Draughtsman’s drawings from Coalbrookdale: Artistry, delight and the ‘working drawing’

A hitherto underexplored Coalbrookdale Company archive of some 730 client orders from the 1890s and early 1900s - the subject of Senior Curator Georgina Grant’s Headley Fellowship with Art Fund - is shedding new light on this significant ironworks. 

As a volunteer cataloguer documenting the correspondence and technical drawings for ironware making up the archive, I have been struck by the use of expressive techniques from fine art in these technical drawings, and believe that they reveal personal judgements, energies, desires and a delight in artistry from Coalbrookdale draughtsmen, and are indicative of a particular working culture within the Drawing Office.

Contexts: Technical drawings and draughtsmen

Technical drawings at Coalbrookdale were pivotal tools for a successful company operation, they variously guided order production (at Coalbrookdale or the contractor’s site), enabled the exchange and establishing of knowledge about an order (between Coalbrookdale, client and/or contractor) and recorded an order (for all).

George Shepherd, photographed in 1901. [1983.3430]

Drawings were produced by designer-/draughtsmen in the Drawing Office. Staff diligently followed conventions of technical drawing, they also very rarely signed their work or were credited. A key individual in the Drawing Office and wider Coalbrookdale Company was Dawley-born George Shepherd (1856 -1913).    

George rose at Coalbrookdale from draughtsman to designer and oversaw drawing production - several archive drawings are marked as ‘checked by’ him. George also taught at the local Coalbrookdale School of Art, one of many Government Schools of Art where hopeful or practising draughtsmen, took drawing and design classes.  The school offered the state-run ‘South Kensington Curriculum’, covering artistic, ornamental and practical styles of drawing (including shading, painting, freehand and line drawing).       


Introducing the drawings

Drawing 1

Stable Fittings (for Henry Drew, builder, Ross-on-Wye), pencil and watercolour on tracing paper, 1908). [2022.16/G8]

In this drawing for cast-iron stable fittings, the effect of light and shade on the pillars and railings has been carefully and adeptly presented with pencil and blue watercolour. Watercolour has also been used to hatch the cross-sectional drawings.  

Drawing 2

Detail of Railing Standards and Bars (for G. H. and A. Bywaters and Sons, builders, London), pencil on tracing paper, 1903-1904. [2022.16/H29]

Squeezed incongruously between two larger two-dimensional drawings, the small three-dimensional sketch showing how cast-iron railing parts fit together (an ‘exploded-view’) has been enthusiastically shaded by hatching in pencil and with evident care (parts appear smooth shaded, but it is all hatched). In the larger drawings, the railing and standard heads receive similar treatment. 

Expressive techniques in ‘working drawings’

Expressive techniques are fairly numerous across the orders archive. Hatching for shading appears the most prevalent technique (drawing 2), followed by flat watercolour wash (diluted colour applied uniformly). The complex use of watercolour in drawing 1 is rare in the archive.  Beyond Coalbrookdale, use of watercolour in other technical drawings, certainly ‘presentation drawings’, was widespread. A presentation drawing is one of two kinds of technical drawing, the other being a ‘working drawing’. A presentation drawing lacks some or all practical details (measurements and annotations) and was used to present to a client, advertise to potential customers and to record the order for company data. 

Presentation drawings dominate key technical drawing archives such as the Boulton and Watt Archive in Birmingham.  Conversely, a great number of Coalbrookdale drawings are working drawings; about guiding, making or exchanging and establishing knowledge (to produce correct drawings or inform production).

Evidence of this ‘working-ness’ can be seen in both drawing 1 and drawing 2. Drawing 1 has full measurements, enabling the drawing to guide production. The shading of the horizontal pillars and railings likely has a practical and visual purpose in enabling the drawing to be easily read. Drawing 2 includes the full-size ‘Standard’ dimensions (left drawing) being partly re-worked with a rough pencilled note alongside: ‘This part to be made to Blue line’ (sic).


Why were expressive techniques used?

The high quality of the watercolour and pencil shading in drawing 1 goes beyond any practical purpose. Certainly, within the archive, there are few examples of such complex watercolour, and drawings for railings and standards are common. I offer that we might consider a draughtsman’s delight in artistry and/or other personal energies and desires sparking such an expressive drawing event. Perhaps the draughtsman wished to produce a very accomplished job, or there was a desire to impress the client - a blueprint was sent to client Henry Drew, builder - and/or demonstrate skill to colleagues.

My sense that we see in Coalbrookdale drawings delight in artistry has to be confirmed in the small sketch to drawing 2. Diligent attention has gone into enhancing the realism of the railing parts by hatched shading, this is pure embellishment, not necessary for the purpose of the sketch.

Hatched shading to the rail and standard heads in the large drawings to drawing 2 may have been to enable better visualisation of these naturalistic forms, delight for the draughtsman in marking these out and a desire for further realism could also be reasons. That the hatching continues beyond the naturalistic parts of the heads and goes no further than the bottoms strongly suggest interest by the draughtsman in visual composition (in the sense of continuing hatching for consistency of form). The remainder of the rail and standard provokes questions as to what suspended the use of expressive techniques by draughtsmen. Tentatively, we might consider the importance of drawings, matters of time and skill, the subject and potentially negative emotional and feeling states such as apathy, boredom and impatience.    

Conclusion: Draughtsmen and working culture at Coalbrookdale

The Coalbrookdale order archive presents Victorian and Edwardian technical draughtsmen applying expressive techniques to working drawings. As highlighted, expressive techniques in the archive are by no means ubiquitous. This means many of the expressive drawings reflect a draughtsman’s own agency rather than say a rule from George Shepherd or another senior designer-draughtsman. Draughtsmen at Coalbrookdale followed conventions of technical drawing, but otherwise in their drawing work they seem to have pursued or could pursue personal judgements, energies, desires and a delight in artistry.  

This blog post was written by Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust volunteer, Rob MacKinnon.