Book Reviews for metalsmiths, artists and those interested in history


Review of Unlocking the Secrets of The Ribbon Torc by Brian Clarke
A book and video set.

In 2003 Brian Clarke, the noted metalsmith, taught how he makes ribbon torcs in the ancient way, using deer antlers. He had just recently rediscovered the process, and it forever changed the way I think about Iron Age metalwork. At the time I expressed the hope that he would one day write a book on the topic, and I am now happy to say that he has not only done that, but also produced a wonderful companion video.

When book and video sets are produced together it is rare that the video is anything like as good as the book, happily that is not the case here. It is a straight forward presentation, start to finish, showing Brian making a torc, with a clear voice-over explaining the work as it progresses. In places where it is helpful there are computer animated diagrams illustrating the topology of the forms as they develop. The animation never distracts, but only illuminates the amazing transformation of a lump of metal into a beautiful helical form. But what may have impressed me the most is the subtle use of ingenious filming to help make details clear and understandable. Here is an example: Early on in the video there are some shots in which the camera and the torc remain stationary, but the lighting slowly shifts to reveal details that would otherwise be hidden in shadow.

Forging a ribbon torc from an ingot is a mindbogglingly complicated task. It is hard to get your head around the process even as you are doing it. So I must say that no book is a substitute for going and learning from Brian Clarke in person, but this book comes close. It is an unassuming little volume, filled with clear photographs, and even clearer diagrams. The writing is straight forward and to the point, with clear and practical instructions and advice.. Here he discusses the size of torcs.  “If you have a lot of gold you will have to determine how much you need for the type of torc you wish to make. If you have a small amount of gold, you will probably want to make a torc as large as you can from that piece.”

The chief problem in understanding the creation of ribbon torcs in Antiquity is that of tools, or rather the lack of them in the archeology, and it was Brian who realized that deer antler was the solutoion to this problem. He describes the discovery: “With all the modern tools developed for anticlastic raising, I wondered what ancient man could have used. One day, when looking at a collection of antlers in my studio, I saw all the sinusoidal forms that would be needed for this purpose and realised that antlers were of a hard durable material which would have been available to ancient man.”

He continues: “I started experimenting with the antlers as tools using one as a hammer and one as an anvil or stake. To my amazement I found that I could do all the processes required with just one pair of antlers, an operation for which quite a number of special tools had been developed.”

For the record, Brian is a friend of mine, and the topic of ancient metalwork is one dear to me, so I may be naturally disposed to recommend this book. In my opinion its shortcomings are mostly related to scope, and are the result of the complexity if the topic bumping up against the limits of publication. If this does not yet interest you I would suggest watching the video, and if it does, I can wholeheartedly recommend reading the book.  Both are available from


theophilusReview of On Divers Arts by Theophilus Presbyter

It is a curious paradox for historians that our sources are only as good as our understanding of them, while at the same time our understanding is built upon those very sources. Outside of our areas of specialty and language we are at the mercy of translators and editors, and even if we are in a position to read a manuscript in a rare books library in a language we understand, it will likely be a copy of a copy of a copy, of an original, dating from hundreds of years before that document was penned. This situation is similar for artists, craftsmen and re-enactors. We therefore look for editors and translators that we trust, and hope they have published an edition of documents that are of interest to us.

One such edition for me is Theophilus’ On Diverse Arts, translated by John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, and dedicated to the great metalsmith and historian Herbert Maryon O.B.E. The inexpensive Dover edition is often sold as part of a set along with De Rey Metallica, and The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini, which is a good deal, though I find On Divers Arts to be the most useful of the three.

This volume consists of three works, one on painting, one on glass work, and the third and largest on metalworking. The first two show a keen understanding of their subject, though not personal mastery. The third, for the most part reads as a work based on hands on experience. In fact it is telling that the chapters in the painting and glass texts that have the most detail are those having to do with metals and equipment. The chapters on gold leaf for painters and on making iron molds for casting caming for stained glass are fine examples. Even so, some of what is contained is clearly medieval folklore, the chapter on “Spanish Gold” comes to mind, however the bulk of the work is a straight forward description of how to accomplish practical tasks. It seems likely that whoever Theophilus Presbyter was, and there is much debate on this matter, that he was in fact a metalsmith.

