The Bronze Foundries

Introduction

Beneath the railway viaduct between Consort Road and Brayards Road is a row of about twenty arches. For over seventy years they were the location of two leading British foundries casting large scale bronzes, many of which can be seen today on the streets of London and further afield. Dr Salter’s Daydream by Diane Gorvin, stolen from Bermondsey Wall in 2011, was cast locally in one of these foundries.

There are two basic methods of casting a bronze: the ancient process of lost-wax casting using wax models, and sand casting using moulds made of compact, fine sand held together by a binder. The wax process is used for the fine detail of small-scale works and sand for larger bronzes. Over 70% of all metal castings today are produced via a sand casting process. In 1848 John Webb Singer of Frome, Somerset, cast his first brass altar candlesticks using turnips as moulds.

Corinthian Bronze

Franta Belsky – Shell Fountain, 1961 (Shell Centre, South Bank)

The First World War was followed by increasing demand for bronze statues, driven by the erection of war memorials in almost every town and city in the country. Several new foundries were established to take advantage of this. One of these was the Morris Art Bronze Foundry set up in Lambeth in 1921 under the management of Leonard Grist (1879-1964) with financial backing from William Morris & Co (Westminster) Ltd, manufacturers of ornamental metalwork and stained glass. Leonard Grist was born in Frome and had gained his experience as a moulder at J.W. Singer & Sons of turnip fame. (The movement of people and companies becomes quite confusing: in 1927 the Morris foundry acquired J.W. Singer & Sons and rename the firm the Morris Singer Company.)

In 1925 Leonard Grist left Morris and founded Corinthian Bronze Foundry in one of the northern arches at 39A Albert Road, Peckham. (Albert Road was renamed Consort Road in 1938.) The company specialised in sand casting architectural bronzework. ‘Corinthian bronze’, in classical antiquity, was a very valuable alloy of copper with gold or silver. The Corinthian Bronze works remained at this address until 1972.

After the Second World War Corinthian went into voluntary liquidation but the company was reformed and continued to trade until the early 1970s. Leonard Grist may have ceased to run it at this time. The 1950s and 1960s in fact saw its most active period as ‘art bronze founders’. The art historian Duncan James, who visited in about 1970 as part of his series of visits to bronze foundries, described the business then as using traditional sand moulding techniques. The manager was Stanley Knee, who had been an apprentice at Singer’s.

Corinthian Bronze was finally wound up in 1972.

Meridian Bronze

The Meridian foundry was established in Greenwich (hence the name) by Jack and Megan Crofton in 1966. Jack Crofton (1940-2013) was born in Limerick. He became an apprentice coppersmith in the Newport dockyard, South Wales, before studying sculpture at Newport School of Art where he met Megan, a fellow student. They moved to London, where he worked at the Morris Singer Foundry and also at Galizia, the Battersea foundry specialising in the lost wax process. Jack took on other highly skilled workers as his foundry grew in size and reputation. In 1969 Meridian moved to Arch 837 adjacent to the Corinthian Foundry in Consort Road, Peckham.

Railway arches between Consort Road and Brayards Road

Duncan James visited Meridian just after the move. Jack Crofton was heading the foundry team with Bill Payne, an expert metal worker, responsible for the chasing shop. At that point they were still using the lost wax technique but had plans to extend into sand casting for the production of very large bronzes. By 1971, following Corinthian’s closure, Meridian had taken over the neighbouring arch and the larger premises made this possible.

Visitors to the site in its heyday would have seen a tall green cylinder standing on legs half-way down the row of arches. This was the sand-hopper; the specially treated casting sand was delivered to it by railway wagons. The foundations are still visible. The sand from the hopper went into the large moulds in Arch 842. At the back of this on Thursdays the bronze ingots were melted in the electrically-powered crucible reaching a temperature of 1200° Celsius. The molten bronze was poured into the moulds in scenes reminiscent of Dante’s inferno. The bronze pieces were chipped from their moulds, reassembled and ‘chased’ in the adjoining Arch 841. Here they were finished, patinated and polished. Smaller and more delicate fine art sculptures went through a rather different lost wax process in Arch 837, the old Corinthian works. In 2015 this arch still had its mezzanine floor. At the front on the ground floor level were the rubber mould makers and at the back the wax workers and the ‘kiln’. On the top of the stairs past the notorious ‘unpickable’ half-crown on the floor (it was welded to the top of a 6” nail!) were the offices where Megan ruled, and behind them the ‘chasing’ shop where small figures were finished, coloured and polished. At lunchtime thirsty groups of workers were to be found in either in the Star of India or Goldiggers’ Arms on Brayards Road.

