Bronze sculpture founders: a short history
In the early 19th century the demand for bronze statues grew as it became the custom to commemorate wartime heroes and political leaders through public monuments. The demand for memorials expanded still further from the 1850s. At much the same time, a taste began to develop for bronze statuettes in domestic interiors. In the 20th century, war memorials kept many bronze founders fully employed, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. There was also a flourishing market for large-scale outdoor sculpture that was monumental rather than memorial in character, a market which developed during the second half of the century to include large abstract and modernist pieces.
The process of bronze founding depended on the taking of moulds and casts. As the 19th century progressed, some plaster figure makers came to specialise as sculptors’ moulders and a few moved into electrotype reproductions or bronze founding itself. For more information on plaster figure makers, see Plaster figure makers: a short history.
Fig.1. Sir Thomas Lawrence, bronze medallion, 1830,
by Samuel Parker after Edward Hodges Baily
(National Portrait Gallery, given by Alfred Jones, 1908).
In the 17th and 18th centuries relatively little sculpture in bronze was produced in Britain. But bronze statues, especially of kings and queens, have long been a feature of civic spaces. To take an early example, Hubert le Sueur’s equestrian statue of Charles I has been on display in one London location or another since it was cast in 1633, except for a period during and following the civil war. In studies by M.G. Sullivan and Malcolm Baker, the production of bronze and brass statues in 17th- and 18th-century Britain has been traced (see Sources below for this and other references). Sullivan identified some increase in the number of works produced between the Restoration in 1660 and the Revolutionary Wars in 1792, after which there was ‘an explosion of bronze commemoration’ in the period leading up to the Great Exhibition in 1851 and beyond. Some sculptors subcontracted casting work, as did Grinling Gibbons, but others had the expertise to cast their own work including John Nost senior and junior, Andrew Carpenter and John Bacon, both father and son.
It was not until the early 19th century that sculptors in Britain began producing monumental bronze statues on a more frequent basis. The expanding demand led two leading sculptors, Sir Richard Westmacott and Sir Francis Chantrey, to establish their own foundries in Pimlico. Westmacott set up his foundry in about 1809. At one stage, he was known as 'the only caster of bronze statuary, of a large size, in the kingdom’ (W.C. Aitken, The Early History of Brass and the Brass Manufactures of Birmingham, 1866, p.160). Chantrey decided to establish his own foundry in 1827, apparently because ‘the great founders in brass of the Metropolis’ could not meet his expectations (George Jones, Sir Francis Chantrey, R.A. Recollections of his life, practice and opinions, 1849, pp.21-2).
Who were these ‘great founders’? The only brass foundry known to have produced large-scale sculpture was the Royal Brass Foundry at Woolwich, where some of Chantrey's own work was cast, as was that of Thomas Campbell in the 1830s. Elsewhere, the goldsmiths, Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, cast occasional work in bronze for E.H. Baily and William Theed the elder around 1830, and there were other specialist businesses, such as those of James De Ville and Samuel Parker, producing small-scale and ornamental work (fig.1).
Westmacott's and Chantrey’s statues were on a large-scale and required a quality of finish that foundries such as that at Woolwich, focused as it was on canonry, were unable to achieve. Both sculptors would sometimes allow their foundries to be used for casting work for other sculptors and clients. Westmacott accommodated John Flaxman and Matthew Cotes Wyatt, and Chantrey the geologist William Buckland for certain natural specimens. Later in the century, there were other sculptor founders, including Sir John Steell, Baron Carlo Marochetti and, for a time but on a smaller scale, Sir Alfred Gilbert. Steell used Chantrey’s former assistant, William Young, as his foundry manager. It was said that the setting up of his foundry in Edinburgh in 1849 meant that large-scale statues would no longer need to be sent to England for casting.
