October 2018 - Building a legend
In the 17th-century the Wrexham area was to become synonymous with the early Industrial Revolution. Iron-working developed significantly from 1634, as the blast furnace at Ruabon supplied local smiths with pig iron, and with lengths of bar and sheet iron. Brothers Robert and John Davies, smiths at Croes Foel Forge in Bersham, were to become internationally respected for their design and craftsmanship, including some of their finest work at Chirk Castle.
Poorly-educated by the standards of the present day, but with an inherited passion for iron-working, highly-prized examples of the work of the Davies brothers (as well as some items attributed to their talented father) survive in country homes and churchyards around the English-Welsh border, and many more are attributed to them.
We know that they designed the gates at Chirk Castle, Wrexham, Ruthin and Oswestry churches, the white gates at Leeswood Hall, the gates at Emral Hall (now at St Mary’s Church, Eccleston) the Golden Gates at Eaton Hall, the gates now at Cholmondeley Hall and at Hawkstone Hall and the gates which once graced Erddig Hall, but which were removed by William Emes’ remodelling of their parkland.
It is their magnificent work on Chirk Castle Gates with which we are here concerned, and we are fortunate that the Myddelton Account Book offers some documentary details from the days of construction.
In 1712, Robert Davies, already a renowned smith, was commissioned by Sir Richard Myddelton of Chirk Castle to design and build a set of entrance gates for the castle. We assume that Davies, whilst working for Myddelton at his London home, was influenced by the French master iron-worker Tijon, whose work, especially at Hampton Court, was regarded as the finest in the world. He would have been made aware of the new styles and techniques which this master had introduced, and he may even have had access to Tijon’s pattern book, which was published in 1693.
The gates at Chirk Castle would eventually be regarded Davies’ masterpiece, and would be compared with the very best of Tijon’s work!
The design of the gates comprised, ‘intricate cast and wrought ironwork, massive openwork piers, twin carriage gates with side panels and rich heraldic overthrow containing the Myddelton arms.’
Most of the work was probably completed by April 1714, by which time Robert Davies personally oversaw operations for about two-thirds of the time, and his brother John for the rest: sharing the work would have allowed them to work on other projects simultaneously.
In February 1714, we find a reference of payment made to Robert Wynn, ‘for a model ye shape of a bird, one shilling and sixpence.’ This was probably made for the birds which are on the overthrow of the gates. Next month, ‘Lamb black and linseed oil’ were provided and applied to the gates.
Sir Richard died in April 1716, by which time the gates themselves seem to have been very much completed. Unfortiunately his heir, Sir William, also died very shortly afterwards, leaving no direct successor, and bringing the Myddelton baronetcy to an end. As the ‘Red Hand of Ulster’, indicating the baronetcy, is included on the overthrow of the gate, it is evident that the gates, as we know them, were completed prior to his death.
In 1718, the talented Robert Myddelton (a cousin of the immediate family) inherited the Chirk estates. A classical scholar with a keen interest in the visual arts and world literature, he projected the idea of extending the frontage of the castle with a complete forecourt, fronted with Davies’ wrought-iron gates, and further ornamented with giant classical statues.
The Myddelton Accounts tell us that in July 1719, ‘Robert Davies, smith (was paid) in full of what work he and his brother did at the iron gates from 14th October 1717 to 21st December following, ten pounds and sixteen shillings.’ This appears to be payment for Davies’ visit to Tern Forge, near Shrewsbury, ‘for plate iron for ye Gates’. At the same time, Thomas Carden, the hammerman at Pont y Blew Forge, Chirk, was busy drawing, ‘four hundredweight of plate iron for ye Gates’.
That the changes involved the forecourt is shown in a reference of May 15th 1719, when a payment to John Edwards is made, ‘for cutting 2400 clods to cover ye plan in ye court by ye Gates’.
John Parry, the carpenter was paid for, ‘…work done at the top of the castle… and putting up and taking down of the engine to raise the wolves and urns at the iron gates – two pounds three shillings and sixpence’.
Jack Sadler was paid two shillings and sixpence for, ‘a book of leaf gold to gild letters on the iron gates’ and John Edwards, mason, received, ‘two pounds and five shillings,’ for the, ‘setting up of … Urns upon the stone pillars by the iron gates’.
Ongoing work saw further ornamentation, and by 1720, the statues of ‘Hercules’ and ‘Mars’ appeared on site: ‘three pounds one shilling and sixpence,’ had been paid, ‘for the freight of the two leaden statues from London to Chester, and likewise towards the carriage of them from thence to the castle’.
Sixteen months later, the castle frontage was nearing completion, and John Edwards and Edward Lloyd, masons, were paid, ‘six pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence,’ for, ‘getting and working the pedestals and setting them up under the leaden figures in the Outer Court’.
The whole enlarged original scheme, with, ‘flanking pedestrian gates and screen railings with roll-moulded copings, and outer stone piers with acorn finials,’ was completed in 1721, forming a dazzling forecourt screen to the entrance of the castle, although the fashion for forecourt gates was now being outmoded by new, landscaping ideas.
Badeslade’s wonderfully detailed engraving of the castle frontage in 1735 shows the Davies Gates in their splendid original setting, but Peter Tillemans’ oil landscape, ten years earlier, shows us the castle forecourt actually in transition. Here we have a really clear view of the Gates in relation to the castle: we can also see a wooden gate set between stone pillars, in the position where the iron gates might have been originally intended to be fixed, in Sir Richard Myddelton’s time.
Between 1770 and 1771, during William Eames’ redevelopment of the parklands, which included, ‘reducing the Hill in front of the castle’ the centrepiece of the Davies brothers’ creation - with added short lengths of side screen, and with gates lengthened - was moved to the New Hall Lodge entrance to the park, now the main visitor entrance to the estate, which was complete by 1771. At this time the gates were increased in height to allow carriages to pass through.
In the process, friendly relations with Mr Dickin of New Hall were considerably strained, as the whole area suffered much disturbance and alteration!
In 1888, the gates were moved again, to their third and final location at the Llwyn y Cil entrance, and the palisades were restored to their former state. In 1950 they were put in the care of the Ministry of Works, and renovated by Williams of Caernarfon in 1957. In 1976, they were further repaired at the Regent’s Park works in London.
Most writers accept that the Chirk Castle gates have a splendour which can only be matched by Tijon’s work at Hampton Court: they are either praised (Pevsner describes them as ‘miraculous’) or described as lacking constructive design. Such criticism should take into account that this structure was originally intended as a forecourt gate, conceived on the grand scale, and appropriate for the original setting – in front of a massive castle with looming towers.
They had to be impressive, in this context, and ideally we should think of them as Badeslade saw them in 1735. It is a fact that they are renowned as a superb example of the baroque style of, and they are a lasting tribute to the exceptional talents of Robert and John Davies.
In autumn 2019 we hope to commemorate the installation of the gates at Chirk Castle 300 years earlier. More details on these plans will be released in early 2019.