6 October 2020
Visitor Assistant Andrew Smith takes a closer look at some of the furniture in the Kettle’s Yard House.
In 2011 Grayson Perry produced a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum called ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’. Alongside his own artwork he showed pieces from all over the world, some dating back many hundreds of years, all by skilled yet anonymous craftspeople. Similarly, one of the ways that Kettle’s Yard can be read is as a celebration of unknown craftspeople; for example, none of our tables or chairs carry a maker’s name. Yet here is a piece with a tantalising clue, in the bottom right hand corner, barely readable, the initials “IM”.
Often unnoticed at the back of the fireplace in Jim’s sitting room stands this cast iron fireback. Using the torch function on your ‘phone you can see the image of St George and the Dragon. You will also see the word ‘CURSIUS’ in the arched top of the casting, and further down the words ‘NIL DESPERANDUM’ (Despair not). There’s a date of 1650 on the left side.
Cast iron firebacks started to be introduced in the late 16th century. Blast furnaces were introduced from the continent around 1490 and casting technology soon followed. Firebacks, originally described as ‘plates for chimneys’, were developed in Germany. They allowed domestic fires to be mounted on an interior wall, protecting it from risk of damage from heat and flames. Earlier buildings had a chimney on an exterior wall or a hearth in the middle of a hall.
To manufacture a cast iron fireback a simple sand-casting technique was used. A ‘pattern’ was used to make a depression in the horizontal surface of compressed damp sand. The pattern was then removed and molten metal poured in, taking the form of anything that was on the original pattern. The original pattern would be carved and assembled from timber by a skilled wood-carver.
It was always fun to take a torch and show visitors the image of St George and the Dragon in the fireplace. Especially regular visitors; a part of my ‘things you haven’t noticed before tour’. But as an artefact in its own right I’d always rather dismissed it. Many firebacks were produced in the late Victorian period showing artificially ancient dates. It wasn’t until I was searching for a translation for the words ‘CURSIUS NIL DESPERANDUM’ that an interesting article from the Regional Furniture Society website popped up in my search engine. The author, Jeremy Hodgkinson, identifies a series of firebacks from the mid-17th century carrying the same initials, ‘IM’, and with recognisable stylistic similarities. A skilled wood-carver working in Sussex, and all we know about him are his initials and when and where he was active. Hodgkinson includes a photo of a fireback that is clearly from the same original pattern as ours, but is in better condition with all the detail much more clearly defined.
Closer examination of our fireback suggests that it is a re-cast, a sand casting using a first generation cast iron fireback as the pattern rather than the original wooden version. Ours must be a second or perhaps even third generation casting. And a line across the left side suggests that the casting used as a pattern was cracked. Part of the lower left side of our fireback has been broken off, and in other lower sections the detail has been completely lost, maybe due to corrosion. But still, there’s a clear link to the unknown craftsman, the skilled wood-carver, ‘IM’.
How did the fireback come to be in Kettle’s Yard? Jim’s notes on the inventory are silent on the matter. Our spreadsheet listing all the non-art objects in the House doesn’t even include it. It’s built-in to the fireplace so is seen as part of the architecture. It would be impossible to remove it without dismantling the whole fireplace. Yet it’s unlikely to be original to the cottages. The fireplace has been designed to accommodate it, and we know that the fireplaces are based on those fitted in Jim and Helen’s Hampstead house of the 1920s and ‘30s.
In one of the ‘Interludes’ in Jim’s book, ‘A Way of Life’, he describes removing a stove from the Hampstead house and discovering ‘an ancient fireplace’ behind. Perhaps this fireback is what he found? Perhaps.
With thanks to the Regional Furniture Society and Jeremy Hodgkinson.