When the commission for the four great bronze reliefs at the base of Nelson’s Column was put in hand in 1847, the Office of Works turned to leading iron and brass foundries and engineering firms for competitive estimates, but not without problems, despite taking advice from the now elderly Sir Richard Westmacott. In the event, both the winning partnerships collapsed, Christy, Adams & Hill into bankruptcy in 1849 after completing the first of the reliefs, and Moore, Fressange & Moore into closure when the partners were imprisoned in 1853 for fraud in falsifying the weight of the final relief. One of the unsuccessful contenders for the original contract, Robinson & Cottam, whose original estimate had been much higher than the winning bids, now had the job of making good the faulty relief at considerable public expense.
Although the reliefs for Nelson's Column were the most high profile public commission of the time, there were by the 1850s numerous commemorative statues and monuments being cast for public spaces in London and for the rapidly expanding, civic-proud, northern cities, who sought their own public memorials. The growing demand provided an opening for specialist bronze founders. It was in this environment that several engineering and manufacturing businesses took up sculpture as a particular focus: Robinson & Cottam in 1852, Elkington’s in Birmingham in the mid-1850s (both foundry work and electrotypes), Henry Prince & Co from the mid-1860s and Robert Masefield & Co in 1871 (succeeding the iron founders, Holbrook & Co). The very term,‘statue foundry’, was first commonly used in the mid-1850s.
Robinson & Cottam, successors to an earlier engineering business, advertised as the Statue Foundry and Bronze Works in 1854. It was claimed that they had gained a considerable reputation for casting bronze works of art, however large, in one piece, and 'thus securing the tremendous advantage of correctly reproducing the work of the artist without the aid of workmen to screw or pin the pieces together'. The iron founder, Henry Prince & Co, cast various statues in bronze in the 1860s and early 1870s for John Henry Foley and occasionally for other sculptors. Robert Masefield, by training a civil and mechanical engineer, cast a series of statues at the Manor Iron Works in Chelsea in the 1870s. None of these enterprises continued in sculpture founding for very long. It was not until the 1870s that businesses were established specifically to cast sculpture, as will be discussed in section 4.
There was also a growing market in bronze statuettes, encouraged by several developments: the Art Union of London’s decision in 1842 to begin to include statuettes among its awards, the displays at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the awards programme of the Department of Science and Art at the South Kensington Museum in promoting good design in art and manufacturing. The Art Union’s favoured maker, John Ayres Hatfield, in business by 1844 if not before, became the leading ormolu and bronze figure manufacturer and dominated the process of producing bronze statuettes for the Art Union for many years.
There was a long-standing tradition of employing French expertise in bronze founding. In 1831, the German artist, Johann David Passavant, commented on the ‘several French workmen’, employed in casting a colossal equestrian statue by Chantrey at the foundry at Woolwich. It was said that both the Coalbrookdale iron foundry and Baron Marochetti relied on French workmen (Building News, vol.28, 1875, p.711).
One such founder, Pierre Antoine Fressange, arrived from France in 1843, describing himself as a brass founder. By 1848, he was in partnership with the Moore brothers, as Moore, Fressange & Moore. They employed French craftsmen, including Messrs Cabrat and Veniat, until their conviction for fraud in 1853. Even then Fressange remained in trade in London, and by 1881 he was living in Long Ditton, where he perhaps worked for the Thames Ditton Foundry.
Following the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, it was said that a large number of skilled French artisans came to England, bringing ‘minute workmanship and delicate detail’ to statuettes in bronze for the home (Building News, vol.28, 1875, p.711). In the case of Henry Young & Co, a foundry set up in 1871, it was reported that they ‘were finally able to group together French bronze-moulders and chasers’. Few of these French workers can be identified but the importance of a nameless young French founder, employed by Henry Prince & Co, in the completion of Henry Foley’s monumental statue of Prince Albert for the Albert Memorial in 1875 was acknowledged in the press at the time.
There was a second wave of immigrant craftsmen in bronze foundry, dominated by Italians, from about 1890 until the First World War, as described in section 4.
As Duncan James has explored, there were technical developments in bronze founding in the 19th century, away from the brick dust and plaster piece-mould technique employed by Chantrey to the employment of sand moulds, an iron founding process which was adopted by Robinson & Cottam in the 1850s and which became an industry standard (see James 1986 pp.21-2). In the second half of the century, two other techniques came to be used in sculpture, the one electrotype, a new process introduced in the 1840s, as is discussed in section 3, and the other lost wax, revived in the 1880s but used since time immemorial and discussed in section 4.
