Why Red?

This month marks the final unveiling of the Ironbridge, shawled in scaffolding and protective plastic sheeting for over a year whilst restoration work took place.

The work was needed to secure the structure. After 240 years of elemental, environmental and physical wear and tear, a 19th century earthquake, earth movements and strains and stresses from the original construction, it was much needed. £3.6 million funding came from English Heritage itself, a crowd-funding campaign and an incredibly generous 1 million Euro donation from the Hermann Reemtsma Foundation in Germany, its first outside northern Germany, wishing to honour our cultural links and the engineering prowess of the Ironbridge.

Beginning the work raised two problems, both visual, one during the work and one after. I’d like to take a look at both of them in my capacity of an ex-curator, without access to the innermost workings of the decision making process that attended the choice of red. I have no horse in the race, as it were, so I hope I can present some thoughts and evidence that is untainted by association.

As one of England’s most famous manmade landmarks went under wraps, I could almost feel the collective sighs of despair from various holiday makers who had decided that this would be the year that they finally made the pilgrimage to Shropshire to view it. It didn’t look any prettier to the locals and I think that English Heritage missed a trick by not printing a facsimile of the bridge on the outer wrapping or perhaps an appropriate quote? Even a coy ‘Excuse us whilst we’re changing’ might have taken away a little of the sting. Or a big red bow at Christmas?

Sensibly, after the most intensive stabilising work had been done, a walkway was built that allowed people to walk alongside the bridge and peep through at the structure. This allowed for a different perspective on the bridge, perhaps one not visible since the original building work. Pieces of metal that look so weightless from the ground are far mightier at close quarters.

Nevertheless, these days it’s hard to perceive what made the Ironbridge so very special when it first opened. We have seen a great many much larger structures in the 20th and 21st centuries, all of which can trace their initial inspiration from this bridge. Sure, it’s in a pretty fabulous setting and it’s an attractive bridge, but why the fuss?

It’s a matter of perspective. If all you had ever known were thick, squat stone bridges, then the gleefully vaulting arch of the Ironbridge must have been spell-bindingly light and airy. Positioned at the most dramatic pinch point in the Severn Gorge and placed so that it made a perfect ‘O’ when reflected in the water, Abraham Derby III knew how to create a spectacle.

The packhorse bridge at Clun – beautiful but squat…

Check out Shropshire and Beyond’s fabulous work at: https://www.shropshireandbeyond.com/

Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, a local architect whose beautiful fireplaces still in situ at Benthall and Broseley Halls, had written to John Wilkinson, a local ironmaster to suggest a bridge in 1773. In 1775, Wilkinson and a group of local business commissioned Abraham Darby to create the parts and build it. It was to be a daring flourish of modern ingenuity and quite unlike anything that had gone before.

Early Pritchard designs for the bridge

Part of the trouble with establishing bridges on the Severn was the amount of traffic plying its trade from Llanidloes out through Bristol to the wider world. As the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust (IGMT) writes:  

“In 1758, 400 vessels were trading between Gloucester and Welshpool, and within fifty years this number had doubled. By the 1750s, six or more ferry crossings operated in as many miles. They were essential for transporting raw materials across the river to the ironworks and other industries in the valley.”

IGMT: https://www.ironbridge.org.uk/explore/the-iron-bridge-tollhouse/

Shipping at Bridgnorth

There were a fair few miles between the medieval bridges at Bridgnorth and Buildwas. Owing to the nature of the valley, the narrow river had irregular shallow and deep beds so it would dry up in the summer and run too swiftly in the winter to be usefully navigable. Trade and industry could and would not wait for a solution and so the Ironbridge was necessary to aid the flow of raw and finished materials, as well as people, to either side of this incredibly busy valley. It had to be tall enough to allow for large boats to pass underneath, strong enough to carry heavy traffic and withstand the vagaries of the Severn and yet beautiful enough to inspire awe and desire in the new wonder material, cast iron.

The second problem that the modern restoration work engendered was the eventual colour of the bridge. For some considerable time it had been painted a washed out blue/grey colour that seemed to aid its disappearance into the regular Severn valley fogs. When it was announced that this might change, that the bridge was to be painted red, there was a local and national consternation.

Blue Ironbridge

Why red?

You can be sure that no change of this magnitude is taken lightly. No one in the English Heritage offices flipped a coin or asked their mum to choose her favourite colour. Deep research was conducted upon the physical structure of the bridge itself (known as paint sampling) and the archives surrounding it.

Paint sampling is as forensic as modern conservation gets. With this method, you can literally take a slice of several centuries’ worth of evidence and reveal them, layer by layer. A specialist will take a scalpel to a surface less worn than others: the underside of a ledge, the join between two edges where paint will accumulate and it will be less likely to be buffed away in subsequent repainting schemes, and carve off a small sample. Several samples will be taken and each site carefully recorded. These are then taken back to the lab, set in resin and highly polished so that the stratigraphy – the chronological layers – are exposed. They are observed under a microscope designed for use with reflected light.

