We should not be too surprised to find 18th century genius in metal wrought wonderful in north east Wales. The astonishing ironwork of the Davies brothers, working out of their Croesfoel smithy in Wrexham during the first half of the century, could be seen as a continuation of the wild-eyed, hair on fire works in gold and bronze fashioned by our ancient ancestors here. And just as the thought of the mesmerising Mold Gold Cape being produced in north east Wales causes frowned-faced angst amongst many, the wonder that such beauty as to be seen in the ironwork of the White Gates of Leeswood could be produced here produces barely concealed incredulity. But there is awe in iron here.
Huw Davies (d.1702) was a blacksmith working out of Wrexham, probably Croesfoel in Bersham. Of his four sons and six daughters, Robert (d. 1749) and John (d.1755) followed in his footsteps at Croesfoel, becoming master smiths, justifiably famous for their works. Their father was himself a man of considerable talent in iron, and it remains possible to see a hint of his excellent work within the choir in St Giles at Wrexham and at St Oswald’s in Malpas.
Curiously, it has only been in the last 100 years or so that we have been certain of the identities of the Davies family. Previously, much of their output was said to have been the work of a smith by the name of Roberts and his daughter. The gates at Chirk Castle were thought, by Mr Myddleton after consulting his records, to have been made by, ‘two brothers, local smiths named Roberts, for the price of £190 1s. 6d.’ We are somewhat clearer now where the praise should be placed for these wonders in iron, these most extraordinary of works, throughout north east Wales and Cheshire.
‘The art of the Davies brothers is seen at its most magnificent at Leeswood Park, near Mold, where they provided both the White Gates and the Black Gates. The White Gates and Screen, thirty metres in length, are superbly executed with elaborate crestings and delicate tracery and are amongst the finest in Europe.’
Hilling, John. B., The Historic Architecture of Wales, (1976), p. 125
The White Gates of Leeswood Hall - 18th century genius in metal wrought wonderful in north east Wales.
Still, there are those that would chaff at the thought of a couple of Wrexham lads knocking off a White Gates of Leeswood, or a Chirk Castle Gates, but we move on from such doubt with confidence, despite a lack of documentation definitely attributing the gates at Leeswood to the brothers. The late 17th century and early 18th centuries were a time of real advances in the working of iron, with the French Hugenot, Jean Tijou conjuring up wonders through England, at Hampton Court Palace and Chatsworth House and inspiring others to heady heights. The Davies’ were contemporaries of Robert Bakewell (1682-1752), another genius working out of Derbyshire. Tiresomely, it has been suggested that Robert and John were apprentices of Tijon or Bakewell, perhaps both, largely on the basis of similarities in style and form. But it’s rather more likely that the Davies brothers were inspired by Tijon and Bakewell - even in the 17th and 18th centuries, ideas were as viruses, gathered from the ether by the susceptible. And the Davies brothers were clearly open to the muse of iron. It has been suggested that they owned a copy of Tijon’s pattern book, which had been published at the end of the 17th century.
Work on the White Gates at Leeswood Hall began sometime after 1726 and was clearly an enterprise of great expense and effort. Built as a huge 100ft, five bay screen containing a central gate and overthrow, it has been described as being one of the very best examples of its kind in the British Isles, and shows the developing confidence of the Davies Brothers, after a series of commissions elsewhere, notably at Chirk Castle. Their work at Chirk, for the Myddletons, enjoys a far greater level of documentation, and this, together with the differences between the two works have led to speculation that the gates at Leeswood were actually fashioned by Robert Bakewell. Speculation is all it can be, since there are enough similarities to warrant almost absolute certainty of a Davies commission. What the gates at Leeswood actually show is a certain experience earned chutzpah, artists at ease with their talent and expressing themselves in restful excellence.
‘Five bays, the centre one consisting of gates and overthrow. The others are screens, each sub-divided, and surmounted by a pair of broken pediments. Some motifs are similar to those of the Black Gates, but the four openwork iron piers which separate the bays are three-dimensional, rather than flat, and are surmounted by urns and flowers on solid ogee domes. At either end are rusticated stone piers with entablatures and fluted Doric corner pilasters. They carry lead sphinxes.’
Hubbard, E. The Buildings of Clwyd, (1986) p. 381
Hubbard, it is fair to say was much impressed with the White Gates, going as far as to further declare the Gates as being the perfect backdrop to the last act of The Marriage of Figaro, set as it is in a garden with two pavilions - a reference then, to the loss of the two lodges which were removed at the end of the 18th century to flank the Black Gates (known locally as Hell, to the Heaven of the White Gates). Hubbard was notoriously hard to please.
Hubbard was less enthusiastic of Leeswood Hall, which was built between 1724-26 for George Wynne, whose family was of minor nobility. Having inherited from his mother a small tract of land on Halkyn Mountain, he was to come into sudden, considerable wealth with the discovery of a rich vein of lead there. From some £30 a year he was catapulted into wealth at some £22000 per annum. The money seems to have quite excited Wynne to a spending frenzy, on a rebuild of the family home at Leeswood and, of course, the White and Black Gates. That wealth evaporated with the decline in lead returns from his mines on Halkyn Mountain, and for a time, Wynne was quite destitute. While the house was remodelled by the Rev. Hope Wynne Eyton at the end of the 18th century, by which we mean much reduced, the Gates were retained in all their glory.
It is quite the sight, to be tootling down the back road to Leeswood and to be quite suddenly confronted by the startling White Gates. A piece of industrial genius made beautiful.
Hilling, John. B., The Historic Architecture of Wales, University of Wales Press, (1976)
Hubbard, E., The Buildings of Clwyd (Denbighshire and Flintshire), Penguin, University of Wales Press, (1986)
Starkie Gardner, J., English Ironwork of the 17th and 18th Centuries, B. T. Batsford London (1911)