As an example: “Chapter 14 Chisels. Also chisels are made, of such a size that they can be grasped by the entire hand and project above the hand broad and even, and below it broad, flat, thin and sharp. Many of these are made, both small and large, and with them gold, silver, or thick copper is cut.”

Of what is contained within On Divers Arts there is much that I cannot recommend recreating, the making of a skin tone pigment by burning lead carbonate, and adding sulfide of mercury for instance. However there is also a great deal of practical advice that may be directly applied to the modern studio, as well as being of use to the historian or re-enactor. Most importantly this book gives us a better understanding of the methods used by past artists. Even in our most modern artwork we are working with the accumulated experience of thousands of years, and the better we understand that experience, the deeper our understanding of our art forms, and with any luck the better our own original work.



Review of Ironwork by J. Starkie Gardner, and
Wrought Iron, Its Manufacture, Characteristics and Applications,by James Aston and Edward B. Story

It is not in my nature to speak ill of any book good or bad, but every now and then there will be a volume published on a topic about which I care very much which, though badly flawed, contains much useful information. One such book is Ironwork, by J. Starkie Gardner, ISBN 0-905209-00-1, first published in 1892, with many subsequent editions. It contains much information both practical and sometimes very esoteric. For instance, it gives estimates for the number of tons of iron worn away from British railways by the action of train wheels in the year 1890. Where this book really shines is in its illustrations and photo’ plates of antique iron objects. The photographs are clear black and white and most have been cropped to the edges of the subject. The illustrations are detailed and lovingly rendered. However, I found it very hard to read through.

It is my practice to try to judge every work in the context of the culture and period in which it was created, and understand the backgrounds, biases, and beliefs of the creators. On the other hand, this book is strikingly condescending in tone and racist in outlook even by the standards of a colonial empire. An example from the very first paragraph reads: “The operation in its simplest form, as it is still conducted by many of the savage races of Africa or semi-barbarous peoples of Asia, consists in filling a closed or partly closed oven, or even an open hearth with the ore and charcoal.” I have read other works from Victorian England, and though they bear all the hallmarks of that place and period, they do not strike such an arrogant tone, nor do they show such careless disdain for other cultures.

One other reservation I would have against a full recommendation of this book is on the grounds of some of its technical nuances. Though the author is clearly an accomplished historian, and avid antiquarian, it is clear that he has never himself worked iron, and so simply gets some of the details wrong. This is to be expected. In his time and place men who were scholars simply were not iron workers, and it is to his credit that he took the time he did to gain the understanding needed to publish a book on the topic.

As a counterpoint to the above review, there is another volume on a related topic which I would like to recommend with enthusiasm. It is humble in tone, scientific in approach, and thorough in the treatment of its topic. This book is Wrought Iron, Its Manufacture Characteristics and Applications, by James Aston and Edward B. Story, published second edition in 1939 by A.M. Byers Co. Pittsburgh, PA. When published the price was $1, and I have seen copies selling today for less than $10, so it is an inexpensive addition to a metalsmith’s library.

In addition to the topics indicated in the title the authors have included a concise history of the evolution of the iron-making process, and detailed information on the proper working of wrought iron. This book starts at the beginning with a definition of its topic. “Wrought iron is best described as a two-component metal consisting of high purity iron and iron silicate -” The tables and photographs are clear and illustrative, especially the many etched micrographs of differing metal samples.

The irony of this book is that it gives such thorough information about a material that would soon no longer be made. The second edition was published in 1939, and the demands of the wartime economy would soon cause wrought iron to be replaced by mild steel, which though far less durable, is much faster and cheaper to manufacture. Today when smiths have need for wrought iron they seek scraps cut from old bridges, wagons, and marine hardware, and its use is mostly reserved for pattern welded knives and similar tools. The preface to the second edition begins: “During the past decade there has been a rapidly growing demand for wrought iron in many different products. This demand has been accompanied by a need for information on the qualities of the material and their application to present day problems. This handbook is dedicated to that need.”

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