Fig.2. King Henry IV, electrotype
by Elkington & Co, 1875, from a plaster cast by Domenico Brucciani from the tomb effigy in Canterbury Cathedral
(National Portrait Gallery).
In the electrotype process, a pure metal, usually copper, was built up from the inside surface of a mould, or the outside surface of a cast, by electrolytic deposition of metal onto the surface until it was thick enough to be structurally sound.
The trade in electrotype sculpture, commencing in the 1850s, was dominated by Elkington & Co, the pioneering Birmingham electroplating business. They exhibited John Evelyn Thomas’s Death of Tewdric Mawr, King of Gwent, at the Great Exhibition in 1851 as a demonstration of the technique, and successfully competed for the contract for most of the eighteen statues for the chamber to the new House of Lords in the 1850s. They also produced reductions of some large-scale works for the Art Union and other customers.Their only serious rival in electrotype sculpture and reproductions was the small London business run by Giovanni Franchi, which they purchased in the 1870s.
The South Kensington Museum, the forerunner of the Victoria and Albert Museum, actively sought to take advantage of the electrotyping process. It gave Elkington’s permission to make electrotype copies of objects in the Museum’s collection in 1853. It was active in acquiring electrotype copies of works of art in other collections from the mid-1850s, generally from Elkington’s or Franchi’s. Notable pieces reproduced by Elkington’s as electrotypes include the doors from Augsburg Cathedral for £288 in 1874, and three lion sculptures finished in silver at £100 each in 1885, from the 17th-century originals guarding the royal throne at Rosenborg Castle, Denmark. Franchi’s reproduced Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Baptistry doors at Florence Cathedral in electrotype for the considerable sum of £950 in 1867.
The National Portrait Gallery commissioned a range of electrotypes from Elkington’s, mostly between 1869 and 1881 (see National Portrait Gallery - Elkington & Co). Many of these were from mediaeval funerary effigies (figs 2, 3), others from modern sculpture (fig.4). The first to be commissioned was Henry Weekes’s bust, William Buckland, 1858, cast in 1869. The associated correspondence reveals the caution of both the sculptor and the Gallery’s director in exploring the implications of the electrotype process, which was described to them as being ’in pure copper by Electric deposition’ (National Portrait Gallery records, RP 255, 8 July 1868).
Fig.3. Elkington & Co, estimate,
for electro-deposited bronzes from three plaster casts of effigies in Canterbury Cathedral, 1875 (National Portrait Gallery records, 7/1/2/3/4).
Fig.4. William Buckland, electrotype
by Elkington & Co, 1869, after Henry Weekes, 1858 (National Portrait Gallery).
Electrotypes generally cost some 25-30% less than traditionally cast work. Apart from this cost saving, it was argued that there were advantages to be had in the finishing process: ‘It is not necessary to relieve the surface of that general roughness which is always the result of ordinary metal castings, and which, when not effected by an artist, often destroys the beauty of the modelling.’ (‘Electro-metallurgy’, Art Journal, 1866, vol.5, pp.286-7). There were however adverse comments about the appearance of electrotypes which could seem rather bright until the surface gained a patina.
As W.H. Finlay, Elkington's London manager, explained to the National Portrait Gallery's director in March 1869, concerning the bust of William Buckland (fig.4), 'the glossy appearance of the surface will soon subside, and be much better after a time than were it now altered. Experience has proved that.' (National Portrait Gallery records, RP 255).
An optimistic Birmingham historian, W.C. Aitken, claimed in 1866 that ‘judging from the progress made within the last five years, it seems highly probable that, in the production of bronze statuary, the process of casting will ere long be entirely superseded by the simpler, safer, and more certain operations of electro-metallurgy.’ This was not to be. While electrotypes continued to be produced for many years, the use of the technique for large-scale sculpture declined from the 1870s.
