Phil Kemp talks to one of our local blacksmiths at his forge in Forest Green
The ancient art of transforming hard metal into practical, tactile and beautiful objects has its origins through the far distant mists of time. And indeed this almost mysterious art has remained largely unchanged over many hundreds of years – almost as though in blatant rebellion against the tireless march of technological advancement that has enveloped the modern world.
Tucked away in the picturesque Surrey Hills countryside is a forge that has for over thirty years crafted iron into all manner of amazing things, and all by hand proving that the blacksmith’s hammer will never rest regardless.
James Davies describes himself as an artist in iron, and there is no doubt that it is a perfect description. Working from his Forest Green Forge, adjacent to the village green and with The Parrot Inn close by, James wields his hammer with measured skill and boundless energy. All around him scattered across workbenches are the tools of his trade – with of course the forge at its heart, its flames roaring to the tune of the bellows pumping air to ensure the metal to be beaten glows almost white hot.
James’ story of how he came to be a blacksmith is fascinating, as much by its novelty as it is for his love of iron.
“Although I initially started working with iron when I left school, I actually spent my early years in the aircraft industry making precision panels for instruments in Harrier jump jets,” said James, with a smile on his face as he saw my surprised reaction. “Seems strange I know, but my experience there of having to work with materials accurate to thousandths of an inch taught me how to craft with amazing accuracy.”
His lucky break was being recruited by one of the country’s most celebrated blacksmiths who helped forge James’ future. “I joined the Richard Quinnell Forge in Leatherhead at a time when blacksmithing for art was really taking off. I was working alongside top-class artists doing ironwork, and was part of the industry at its peak when Richard launched the British Artist Blacksmith Association. The Association quickly raised the profile of ironwork art to the public.”
Forest Green Forge has a gallery where visitors can see examples of the enormous range of metal items they have created over the years. “I used to do a lot of interior design work like tables and chairs made from iron, the tables with glass tops,” said James as he showed me around the gallery, where he also has a bench covered in black albums each containing photos of work past and present. “However, the market has changed with people wanting minimalist things, empty rooms not being really artistic. I have got my own niche market now making special commissions, things that you just can’t buy off the shelf. Customers can pop-in and ask me to sketch the ideas they have so we can visualise what they want, or they bring their own sketches. And that’s where the albums also come into their own, stimulating ideas.”
The longer I was in the forge the more I appreciated just how skilled blacksmiths are with their ability not just at heating and shaping metal, but also in understanding how different metals will react in terms of colour and finish. “The craft of metal is so involved and is something you learn over many years. In my office I have got endless files with notes I have made of technology and technique. Metal is always trying to fight. Imagine shaping a piece of plasticine, how easy it is to shape. Take a piece of metal and it will always try to do the opposite of what you want. You have to learn how to beat it into shape; it’s like a battle really.”
James pointed out different objects in the gallery, and you could sense the pride he holds for his work. There are particular items he enjoys making. “I have made so many dragons over the years. They work so well in iron. But I also love making flowers out of metal,” he said pointing out some remarkably life-like metal blooms. “Those lilies look so delicate. And of course they are.”
I asked for a layman’s explanation on the process of taking a rod of iron through all of the stages needed before it ends up as a fragile-looking flower petal. “I can take a six metre long half-an-inch thick strip of metal and forge that into a three millimetre thin strip and shape it into a flower petal,” James explained. “I can get the forge fire up to temperatures around 800 degrees, obviously very hot and hot enough to make iron soft so it behaves a bit like cheese. I have a power hammer with 25 tonnes of pressure to do the initial work, and then do the final shaping using a hand-held hammer. The real skill is getting the metal to exactly the right temperature. Too hot and it will fizzle, spark and burn so that the piece is ruined. Too cold and it won’t be workable.”
The story of the forge buildings is as fascinating as that of what is hidden within its walls. “In 1996 there were only sheds here, all falling apart. I heard about an old 16th century brick-built barn that was threatened with demolition. I had it dismantled and shipped here literally in kit form to be erected as the forge buildings you see now. In 1996 it won the South of England Best Development Award.”
Surreally dominating the centre of the forge gallery is a large free-standing sculpture of an alien flying saucer, seemingly completely out of place until you take time to feel the smoothness of the intricate panel beating, admire the sculpting, and wonder at the subtle variations in colour of the copper patination. This work of art is perhaps the perfect advertisement for James Davies, Craftsman in Iron.
James Davies is at Forest Green Forge, Ewhurst Road, Forest Green, Dorking, Surrey, RH5 5SF
Tel: 01306 621 222