Some colours are easily spotted. For example, without contextual knowledge, you might expect this wall to have been white for years to begin with, until perhaps a later painter changed their mind. With contextual knowledge you will know that painted surfaces will need several different layers of priming – with different approaches for different centuries – before the true colour was laid down.

Tests may be employed with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to determine the elemental composition of the sample. All paints are composed of pigments that have different responses to the test carried out on them, given their make-up of different minerals. The presence of some particular colours are a dead give-away. Titanium white, a very bright white, was discovered and mass produced in America in 1921. Any titanium white spotted in a paint sample will date that layer conclusively.

Paint sample from an 18thC theatre wall – so many layers, so many paint schemes!

Those experts observing the samples will also know that pigments age over time and break down, causing colour changes. This is perhaps why some original Georgian interiors look wan and pale where they might once have looked more ‘punchy’. The sun’s rays can do a great deal of damage over several centuries.

Tastes change too. We have a strong residual belief that the Georgians in particular lived in a world of tastefully drab colours with hints of pastel. In actual fact, the Georgian era (particularly the Regency period) used scientific advances to colour their world wildly. Prussian Blue was discovered in 1724, Louis Nicolas Vauquelin in 1797 discovered Chrome Orange from the mineral crocoite and Cobalt Green was discovered by Rinmann in 1780.

Chrome orange – wow!

All of these discoveries made their way into the worlds of interior decor, fashion and food, sometimes dangerously (see my previous blog on this subject: Caveat Emptor). It’s only time and distance that has dulled these colours. Take a look at the fabulously re-worked Attingham Park for a splash of true 19th century glam.

Attingham Park’s Octagon Room – check out those glimpses of wild carpet. No pastels here please!

Paint would have been considered a necessary overcoat to the original iron structure to protect it from the elements. Paint was impervious as long as the surface was unbroken and would help to lengthen the life of the structure. Jacobean paint effects have been found on early ironwork that, due to its (perhaps linseed?) oil base, has lasted centuries.

Woodwork and walls were widely painted for the same reasons: protection, length of life and decoration. For large areas, such as barn doors or cottage walls and ceilings, it had to be cheap. So you might find mixes of milk, lime and local pigments, crushed and mixed together to create an inexpensive wash.

Red iron oxide

In Shropshire, and particularly in the Gorge, there was plenty of red iron oxide in the very sandstone underfoot (but also, ironically in rust) which would have done the job nicely. In other cultures, ochre (variations of which are red iron oxide) has been used to paint walls going back tens of thousands of years.

Cave paintings with ochre

Finally, upon opening the bridge to traffic in 1781, Darby created something of a modern marketing campaign.  Pictures, prints and drawings of it from numerous angles, some more realistic than others, were commissioned or encouraged. Everyone came to see and marvel at the new Ironbridge.  An early painting by William Williams was revealed that showed the bridge rusty red in colour, something that chimed in entirely with the physical evidence uncovered by the scientists.

William Williams, 1727-91

Moreover, if you’re making such a bold statement of modernity, strength and ingenuity, what better colour than red? It would make a statement, stand out in its surroundings and, handily, hide any creeping rust discolouration for years to come.

To us modern-day on-lookers, the rust-red has a sympathy with the very earth around it. Buildwas power station’s chimneys, just a mile or so up river, were coloured earthy red for a similar reason.

Now that the new red paint on the bridge has been revealed, it’s obvious that the right choice was made. It looks handsome, smart and fresh – as it was when it was first constructed as a wonder of the Modern Age.

Look at the sympathy between the ironbridge and the bricks of the buildings beyond – beautiful!

Picture credit: English Heritage

I’m aware that the colour has its detractors. I’ve looked to find the sources of their upset, other than change, and haven’t found any so if anyone would like to send me their reasons, I’d be very happy to consider them and try them on for size.

In the meantime, take a look at the bridge and see what you think. I’d be interested to hear your views!

Edit: There’s been some lively discussion about the colour, which I’ve enjoyed. I’d like to catch up on the comments that made points that I wish I’d included previously.

Tim Abbiss made the point that the foundry industry still uses red iron oxide to this day. Apparently in industrial use, it prevents nitrogen entering the iron and prevents gas defect and unsoundness in the material structure. The current paint colour is an industrial heritage link to the past.

Gareth Reed made the point that red lead primer is always the first coat on large metal exterior structures particularly, no matter what colour comes next.

Will Cornaby noted that the William Williams painting of the red Ironbridge had black railings. This underlined the wider point for me that archival evidence is rarely conclusive and has to be taken together with as much other evidence as you can find in order to come to a balanced conclusion, based on contextual knowledge as much as physical facts.

Ian Harper reminded me of the fact that most castles were once painted white, not the hulking grey that we now know them to be. Changes take time to percolate into our minds and our perceptions.

Thanks to everyone for joining in the discussion!