Fig.5. Henry Young and Co, advertisement, 1873 (National Portrait Gallery Library, Post Office London Directory)
The story of bronze founding in the later 19th century has been told by Duncan James in his account of the development of foundries and by Susan Beattie in her book on the ‘New Sculpture’ (James 1986; Beattie 1983). It was with the encouragement of the sculptor, Alfred Stevens, that Henry Young, foreman of the moulding department at Holbrook’s Manor Iron Works in Chelsea, set up his own foundry in 1871, a business which was used by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm in the 1870s and was supported by many other sculptors until the 1890s.
Henry Young's was not the only new foundry. He was followed by Cox & Sons at Thames Ditton in 1875, John Webb Singer at Frome in Somerset in 1888 and George Broad in Hammersmith in about 1890. Subsequently, a wave of Italian founders, specialists in the lost wax process, set up in London, including Alessandro Parlanti in the 1890s, Giovanni Fiorini by 1909 and Frederico Mancini by 1911, all men who came from Rome or trained there at the Fonderia Nelli. There was also Enrico Cantoni, active in bronze founding by c.1900, but who had begun as a plaster modeller and sculptors’ moulder.
Fig.6. Henry Young & Co’s foundry, 1881, with one of the bronze sphinxes for Cleopatra’s Needle being cast (National Portrait Gallery Library, Illustrated London News, 16 April 1881).
Cox & Sons set up their new bronze statue foundry at Thames Ditton in 1875, under the direction of James Moore as foreman. He had previously worked at Elkington’s in Birmingham. The Thames Ditton foundry passed through a series of hands in the late 19th century, successively trading as Drew & Co from 1880, Moore & Co from 1882 and Hollinshead & Burton from 1897, until in 1902 it came into the sole ownership of Arthur Brian Burton. In his hands the enterprise prospered over the next 30 years as one of the leading foundries.
It is said that it was a sense of shortcomings in the abilities of British foundries which led several leading sculptors to encourage John Webb Singer and his sons, ecclesiastical and art metal workers in Frome, to set up a bronze casting facility at their premises in the late 1880s. Singer’s proceded to use the sand process for larger bronzes and lost wax for small-scale works. Their customers included Alfred Drury and William Hamo Thornycroft, sculptors of a younger generation.
Fig.7. A.B. Burton and Sir Thomas Brock, 1921, with foundry staff in front of Brock's equestrian Edward VII statue, photograph by foundry foreman, Frederick Braddock (National Portrait Gallery).
On his return to England in 1884 or 1885, after working in Rome for several years, Alfred Gilbert began casting much of his own work, using the lost wax process. As he told the art critic M.H. Spielmann in 1885, ‘I have been away from my studio… working in my foundry on experiments in the “Cera Perduta” system of casting, and I have been entirely taken up by them and so thoroughly absorbed that I have been obliged to neglect everything else’ (Beatie 1983 p.184). Gilbert’s influence may have proved significant in encouraging the adoption of lost wax casting in Britain. The process was described in a student’s handbook in 1889 as having ‘recently been reintroduced into England: and now some large firms as well as enterprising sculptors, are adopting it for busts and smaller work.’ (E. Roscoe Mullins, A Primer of Sculpture, 1889, p.74).
The extraordinary labour involved in casting his own work led Gilbert to turn to commercial foundries. It would be interesting to know whether George Broad, with his background in gold and silver casting, was actually encouraged by Gilbert to establish a bronze casting foundry in Hammersmith in about 1890 but in any case, between then and 1897, Broad or his son cast much of Gilbert’s work and just a few pieces for other sculptors. After a parting of the ways with Broad's, Gilbert moved his business to the Italian-trained Alessandro Parlanti, who was expert in the lost wax process and operated a foundry in Fulham with his partner Gaetano Rovini, but disputes over payment soon led Parlanti to refuse further casting work.
Fig.8. Boadicea, bronze statue
by Thomas Thornycroft, cast 1897-1902 by J.W. Singer & Sons Ltd (Westminster Bridge, from Morris Singer Company trade catalogue).
