK, USA, Italy

Brad Jackson from Fremantle had been working as an architectural blacksmith for 12 years when he gained a Park Family sponsored Churchill Fellowship in 2011. Brad specialises in traditional and heritage ironwork, such as gates, railings, doors, furniture and turnstiles. He worked on restoring Fremantle Prison’s Wray gates, built about 1854.

Brad studied the production, restoration and conservation of traditional ironwork in the United States and Europe. ‘The courses and experiences that were made available through this [Fellowship] were exceptional and will stay with me throughout my career, with the knowledge passed on to many,’ he writes in his report, which contains a succinct history of blacksmithing.

Traditionally blacksmiths served eight-year apprenticeships. At the end of their indenture period the craftsman would go between workshops for several years as a journeyman. In Germany, this program still exists, with journeymen retaining the traditional clothing associated with this training.

Skills taught in this way reached their zenith from 1690 to the mid-19th century. Brad outlines the halcyon days of blacksmithing: 'During this time, the smiths trained in an environment of forging excellence, and many turned their focus to the high class decorative ironwork that adorned the corporate and municipal buildings and public areas of cities and towns. These skills were taught by generations of tradition, where there remained an education of careful appreciation of the fine classical forms. This provided the stimulus for ironwork of superior calibre and competition was for the finest work, not for the lowest rate.'

The Industrial Revolution made the introduction of cast iron possible at a fraction of the cost of hand-made iron work. This lowered the value of ironwork, and then the two World Wars spelled the end of expert manual skill throughout Western Europe and the Commonwealth in many ways. Austerity had an adverse effect on the appreciation of quality in many areas of skill.

There was a generation of the working trades involved in World War I, many of whom perished, were severely injured or took up other trades and professions when they returned. ‘This severed the continuation of knowledge and the passing down of skills through instruction and demonstration that had continued from the 3rdmillenium BCE,’ writes Brad.

He points out that now skilled blacksmiths compete with ignorant ones who produce faster and cheaper work, forcing compromises. There is no trade standard in Australia and real damage done to public buildings by ignorant people. Brad concludes with a heartfelt yet reasoned plea: 'Ironwork and the associated history form an integral part of the heritage fabric that relates to Australian people and places. While it may not have the lengthy history of other countries, or the ornate flourishes of a Baroque masterpiece, it is a vital aspect of our history and worthy of the best efforts of conservation.'

This Park Family Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship enabled Brad to study international practice in his field and to learn from the best in the industry. Traditional ironwork and the skills to work on this heritage is ‘in a state of ambiguity’ in Australia, according to Brad. He believes that there is a loss of understanding about the profession in all areas of the domestic population, trades and even heritage bodies and related professionals. Brad hopes that his report will help reverse these trends by helping to define what a professional blacksmith is and help to establish a place in the production, restoration and conservation of traditional ironwork.

‘If a skill is not practised it will be forgotten, and lost with this skill will be the ability to create in the manner of the past and to conserve that which has already been created,’ concludes Brad, making the pertinent point that ‘The conservation of these skills is just as important as the conservation of the artefacts.’

Excerpt from “Inspiring Australians” written by Penny Hanley (2015)

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