Gentle Readers, Frequent contributor Tony Grant has supplied us with yet another treat: a post about door knockers. After you have read it, you will want to hop on over to his blog, London Calling, in which he describes his trip to Venice.
The quintessential door knocker in Georgian architecture is the brass lion head with a large brass ring gripped in its mouth. It has been used as a symbol of Great Britain for centuries. Trafalgar Square has four enormous bronze lions positioned on great granite plinths at the four corners of the base of Nelson’s Column. They are made from the melted down bronze from canons captured from French ships at The Battle of Trafalgar.
Lions at the base of Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square. Image @The Illustrated London News
All coats of arms relating to the monarchy have lions as a prominent feature of their design, usually rampant. Lions have been used symbolically since the Paleolithic period.
Egyptian lion sculpture carved out of limestone, Louvre
The Egyptians carved sphinxes, half man, half lion. They symbolise power and strength, courage and fortitude.
You can go to any part of London and you will come across Victorian or Georgian housing still with their original door furniture. Very often the door furniture will include a brass lion head door knocker. This could be a sign of Victorian and Georgian confidence. A sign for people of the greatest and largest empire the world has ever known. For the visitor it is their first contact with the house and a way of communicating their arrival by lifting the knocker and rapping it smartly against its back plate. The back plate to a lion head knocker is the lion’s head.
Lion door knocker. Image @Tony Grant
Knocking on a door does two things. First it makes the visitor take hold of the house. The hand grips the knocker. It is a like a handshake; a very English form of greeting. Secondly, through the sound of the knock it communicates to the occupants that somebody is visiting. The way the door is knocked can express other things too like haste, frustration, timidity or confidence.
Front door with lion knocker. Image @Tony Grant
The fact that many Georgian houses have door knockers that are the originals means that we today in the 21st century, who are still using these door knockers to gain entrance, have a palpable, physical connection to people from past generations and from all classes of a past society.
Downstairs to the servant's quarters, Bath. Image @Tony Grant
The servants belonging to the Georgian household would not have used the doorknocker of their own house. They would have slipped down the flight of stone steps near the front gate, to the servant’s quarters in the basement. However a footman or servant sent with a message or communication from another household would have used the front door knocker. The owners of the house would have knocked to alert their footman to open the door to them and their friends would have knocked to gain entrance too.
Door knocker made of brass. Image @Ruby Lane
A lot of door knockers are made from brass. Some are iron. Brass is a very special metal. It has a golden lustre when polished and expresses wealth, a friendly glow and a welcoming feel. Iron on the other hand can be aggressive and harsh. Iron against iron can cause a spark. It can rust and have unfriendly qualities. Brass on the other hand is benign. It is a malleable metal and has acoustic properties. In fact the brass door knocker on a Georgian front door can almost be regarded as a percussion instrument. The solid wooden door is the drum skin and the entrance hall behind it is the chamber within which the sound resonates and vibrates.
J. L. Settle door knocker at Portsmouth
Brass is used for many purposes, including bullet cases, artillery shell casings, horse accoutrements, locks, bearings, gears, musical instruments, horns and bells. It does not create a spark. It is low friction.
Brass is an alloy, which almost makes it a magical thing. It is an alloy of copper and zinc. The proportions can vary between the two metals to create different qualities in the brass. It is a substitutional alloy. This means that when the copper and zinc are melted together they replace some of each other’s atoms with their own atoms. Brass has been made since Roman times. You can imagine in the middle ages or earlier and perhaps even up to Georgian times people regarded blacksmiths and workers of metals almost as magicians being able to smelt ores and extract pure metals from their furnaces to make the most magical things. Brass is a difficult alloy to make, even more so than other alloys. Copper can be smelted easily but zinc cannot be smelted from it’s ore. Brass has to be created through what is called a cementation process. This is when smelted copper is mixed with the unsmelted zinc ore. This means that many impurities are included and the slag that is created has to be carefully separated during the alloy creating process. Zinc comes from rocks called hemimorphite and smithsonite. Lead is something that is also added to some brass alloys to create a different quality. However, sometimes, the lead leaches from the finished brass. Imagine that rubbing onto some unsuspecting visitors hands. Particles of lead unseen on the hands and transferred to the mouth and the digestive system.
That thought lends new credence to the famous scene in Charles Dickens a Christmas Carol when Scrooge returns home on a cold misty winters night,
Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of London, even including — which is a bold word — the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven years’ dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change — not a knocker, but Marley’s face.
Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part or its own expression.
Another form of door knocker - that of a Roman god wearing a laurel wreath, Bath. Image@Tony Grant
As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.
To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and lighted his candle.”
Was it lead poisoning that was rotting Scrooges brain or just tiredness, misery, the cold and mist and darkness playing tricks with his imagination and senses?
Filing a door knocker. Image @History.org Foundation Journal
To make a lion head door knocker a few technical and difficult processes have to be carried out. A mould has to be made. A carver carves a lion head pattern out of wood. A mould maker uses a box filled with a mixture of sand and clay to make a fire-proof mould. The wooden pattern is pressed into the sand and clay composite and a lion head knocker mould is thus created. The molten alloy of copper and zinc that creates the brass is then poured into the mould and left to cool and solidify. When cold the brass knocker can be extracted and filed and sanded down to get rid of any rough surfaces. In this process, craftsmen, metal workers geologists and miners would form a trail of work and economy. Finally the finished door knocker would have been sold to a carpenter making a door to then be sold to a builder who would fix the door in the house he made for a new purchaser.
Door knocker at the Brighton dome at the Brighton Pavilion, early 19th c.
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