Parlanti came from Rome in about 1890 with experience at the Fonderia Nelli, the leading Roman foundry, and his brother Ercole followed him. Parlanti is a figure of some importance, not only for his casting work for leading sculptors such as Alfred Gilbert, Alfred Drury and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, but also for his teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he came in contact with students who later used his foundry including Alfred Turner and Eric Gill. Subsequent arrivals from Italy included Frederico Mancini in the late 1890s, Giovanni Fiorini from Rome by 1909, Mario Manenti by 1911 and Giovanni Galizia from Sicily in 1912. The Italian influence remained strong for much of the 20th century with the Fiorini and Galizia families continuing foundry work in London and Mancini family members taking their skills to Cheltenham and Edinburgh and extending into work as sculptors’ moulders as well as bronze casting.
Fig.9. Morris Singer Company, title page to trade catalogue (detail), c.1937.
Following the First World War, several new foundries were established to take advantage of the expanding demand for bronze statues, driven by the erection of war memorials in almost every town and city. The Morris Art Bronze Foundry was set up in Lambeth in 1921 by William Morris & Co (Westminster) Ltd under the management of Leonard Grist, who had experience at J.W. Singer & Sons and probably also at Thames Ditton. It became a major player, especially after absorbing J.W. Singer & Sons Ltd’s foundry operation in 1927, to become the Morris Singer Company. The Art Bronze Foundry was established in Fulham in 1922, Corinthian Bronze in Peckham c.1925, when Grist broke away from Morris & Co, and John Galizia in Battersea in 1930.
But not all foundries prospered. Ercole Parlanti went bankrupt in 1927 and his premises and goodwill were acquired by the Crittall Manufacturing Co, whose chairman described the Parlanti business as ‘long recognised as the leading casters of statuary bronze in Great Britain’ but who then proceeded to use the foundry to produce window casements.
Since the Second World War, there have been many changes in bronze founding. With the demise of A.B. Burton’s Thames Ditton foundry in 1939, the Morris Singer foundry became the undisputed dominant force in the industry, especially for large-scale sculpture. There have been a number of medium sized businesses: the Art Bronze Foundry in Fulham, a family business which became a significant player in the 1950s and is now run by the third generation, John Galizia, later John Galizia & Son Ltd, until the early 1980s, the Fiorini Art Bronze Foundry, later Fiorini & Carney, in Hammersmith from 1951 to this day, the Burleighfield foundry, opening near High Wycombe in 1977 and continuing into the 1990s and Meridian Bronze Co in Peckham from the 1970s to the 1990s (these last two were eventually subsumed into what became Morris Singer Art Founders in 2005).
There have also been many smaller foundries. These include Corinthian Bronze Co Ltd in Peckham, most active in the 1950s and 1960s, Livingstone Art Moulders in Kent, later Livingstone Art Founders, in business by the late 1970s, A & A Sculpture Casting Ltd (now AB Fine Foundry Ltd) in the East End of London launched in about 1978, the Bronze Foundry (later the Mike Davis Foundry) in Milton Keynes in 1979, Nautilus Art Foundry in southeast London in the 1990s (this foundry eventually became part of Morris Singer Art Founders), the Arch Bronze Foundry in Putney by 1987 and Bronze Age Sculpture Casting Foundry (now Bronze Age Art Foundry Ltd) in Docklands in 1989.
Bronze founders have never enjoyed the security of some industries. Startup costs, at least for small-scale businesses, were relatively low. There was considerable competition to obtain commissions. And experienced staff might be poached by a rival foundry or could use their knowledge to set up in business independently. The Burleighfield foundry, established in 1977, depended on three experienced and senior bronze founders, led by Eric Gibbard, who left Morris Singer, much to the surprise of one regular Morris Singer customer, the sculptor Kenneth Armitage, who nevertheless took some of his business to the new foundry.