Jonathan Kenworthy – The Lioness and Lesser Kudu, 1998 (Grosvenor Gardens, Victoria)

One of Meridian’s last large-scale works is the thirty foot sculpture by Jonathan Kenworthy, Lioness and a Lesser Kudu, a commission for the Duke of Westminster. It was initially carved out of blocks of polystyrene, and was cast in 1998. The first casting was for the lake at Eaton Hall, Cheshire and the second is in Upper Grosvenor Gardens in London.

In 1998, Meridian’s directors were bought out by Morris Singer but the Croftons remained as managers for a short while. The business was renamed M.S. Meridian Foundry to reflect Morris Singer’s ownership. The exact date of closure is uncertain but by 2001 bronze casting in Peckham had ceased.

The tradition of metal-working under the Consort Road arches has continued however: Bronzewood Construction, Sheet Metal Fabricator, now occupies four of them.

Where can you see ‘Peckham bronzes’?

Corinthian (active 1927-1972)
Sculptors whose work they cast include: Michael Ayrton, Elizabeth Frink, Maurice Lambert, Henry Moore and Charles Wheeler. The foundry’s output is not well documented, especially for the period before 1950.

  • David Evans – John Galsworthy (1929, cast 1961) (bust in National Portrait Gallery)
  • Franta Belsky – Shell Fountain, 1961 (Shell Centre, South Bank)
  • B. Huxley-Jones’s Joy of Life Fountain, 1963 (Hyde Park)

Meridian (active 1969-c2000)
Sculptors whose work they cast include: Ivor Robert-Jones (from 1966), Franta Belsky (from at least 1969), James Butler (from 1973), Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, John Skeaping, Anthony Caro and Antony Gormley.

Bronze bust or head in National Portrait Gallery – spot the mark:

  • William Pye – Douglas Hurd (1996)
  • Ivor Robert-Jones – Sir Nicholas Goodison (1990, cast 1992); George Thomas, Viscount Tonypandy (1982)
  • Franta Belsky – Queen Elizabeth II (1981); Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1979); Prince Andrew, Duke of York (1984)

‘Street monuments’. Here is just a selection of the bronzes on public view in the City of London and Southwark. Many will be familiar – and now you know they were ‘made in Peckham’.

  • Elizabeth Frink – Paternoster, 1975 (Paternoster Square)
  • James Butler – Field Marshall Alexander, statue, 1985 (Wellington Barracks); John Wilkes, 1988 (Fetter Lane)
  • John Mills – Blitz: The National Firefighters’ Memorial, 1990-1 (Sermon Lane, City of London)
  • Michael Ayrton – Icarus III, 1960-2, cast later (Old Change Court)
  • Ivan Klapez – Unity, 1992 (Alban Gate, London Wall)
  • John Ravera – Dolphin Fountain, 1987 (Barbican); In Town, 1982-3 (Battersea Bridge Road, SW11)
  • Jonathan Kenworthy – The Lioness and lesser Kudu, 1998 (Grosvenor Gardens, Victoria); The Leopard, 1985 (Cannon Street)
  • Ivor Robert-Jones – Sir Winston Churchill, statue, 1973-4 (Parliament Square)
  • Franta Belsky – Earl Mountbatten of Burma, statue, 1983 (off Horse Guards Parade)
  • Peter McLean – Sunbeam Weekly and the Pilgrim’s Pocket, 1991 (Rotherhithe, Cumberland Wharf)
  • Brian Yale – Great Oaks From Little Acorns Grow, 1987 (Southwark, Gatehouse Square)

And there is one in Peckham!

  • Elisabeth Frink – Eagle on a pedestal (1965). Commissioned by the LCC this stands outside Newlands Academy (originally Bredinghurst Special School)

Sources

www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/15/jack-crofton-obituary
www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/british-bronze-founders-and-plaster-figure-makers-1800-1980-1/british-bronze-founders-and-plaster-figure-makers-1800-1980-c.php
www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/british-bronze-founders-and-plaster-figure-makers-1800-1980-1/british-bronze-founders-and-plaster-figure-makers-1800-1980-m.php
http://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/organization.php?id=msib1_1239047092

Christine and Giles Camplin

Reprinted from Peckham Society News, Issue 140 (Summer 2015)