Art Metalware  (Brass and Copper)
of Wolverhampton and Bilston
by Frank Sharman

"Art Metalware" is not a precisely defined term. It is used to here to cover those items, usually items of domestic utility, which were made from more expensive materials and made to more elaborate designs than similar purely utilitarian items. Thus, a perfectly functional water jug can be made out of tinplate and any bowl or cylinder shape with any sort of handle will do; the surface of the tinplate does not need to be ornamented. But a water jug would aspire to being "art metalware" if, for example, it were made out of copper, the shape was governed by some sort of conscious effort at design and the surface of the copper were decorated in some way. The definition is imprecise and there is plenty of room for dispute over classification. Such a dispute will not usually be helpful or productive. On this site the boundaries of the classification are determined as much by convenience as anything else. But mostly we are talking about the domestic items made in copper and brass for which the manufacturers claimed some sort of superiority over the ordinary.

Copper is a naturally occurring metal. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. They are the typical materials of art metalware. But it should be noted that items in a manufacturer's art metalware range could also be offered in nickel silver. Nickel silver is an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel (or, what amounts to the same thing, and alloy of brass and nickel). This alloy is silvery in appearance and can be used as a cheap substitute for silver. In this use it was often called German Silver.

Copper, brass and nickel silver can also be used as a substrate for other finishes. Copper, for example, is the substrate on which decorative enamels were made. Copper could be nickel plated. Nickel Silver is often used as a substrate for electro-plating, producing EPNS, electro-plated nickel silver.

Items of art metalware made from copper and brass might be treated with different finishes. In many cases this is simply a clear lacquer of some sort, intended to produce a more lasting shine. But is can also be a finish which changes the appearance of the material. This is the case in, for example, the items described by Beldray as "bronzed". The finish might also affect the appearance in another way, for example by giving it a matt finish, as is the case with some Beldray items.

In the absence of detailed chemical analysis (and sometimes not even with it) it may not be possible to tell what the original finish of an article was. Repeated polishing will remove many finishes and the use of a polishing wheel and abrasives can quickly strip off an original finish. The bare copper or brass on an item we see today may not have started out like that.

The most common ornamentation of art metalware pieces was decorating the copper or brass sheet by engraving, embossing, pressing or stamping patterns in to it. The pattern might be an overall one or applied only to part of the item. Each manufacturer might have their own range of patterns but Sankeys, at least, produced embossed sheets of copper and brass which they sold on to other makers.

Copper and brass have both been used since early times to make many items. But their use did not become widespread, particularly in domestic wares, until the later part of the 19th century. Several trends came together to produce art metalware. In the first place a market was provided by the great increase in the population and the great increase in the number of houses being built. More and more people were setting up home and wanting domestic items. As a large middle class arose, so there was an increased demand for domestic items of what was perceived to be a higher standard. Gold and silver might have been used for many such items in the houses of the richest, but they were beyond the aspirations of most and even the rchhest would hesitate before using gold and silver items for everyday use. Brass and copper wares came between wares of precious metals on the one hand and articles of tinplate on the other. It was perhaps for this reason that copper and brass became favoured materials of the design dilettantes of the second half of the nineteenth century. Their acceptability would have been made greater by the trend which looked back to some sort of golden age of the past, in which there were copper and brass pans in the castle kitchens and brassware of all sorts adorning the churches. Your house might well have reflected this yearning for the medieval, for example in the Arts and Crafts style with its references to half timbering, its inglenooks and galleries. Brass and copper articles looked well there.

If increasing wealth and changing taste provided the basis for a market, industrialists would not be slow to exploit that market. Indeed, some of them would need to for their very survival. Many Wolverhampton companies specialised in japanning. There were many such companies and some of them were very big. But the market for japanned goods fell off as the century progressed. This affected all ends of the market but particularly the high value, highly decorated, artistic end of the market. Manufacturers had to find something else to do. Although a good deal of japanning was done on papier mache, the greatest volume was done on tin plate. So the japanning firms were, mostly, also metal working firms and a move to include copper and brass in the metals they worked came easily enough. Henry Loveridge & Co were, for example, producing, at the time of their 1869 catalogue, japanned wares on papier mache and tin plate; wares which included cast iron; and wares which included copper. It seems that by the turn of the century they were still japanning things but producing far less than they once did and little, or may be nothing, at the most elaborate end of the market. But they were producing a lot of copper and brass items, some of them still incorporating cast iron stands. It seems that many other firms started to include more copper and brass items in their production.  Sometime at the end of the nineteenth century plain tin plate wares became less popular and the trade fell off considerably, except for everyday items.  The challenge seems to have come from enameled tin plate and Orme Evans may not have been the only company to turn over their domestic ware production from tin plate to enameled ware.  

