Glasgow’s Cast Iron Heritage: Traces of an Imagined City

The legacy of Glasgow’s industrial heritage has an important role to play in our local identity. It’s an often overlooked part of our urban landscape yet has immense value and can help shape our vision for the place in  which we live. In considering the historic ironwork in the city – the sheer diversity of styles, patterns and available objects, the design quality, and the variety of local foundries that produced the artifacts – we look with fresh eyes at our local area. If our appreciation for our surroundings is enhanced, ultimately we are encouraged to care more for the city we live in.

In Glasgow, despite the removal of most of the city’s ironwork as part of the war effort seventy years ago, some wonderful examples of this industrial art have survived. These elegant artifacts help to tell the story of Scottish cast ironwork production and, in particular, illustrate the story of Glasgow’s famous iron foundries: Walter  Macfarlane & Co, George Smith & Co, McDowall Steven & Co among many others. In their day, these names were bywords for artistic quality and excellence in production.

This exhibition aims to display some of these small treasures that form part of what remains of the Victorian imagined city.

The famous photograph of Walter Macfarlane standing next to one of his most impressive creations, an enormous cast iron street lamp, invites the viewer to wonder what his vision of the city might have been. He sought to mark civic progress through the adornment of buildings and streetscapes with examples of the  highest standards of contemporary art and design. In their mass-produced cast ironwork for railings, balconies, park benches and the like, Macfarlane’s and other Glasgow foundries emphasised the use of style, detail and ornament as the means to delineate the idea of a modern, civilised city in harmony with the aspirational values and taste of the people that lived there.

These Glasgow iron foundries also produced lavishly illustrated catalogues, with innumerable designs often inspired by organic motifs found in nature. In this period, ornamentation increasingly became a symbol of sophistication and, as such, inspired new developments in art and architecture, and eventually influencing all aspects of Victorian design.