Many founders learnt their craft through an apprenticeship or on the job. But there was a continuing tradition of teaching in art colleges. Bernard Meadows set up a foundry at the Royal College of Art, where he was Professor of Sculpture from 1960. The Royal College provided teaching to students such as Gabrielle Brisbane, who went on to start the Arch Bronze Foundry in partnership in about 1987. Henry Abercrombie taught bronze casting at the Central School of Art, leading former pupils and fellow teachers such as Barry Flanagan to use his foundry, A & A Sculpture Casting Ltd. George Mancini taught at Edinburgh College of Art and helped the sculptor Gerald Laing establish his own foundry.
Bronze founding has become an increasingly international business. As early as the 1870s, the sculptor, Joseph Edgar Boehm, was complaining that he was obliged to travel to Paris, Berlin or Vienna to get small-scale works cast in bronze to his satisfaction (Building News, vol.28, 1875, p.711). Alfred Gilbert had experience of continental foundries in Brussels, Naples and Rome. The Fonderie Nationale des Bronzes, a Brussels company, was represented in London in the years before and after the First World War. Nevertheless, British sculptors continued to have most of their work cast in Britain. It was only in the 1950s, with the scale and ambition of artists like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, that some sculptors began looking abroad.
Henry Moore used several London foundries, including Galizia, Fiorini & Carney and the Art Bronze Foundry. However he ran into difficulties over large pieces, as he explained in 1951, ‘The large sculpture [Family Group] was finished in 1949 and cast for Stevenage at a small bronze foundry here in England [apparently Fiorini & Carney]. The group was really too big for them to handle and they had lots of difficulties, in fact they took a whole year to do it, with a great deal of worry over it to me. That is why we are having the other casts made by Rudier in Paris.’ (Letter to Dorothy Miller, 31 January 1951, see Alan Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, 2002, p.274). Subsequently, Moore went to Susse Frères in Paris and, for some of his largest and most challenging pieces, to Hermann Noack in Berlin.
Quite apart from the process whereby sculptors might send their work abroad, the ownership of leading foundries has become more international. Morris Singer merged with the leading Paris founder, Susse Fondeur, in 1973, a merger that was not sustained. Susse Fondeur then for a time became part of a holding company,Polestar Ltd, which also owned Burleighfield, while from 1990 until 1992, for less than two years, Morris Singer traded as Tallix Morris Singer Ltd, as part of Bullers plc, ‘the fine art and sculpture foundry group’, which included premises in Basingstoke, Beacon NY, Birmingham and Toronto. Such experiments have not worked because foundries need to offer a one-off service to individual artists and clients in a business where international connections do not bring advantages of scale.
More recently, perhaps as a result of a decline in demand, there has been consolidation within the ranks of specialist bronze sculpture founders, often in the wake of financial problems. Conspicuously, Morris Singer was put into receivership in 1993 and met with subsequent difficulties. It moved to Lasham in Hampshire in 1999 and then in 2005 the Morris Singer name was acquired by Art Founders Ltd, which became Morris Singer Art Founders Ltd, based at Nautilus Art Foundry’s premises at Braintree in Essex. A successor business trades as MJorris Singer Art Foundry Ltd, so continuing an operation with its roots in the 19th century.
More details of the individual bronze founders discussed in this account can be found in the online resource, British bronze sculpture founders and plaster figure makers.
revised February 2017
Where an individual maker is referred to in the above text, the information is sourced in the online resource, British bronze sculpture founders and plaster figure makers, 1800-1980. For abbreviations, see Resources and bibliography.
Other references, by section, are as follows. Section 1: M.G. Sullivan, 'Brass sculpture and the ideology of bronze in Britain 1660-1851', Sculpture Journal, vol.14, 2005, pp.30-40; Malcolm Baker, 'Making and Viewing Bronze Sculpture', Figured in Marble: The Making and Viewing of Eighteenth-Sculpture, 2000, pp. 85-93. Section 2: Charles Avery and Madeleine Marsh, 'The Bronze Statuettes of the Art Union of London: The Rise and Decline of Victorian Taste in Sculpture', Apollo, vol.121, 1985, pp.328-37. Section 3: W.C. Aitken, The Early History of Brass and the Brass Manufactures of Birmingham, 1866, p.159 (accessed through Google Book Search).