Art that is forged in fire
Little Newsham Forge is tucked away between Staindrop and the A67. Wendy Short went to investigate and found a craftsman who has achieved international recognition for his metalwork
Brian Russell describes himself as an “artist blacksmith” and is quick to dispel the notion that he makes horseshoes at the 200-year-old forge. He and his son, Ivan, produce decorative metalwork, including gates, railings, fireplace and door furniture and even large-scale sculptures.
Little Newsham Forge also restores and reproduces antique ironwork. The forge made the weather vane at Winston Church and a large decorative screen at St Brandon’s, in Brancepeth, near Durham. The team also restored the metalwork and created the gates at the entrance to The Bowes Museum.
The forge has played host to many metalwork journeymen, as they are known, with pupils coming from all over the world to hone their skills. One apprentice was Tom Savage who went on to join the team in 2013.
Brian has picked up numerous awards for his craft, including silver and gold medals from the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths for his services to the craft and high standard of work. He has also been a guest demonstrator at many exhibitions and festivals, both at home and abroad.
Brian, originally from Durham, attended a course in art and design at what was then Sunderland Polytechnic.
“I decided that I would like to be an artist blacksmith while I was at college, but at the time there were no apprenticeships,” says Brian. “In the meantime, I drove a bread delivery van and took a course in metalwork in the evenings. The idea of shaping metal appealed and I still find fascination in the way that it can be shaped like plasticine when heated.”
It was soon after he left college that Brian got in touch with a Government agency which had been set up to promote small businesses in rural areas. By chance, the late Guy Beadon, whose family still owns the site, was looking to restore and re-launch the unused forge. He had contacted the office to ask whether any craftsman might be interested in working with him on the project.
“The forge was just a stone building with half a roof, when I first visited,” explains Brian. “But I could see its potential and it did not take long for the two of us to come up with an agreement that would benefit both parties.
“Mr Beadon gave me two months’ work to repair his own estate railings and that gave me the start I needed. The business built up quite quickly, mainly through word-of-mouth, and at first I took any job that was offered, including welding people’s cars and repairing farm machinery. But I had always wanted to focus on decorative work.”
Brian does get involved with a number of collaborative art projects and is currently constructing a design by artist, Kate Maddison. The Sowerby Sun is a large piece of feature artwork, which will sit in the centre of the new south roundabout on the Topcliffe road, near Thirsk.
Brian uses mainly steel in his work, although reclaimed wrought iron is procured for restoration work and stainless steel is used for some of the more artistic pieces. Depending on the type of commission, he will use either the traditional coal forge, the gas version or an oil furnace, with the latter utilised for the larger sectional material. The traditional forge is used for general smithing.
Examples of the work carried out at Little Newsham Forge can be viewed at little newshamforge.com