The taste for copper and brass items continued well into the twentieth century. To some extent it continues today and there are still many companies, especially overseas, turning out mainly decorative items of brass and copper, whether sheet or cast. Whilst the home demand for art metalware continued, supported by a continuing enthusiasm for a cottagey life style, it clearly fell away considerably after the First World War. EPNS and even chromium plate became more popular and plastics started to take over for many utilitarian items. The trade certainly fell away. Loveridge went out of business in 1927. Beldray changed their range and were probably selling increasingly not to the domestic market but to hotels, pubs and clubs. They continued in copper and brass ware until the Second World War put a stop to it and the company changed its core business almost completely. Sankey seem to have given up their art metalware in the late 1920s as demand fell and the domestic side of their large business was squeezed out by other burgeoning productions for industry.

Little is known about the design of art metalware in its heyday. Certainly brass and copperware were the favourites of the hand craft workers who followed the dogmas of Morris, Ruskin and others. The Bilston and Wolverhampton makers represented exactly what the arts and crafts aficionados were inveighing against - factory, mass production. This is not the place to embark on a critique of those theories. Suffice it to say that they did not seem to have hurt or slowed down the Wolverhampton and Bilston industrialists. They were certainly not unaffected by the widespread discussion of the role of design and of the principles of good design which pre-occupied the second half of the nineteenth century. In fact industrial exhibitions had been held in Wolverhampton before the Great Exhibition of 1851 and continued to be held throughout the century. Even at the last of them, in 1902, the organisers were still talking about the exhibition as trying to meet the need to educate the taste of the working man. During that time too art and technical schools were set up in both Wolverhampton and Bilston and it must have been their pupils who were responsible for much of the industrial design of the area, including the design of the art metalware. Henry Loveridge himself is known to have taken a keen interest in the matter, chairing the board of the Wolverhampton Art School and speaking and writing on the subject himself. Local companies also engaged the services of consultant industrial designers, so far as that was possible. The Wolverhampton firm of Richard Perry Sons and Co. is known to have engaged Christopher Dresser and it is just possible that others did too. He, after all, was the design guru who espoused industrial production. But it is likely that what most affected designs were the materials and methods themselves: the easiest and cheapest way to produce a result. And the upshot of that was many pieces which appear functional, straightforward and not unlike the work of Christopher Dresser. It is also likely that anything which was successful in any market would some come to the attention of other producers and a copy or near copy could be made and marketed.

To judge by the surviving examples, the largest manufacturers of art metalware in Wolverhampton were Henry Loveridge & Co, and in Bilston, Joseph Sankey & Sons and Bradley & Co (Beldray) were probably producing even more. Other makers were Richard Perry Sons & Co and Jones Brothers & Co.  Brass and copper domestic wares have also been noted from Orme Evans; J. H. Butler; John Marston; and Henry Fearncombe.  Although some of the latter named companies were large manufacturers, it seems that their forays into art metalware were nowhere near as extensive as those of the first three.

It is very likely that other local firms also made items which could be included under the heading of art metalware. Certainly there were many known to have been large producers of articles in sheet metal and adding copper and brass to the output would have been easy for them. It should be borne in mind that many manufacturers did not put their mark on their products or not on all of them. Stamping the maker's name on the goods became more common in the last quarter of the nineteenth century but was never by any means universal.

Brass and copperware (and pewter) pieces are sometimes found marked "Pallisers" of Wolverhampton. Pallisers were bar fitters and it is not known that they had their own metal working factory. It is likely that these pieces were made for them by others.

One of the great market rivals to brass and copper was EPNS. It does not seem that Wolverhampton industrialists espoused this technique for domestic wares. Only one manufacturer has been noted so far, George Wildman.

There are two web sites which deal with all or some of these companies:  Vin Callcut's large and comprehensive site covers all aspects of domestic brass and copperware, including a lot of information about makers' marks. Greg Kolojeski's site, in the USA, which covers, amongst other things, the products of Beldray, Sankey and Loveridge.

The links below are to our pages about companies which made art metalware. These pages are about each company generally and information about their art metalware will be found within them. And there is also a page about Christopher Dresser and his influence on the design of Wolverhampton's art metalware.  For the moment you will have to use your back button to return to this page.

Henry Loveridge & Co

Joseph Sankey & Co

Bradley & Co (Beldray)

Richard Perry Son and Co

Jones Brothers

J. H. Butler Ltd

Orme Evans & Co

James Fellows & Son

John Marston

Henry Fearncombe

Christopher Dresser in Wolverhampton

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