Terry Grimley visits Coalbrookdale for an exhibition that marks its industrial heritage.
This is a big year for industrial archaeology in the West Midlands. Birmingham will shortly be marking the bicentenary of the death of its great pioneer Matthew Boulton, but meanwhile an even earlier innovator is being celebrated.
It is 300 years since Abraham Darby I first succeeded in producing iron using coke rather than charcoal in the Shropshire valley of Coalbrookdale – the key breakthrough which is generally thought of as unleashing the Industrial Revolution. Ironically, it was a breakthrough which also heralded the end of Coalbrookdale’s pioneering role, for it now made sense for industry to be located on coalfields rather than among forests.
While the main focus iron-making moved east into Staffordshire to give the Black Country its name, its origins were preserved among the rural splendour of Coalbrookdale, eventually to emerge as today’s world heritage site.
Coincidentally the first museum here, originally a private enterprise, opened 50 years ago this year. And industry is still not extinct here – having started out in the 18th century making cooking pots, Coalbrookdale remains the location for the production of Aga cookers.
The Ironbridge Gorge Museum is marking the anniversary with Coalbrookdale 300: Art, Iron and Industry, a small exhibition which draws together contemporary works of art and later photographs reflecting the history of metal manufacture over three centuries.
A particular focus of interest is that the exhibition has borrowed two views of Coalbrookdale painted in 1777 by William Williams, the artist best known for having made the first painting of the Iron Bridge in 1780. The three paintings are shown here side-by-side.
The painting of the Iron Bridge, which was bought by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum as recently as 1992, is said to have been based on a sketch made by Williams before 1776.
Students of the Industrial Revolution who know that the bridge did not open until 1781 will smell a rat. For Williams’ painting is, strictly speaking, a piece of science fiction, based on plans for the world’s first iron bridge before it was actually built. This explains why it differs in detail from the bridge as we see it today.
That date of 1776 may be significant for another reason. William Williams had been working in America, and while the date of his return appears to be unknown, it seems at least possible that the American War of Independence or events leading up to it may have had something to do with it.
Williams is a shadowy but fascinating figure. While various internet sites give up fragments of information about him, you do occasionally wonder whether two people with the same name are being confused.
For a start, he is regularly described as an English-born painter, but the only birthplace I have seen attributed to him is Caerphilly, which would make him comprehensively Welsh.
Most sources agree that he was born in 1727 and died in 1791, but one gives his date of birth as 1710. This might seem more plausible, in that when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1747 he is thought to already have had a seafaring background.
This is because he wrote a novel called The Journal of Llewellin Penrose, about a rebellious shipwrecked sailor who falls in with a community of Central American Indians, which is thought to have been partly autobiographical. It remained unpublished in his lifetime.
Williams bequeathed the manuscript to a man who helped secure him a place in the Merchants’ and Sailors’ Almshouse in Bristol, where he died. An edited version was published in 1815, while the original had to wait until 1969. The edited manuscript was acquired by the National Maritime Museum in 2006.
Startlingly, Williams’ book has the distinction – largely unrecognised – of being the earliest surviving novel written in America. It seems extraordinary that the same person who painted the first picture of the Iron Bridge should also have initiated the tradition which includes Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby.
In Philadelphia Williams was the first teacher of Benjamin West, the most famous American artist of the 18th century and a future president of the Royal Academy. West credited Williams with first stimulating his interest in painting.
So by the time Williams came to paint his two views of Coalbrookdale in 1777 – one showing the valley in the morning, the other in the afternoon – he had already enjoyed a colourful career.
These beautiful paintings give a powerful impression of the impact of early industralisation on a still largely unspoilt landscape. The most celebrated painting of Coalbrookdale at its industrial peak is the night-time view painted by the French-born artist Philip de Loutherbourg in 1801, now in the Science Museum in London. Another view of Bedlam Furnace by de Loutherbourg is recorded in this exhibition in an acquatint which is one of a number of small-scale views of early industry from the collection formed by the film-maker Arthur Elton, now held at Ironbridge.
One real rarity, reflecting the development of iron making after it moved into Staffordshire, is a large but anonymous painting of foundries in Wednesbury in about 1845.
For years this hung in the Forest Glen refreshment pavilion at the foot of the Wrekin, until it was closed and its contents auctioned off in 1979, when the painting was bought by the Ironbridge museums. The pavilion was moved to the Blist’s Hill open air museum.
After their early flirtation with it as part of the fashion for “sublime” or scary subject matter, artists largely shunned West Midlands industry, with only one or two notable exceptions such as that of Edwin Butler Bayliss, who devoted himself to it at the beginning of the 20th century.
However, the modern artist John Piper passed through Coalbrookdale in 1951. His painting, shown here, was used as the frontispiece to Arthur Raistrick’s book Dynasty of Iron Founders: the Darbys and Coalbrookdale (1953), an important stimulus in raising interest in the history of the area.
* Coalbrookdale 300: Art, Iron and Industry is on view at the Museum of Iron, Coalbrookdale, until January, admission free. It will generally be open Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm, but visitors are advised to check opening times before travelling.