Metalwork - Bronze

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Its use in prehistoric days is outside the scope of this book and the most important examples that will concern readers are those made in Italy and elsewhere from the sixteenth century and onwards. The making of bronze articles and figures calls for great skill. Most were made by the 'cire-perdue' (lost wax) process, which can be described briefly as follows: the piece is modelled thinly in wax on a core of dry clay, the finished wax is then covered in a coat of clay. Holes are left so that molten metal can be poured in to take the place of the wax, which is melted and runs out. The outer clay coating is broken off, the inner core chipped away, and the article finished by hand to remove any roughness or imperfections. Thus, it can be seen that each single bronze has to be modelled individually and with care, and that each version of the same original is slightly different from the others. All old bronzes were made by this method, which is still in use. The making of bronzes by means of a number of removable and rc-usable small moulds, each of which leaves ridges on the article where it is joined, came into use in the nineteenth century. Traces of these ridges usually remain visible and their presence is taken generally as a certain sign of modern manufacture.

Among Italian modellers may be mentioned: Donatello, Andrea Briosco (called Riccio), Jacopo Tatti (called Sansovino) and the Flemish-born Giovanni di Bologna. German makers include the Vischer family, and the French sculptors Falconet and Clodion often had their work cast in bronze. The Frenchman Guillaume Coustou modelled the figures of rearing horses, known as the Marly Horses, about 1745. They were made in bronze, and in metals imitating bronze, in very large numbers in the nineteenth century. A number of good bronzes were made in England in the eighteenth century, but little is known yet about them.

Chinese and Japanese bronzes of great age and great size have been made for many hundreds of years. In addition to figures there are some fifteenth-century bells at Pekin weighing about fifty-five tons each and standing fourteen feet high. Chinese bronze altar-vessels of the Shang-Yin (1766-1122 B.C.) and Chou dynasties (1122-249 B.C.) are particularly fine and rare. Most have been buried for many centuries, and contact with earth has resulted in corrosion of the surface. Inevitably, these bronzes have been copied at later dates, but the true patina (ageing of the surface) presents a very difficult problem to the faker and it is one that is seldom solved with success.

Mention must be made of the very many fine bronze figures made in India and Siam (Thailand) in the sixteenth century A.D. and earlier. Some of the latter are gilt, and most are remarkably beautiful. The finer examples remain in the East or are in Western museums, but a few appear on the market from time to time. Reasonably good examples can sometimes be bought quite cheaply.

In west Africa, the skilful bronze and brass workers of the kingdom of Benin perhaps learned their craft from the Portuguese, with whom they had traded from the late fifteenth century. Their work is highly individual and much is very beautiful, but it is scarce and good specimens are obtainable only rarely. Examples were brought to Europe by a British punitive expedition which captured Benin city in 1897, and there are fine collections from this source at the British Museum, the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, Dorset, the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, and in the possession of the Government of Nigeria.

Collectable Antiques: