Alessandro

Peter Pan, Kensington Gardens, London

Alessandro Parlanti was born in Rome in 1862. Having worked at the Nelli foundry in Rome, he set up his own business in 1890, advertising as an Artistic Foundry using the Cera Perduta Process, with Colossals & Small Castings executed in any kind of metal.

This was a period of great change in Alessandro’s life, as he had become a father for the first time in 1889 with the birth of a boy, Riccardo, followed in 1890 with the birth of twin daughters Ada and Linda, all of the children being born in Bolsena, Italy. Alessandro’s father (Antonio) and his wife (Cesira) were also born in Bolsena.

In 1891 Alessandro was living in Scotland, and appeared in the Post Office Glasgow Directory of that year as a late entry for the 1891-2 directory, where he was listed as an artistic bronze foundry at 63 Ladywell Street. It also stated his home address as 103 Stirling Road, Glasgow, where he lived as a boarder with the Trocchi family. A small advert was taken out which stated ‘Artistic Bronze Castings Offered‘, and gave his home address at Stirling Road rather than that of the foundry.The next listed address was for Rovini and Parlanti Bronze Founders at 7 Aylesbury Street, Clerkenwell, London in August 1894. By 1895 he had moved to Fulham, London, an area teeming with sculptors and painters. He purchased the lease for the Albion Works at 59, Parsons Green Lane, Fulham, along with his short term business partner Gaetano Rovini. The works comprised a house, workshop, cottage, sheds and stabling, enclosed within a narrow, irregular quadrangle. Albion works were demolished some time ago to make way for housing. Very early Parlanti casts carry the inscription ‘Rovini & Parlanti’.

The Times of 7th November 1896 carried an article on the newly formed Central School Of Arts And Crafts, mentioning those employed as teachers and stating ‘while the teachers in moulding and casting in metal work are Messrs. Rovini and Parlanti’.

Alfred Gilbert was a regular patron of the Parlanti foundry from 1897 onwards, and diaries kept by Gilbert reveal that his dealings with Alessandro were on an almost daily basis, particularly Gilbert’s studio diary for 1899. These diaries allow us to identify many of Alessandro’s castings for Gilbert, which vary from bronzes and plasters to silver spoons and even gold medals. These castings include Gilbert’s John Hunter bust cast in 1889 by Parlanti, and also Parlanti’s cast of Gilbert’s Post Equitem Atra Cura. Alessandro cast and chased this bronze (now residing in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) in March 1899 at the same time as producing another cast which went to the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh. An earlier cast (not by Parlanti) had been produced a few years earlier, but was of an inferior quality. The Victoria and Albert Museum piece has a polychromed effect which was achieved by using an alloy of copper, lead, and with gold replacing the more usual constituent of tin.

John Hunter Bust
Post Equitem Sedet Atra Cura

Six of the figures of the saints were cast by Parlanti for Gilbert’s Duke of Clarence Memorial in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Alessandro stopped casting for Gilbert in late 1899 following a fall out over unpaid foundry bills (just over eighty pounds in total); a similar situation to Gilbert’s falling out with his previous founder, George Broad. The unfolding of events is covered in great detail in Gilbert’s diary of 1899. Business must have been good at that time for Alessandro, as Gilbert’s diary reveal that he was unhappy at the time taken to receive his casts; of note is the fact that by 1899 at the latest Alessandro had had a telephone line installed at the foundry, and also Gilbert mentioning ‘Parlanti’s brother answering the telephone‘. Richard Dorment, when writing about Gilbert’s Baby Girl bronze in Alfred Gilbert Sculptor and Goldsmith, comments ‘like many of the works cast by Parlanti, the quality of this cire perdue cast is exceptional’.

1902 saw the casting of the Lovat Scouts casket, by the sculptor Louis Reid Deuchars.

Lovat Scouts casket

Parlanti’s castings are to found worldwide, the monumental (and original) cast of George Frederic Watts’ Physical Energy in Cape Town was carried out by Parlanti, and received substantial press coverage at the time. The Illustrated London News of 3rd October 1903 carried an article concerning Physical Energy under the heading ‘The Largest Piece Of Sculpture Ever Cast In England’, and went on to state ‘Benvenuto Cellini rediscovered the cire perdue, or ”lost wax” process of casting statues in bronze, but it was only about ten years ago that Signor Alexander Parlanti introduced the process into England, establishing the Albion Works at Parsons Green. Since then the old method of casting in sand has been discarded by our leading sculptors, and Signor Parlanti has cast most of the chief statues of our times.

The foundry continued casting many pieces varying in size and metal used, two of the larger pieces were the 1906 Royal Scots Greys monument by William Birnie Rhind and also in 1906 the Boer War Memorial in Birmingham, the work of Albert Toft. Toft’s work was subject to substantial renovation in 2012, and the re dedication ceremony, showing the bronze in all of its former glory, was carried out later that year with a large group in attendance, including the Lord Mayor of Birmingham. The sunny weather that day only helped to show how glorious the work was.

Royal Scots Greys, Princes Street, Edinburgh
Birmingham Boer War Memorial, Cannon Hill Park

Often, visitors to the foundry would include not only sculptors but also people of note including royals. The Homeward Mail of 20th August 1906 mentions ‘Princess Louise Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein, who was attended by Miss Beatrice Cameron and accompanied by Lady Gertrude Crawford, has honoured Miss Geraldine Blake by inspecting the fine equestrian statue recently executed by her at Signor Parlanti’s foundry. The statue is shortly to be sent to Ceylon to be erected as a memorial of the contingents furnished by that loyal colony in defence of the empire in South Africa. The Princess saw the first sketch for the statue about two years ago, when Miss Blake was at work upon it in Colombo’.

The bronze statue of Edward V11, which stands on Tooting Broadway, had been cast in 1911. One of the workers employed on the bronze was Charles Gaskin (later to found Art Bronze Fulham). Charles was a metal chaser at Parlanti’s, and, as told by his son Michael, would sometimes take a detour when driving home with Michael in the car so as to be able to pass the statue of Edward V11 and say to his young son ‘I helped make that‘!

One of London’s most recognisable and loved bronze statues, Peter Pan by Sir George Frampton, which sits in Kensington Gardens and is shown at the top of this page, was cast by Parlanti in 1912. Conrad Parlanti, who was a young boy at the time of casting, related to a business colleague and friend some 30 years later how difficult the installation had been. In order to surprise children arriving in Kensington Gardens on May Day morning, the installation had to be undertaken overnight. The problem of getting sufficient mobile lighting to that part of Kensington Gardens had proved problematic.

Many of sculptors who used the foundry were fully appreciative of the skills that the workforce could offer, however this wasn’t always the case. Eric Gill, when writing about the finished casting that Parlanti did in 1913 of his ‘Mother and Child’ said ‘ I can see clearly enough that if I am ever to do a satisfactory bronze I must do all the chasing and finishing myself. But so far I haven’t worked on metal at all (barring tin-tacks) & so have tried to get the founders to do the finishing. I am very unhappy about it. They seem to mess the thing up first of all in the casting & then make it worse in the chasing. As soon as ever I get the chance I’m going to get hold of some tools & do some chasing myself. Everything depends on that. The bronze founders aren’t artists, they’re only mechanics.’ Despite this disparaging attitude to art bronze founders, Gill continued to have ‘Mother and Child’ cast by Parlanti between 1913 and 1917, although it is unclear as to who exactly did the chasing of the pieces, and Gill also asked Parlanti to visit Westminster Cathedral in November 1916 to take a cast in situ of the head of Christ, before Parlanti made a plaster cast from the mould with which Gill could work.

Mother and Child bronze by Eric Gill

Parlanti cast for all of the top sculptors of the period, and of particular note is the fact that he was the founder of choice for Henri Gaudier-Brzeska for the small number of bronzes and plasters cast within Gaudier-Brzeska’s lifetime. When writing his many letters to Sophie Brzeska, Gaudier mentions Parlanti quite often and simply by name, suggesting that Parlanti was well known to Sophie and Henri. On one occassion, Gaudier-Brzeska visited Jacob Epstein and remarked on one of Epstein’s bronzes. Epstein mentioned that it had been cast by Fiorini ‘whose charges are less than Parlanti‘. Despite this, Gaudier-Brzeska still chose Alessandro for his castings. Two of the four known bronze casts for Gaudier-Brzeska within Gaudier’s lifetime are known to be by Parlanti, as well as a number of posthumous casts.

In 1914 a reporter from the Fulham Chronicle visited the Parlanti foundry at Parsons Green Lane. His subsequent article published in the newspaper’s edition of 11th September 1914 is so comprehensive, not only in works and patrons named but particularly in terms of description of the foundry and its expansion following investment, that it is worth reproducing here in full:

Many local people have been interested in the building of the extension of the Albion Bronze Foundry, Parson’s Green Lane. Recently a reporter paid a visit and was courteously received by Mr E Parlanti and the business manager Mr G E Mercer, who not only showed him over the premises but kindly explained the processes of bronze casting. This Fulham business was founded by Mr Alexander Parlanti in 1890 and from that date the firm has steadily built a reputation amongst artists for reliable and artistic work. Entering the office, which is really a showroom, there is much to delight the eye. On the shelves are excellent models and finished work, comprising statuettes, groups, busts etc., many being by some of the leading artists of the day.

One of the latest pieces of work to be seen here is by a local artist, Mr Oliver Wheatley of Broom-house-road. This was a statuette of ‘’A Polo Player’’ in bronze. The horse, as well as its rider in the act of striking the ball, is worked out in excellent detail. A sketch model group of Captain Scott and his four companions, entitled ‘’Nearing the Pole’’ is to be cast in bronze. This model had just been returned from the Paris Salon summer exhibition and is the work of Mr John Cassidy, RCA. An excellent portrait bust of Queen Mary , by Sir George Frampton RA, as well as a draped memorial figure by the same artist were also to be seen.

Replying to an enquiry, Mr Mercer stated that twelve months ago with the joining into the firm of Mr J T Martin, A.M.I.C.E., the foundry was re-organised, modern equipment had been introduced, and in every way the business had been brought up to date. He also stated that by the recent extension the available space had been practically doubled. Entering this new building, which is light and lofty, attention was first attracted by a furnace which at the moment was melting bronze in a crucible for a casting. Oil fuel is used, the burner being Kermode’s patent, similar to that used on battleships. An electric motor was the medium for supplying compressed air to the flame. The system is cleaner and considerably quicker than the old coke furnaces. For larger quantities of metal there is a portable tilting furnace. Overhead is an electric travelling crane, capable of lifting five tons. This was supplied by the firm of Herbert Morris, of Loughborough, and is manipulated from the ground level in easy movements.  Another interesting feature of the equipment of the foundry is an acetylene generator for oxy-acetylene welding. There is also a very serviceable pneumatic drill. Other plant includes an extensive equipment of moulding boxes which are used for sand casting, a branch of work which the firm has now developed  by the extension of their premises.

For drying these sand moulds there is a special oven. After having these various processes explained and admiring a large bronze figure of Captain Cook (the work of Mr J Tweed of Chelsea) which is about to be packed and sent to the Antipodes, Mr Parlanti invited our reporter into the older part of the foundry, where the sand blast apparatus was about to be used. This is the first process for cleaning castings , for when they are taken out of the moulds there is ‘’scum’’ to be cleaned off before the work is ready to be put in the hands of the finishers. Mr Parlanti stated that the workman who usually did the sand blasting was a Fulham reservist of the 1st East Surrey Regiment, who had gone out to the front. His understudy, however, now donned the helmet , which is similar to that used by a diver, with mica window and air tube. The work being cleaned that afternoon was a memorial bas-relief to Major-General Sir Henry Jenner Scobell, and was by Mr John Tweed of Chelsea.

The motive power for the sand blasting and the oil burners and the pneumatic tools on the premises was by a 30 horse power Westinghouse motor, which was driving an Ingersoll-Rand air compressor. The skilled craftsmen engaged at the foundry are principally Italians, but so far as possible British labour is employed. One of the workmen was giving finishing touches to a small figure, the work of Mr W Reid Dick, a large one of the same subject ,‘’Silence’’, being exhibited in this year’s Academy, and is for a tomb in Finchley Cemetery. In the old foundry workmen were preparing sections for casting of an elaborate memorial to King Edward. This is the work or Mr N A Trent, of Beaufort-street, Chelsea, and when finished will be erected at Bath.

Mr Parlanti incidentally stated that amongst the commissions they had  were at least eight memorials to the late King Edward. In the foundry a portrait bust, by  Mr F W Pomeroy, ARA, had just been taken out of the mould. Innumerable portrait busts have been cast by Messrs. Parlanti , these being by some of the leading British artists. In the last year or two, amongst many other important works turned out by the firm, have been a seated statue of Queen Victoria, which was unveiled at Glasgow in June by King George when on his Scottish tour. This was the work of Mr A H Hodge, of Kensington, the artist who lately won the competition for the national memorial to Captain Scott.

‘’Entente Cordial’’ was the title of a fine memorial erected near Peterborough, the artist being Mr J A Stevenson, of St. Oswald’s Studio, Fulham. This was a large eagle and is erected on a tall column. It commemorates the Napoleonic wars of a hundred years ago, and is erected at a place where a large body of French prisoners were kindly treated. In connection with the King Edward Memorial at Bristol a large bronze fountain basin and groups were cast at Messrs. Parlanti, the artist being Mr Henry Poole, of Manresa-road, Chelsea. A pair of bronze lions, ten feet long, replicas of Landseer’s Trafalgar-square work, were also made at the foundry and sent out to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they have been placed at the foot of the Cabot Tower. These are but a few of the important pieces of work recently cast in Parson’s Green Lane.

Asked to describe the whole process of casting, Mr Mercer replied : ‘’The artist makes his model in clay. It is moulded and a copy in plaster is cast. This cast is the one that we are supplied with and on it we mould, either in gelatine of plaster piece-mould. From this mould we reproduce a replica model in wax. This wax is gauged to the same thickness as intended for the bronze. The hollow interior is filled with a special mixture called a core and, after attaching ‘’runners’’, the wax is covered on the outside with material, the whole forming the mould. Then the mould is placed in the kiln, subjected to heat, which not only melts out the wax but also ‘’cooks’’ the mould, passing through the ‘’runners’’ into the space left by the melted out wax.

On breaking open the mould in due time the casting is taken out and cleaned. The casting is then placed in the hands of an expert workman known as a finisher, who removes the ‘’runners’’ and stops the vents. The final stage is the colouring by chemical process to green or various shades of brown, as required by the client. Though the majority of our work is in bronze, at times we have work in silver or aluminium. ‘’ Mr Parlanti, who is a highly skilled craftsman, agreed with this brief description of the wax process. The sand process, which is suited for certain classes of work, is hardly so complicated, but produces excellent results. Asked whether the war had affected their business, Mr Mercer said that it had to a limited extent, as some of their work was held in abeyance at the moment. For the present, however, the men were working eight hours a day rather than ten.

Interestingly, the bronze ‘Entente Cordial’ was stolen some time ago. A replacement was commissioned, and the sculptor John Doubleday was given the job. The bronze was then cast by Art Bronze in Fulham (still active today) whose founder, Charles Gaskin, had worked at Parlanti’s before setting up his own foundry in 1922 in response to the huge amount of orders for bronze casting that were piling in.

Bronze lions by the sculptor Albert Bruce-Joy at the base of the Dingle (not Cabot) Tower, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Image kindly supplied by Vistan Photography – Stephen Fralick
Nearing the pole by John Cassidy

A quotation from Alessandro’s foundry to the Australian sculptor Harold Parker dated February 20th 1915 is interesting in that it gives us an idea as to the cost of casting at the time. ‘For Casting an Equestrian Statue 12 feet high from bottom of Plinth to top of man’s head, £700.0.0 13 feet high £800.0.0.‘ The quotation went on to state that the prices would vary according to the complexity of the work.

The effect of WW1 on the work at the foundry, which was evident even as early as September 1914, continued with very limited production. Papers concerning a bronze casting by Parlanti, due for completion in 1915 but not delivered until July 1916, state how the Parlanti foundry had been ordered to temporarily suspend its artistic work in order to produce vital munitions.

By about 1917 at the very latest (if not some time well before) Alessandro, now 55 years old, decided that he had had enough of the British climate, and decided to return to Italy. The actual dates concerning the sale and subsequent running of the foundry are a little vague. A letter dated 9th July 1917  to the architect Sir Robert Lorimer from the foundry concerning the Glenelg Memorial contained some notable content concerning casting of the period. ‘We endeavour to cast as light as possible with a uniform thickness of Metal to avoid unequal contraction which causes fracture and unsightly filling in with Lead, this is always objectionable & detrimental to the best Artistic work.’ The letter further states how the fine art of working out the weight and the method of casting ‘is not generally understood by ordinary founders‘. This letter is signed on behalf of Alexander Parlanti, and it is unclear as to whether Alessandro was still actively involved in the foundry during what was clearly a changeover period.

When writing to Lorimer on February 4th 1918 Ercole Parlanti mentions his previous casting work with Alessandro at Parsons Green Lane ‘who at that time was in London‘, and goes on to write ‘the Parsons Green works having a little time ago passed in new hands altogether’. However, as late as November 1918 The London Gazette reported that a licence had been granted by the Board of Trade to both James I Martin trading as Fulham Bronze Company and Alexander Parlante (sic) under the Non Ferrous Metal Industry Act.

Certainly by 1920, Alessandro was back bronze casting in Rome. The World War 1 monument in Bolsena, Italy (birthplace of Alessandro’s father Antonio Parlanti), to the fallen from the village, which was unveiled in May 1920, contained the name of Alessandro’s son, Riccardo Parlanti. Riccardo had died on 14th July 1918 in a surgical ambulance following combat. Bibliolabo, Italy, states (after translation) ‘Several local workers were employed for the work of the monument, while the bronze pieces (from the bottom: the plate bearing the names of the fallen, the ornamental garland placed almost at the base of the column, the connecting band between the two parts constituting the column and the Statue of Victory) were the work of the Fonderia artistica A. Parlanti of Rome.’ Most of the bronze pieces, including the Statue of Victory, were removed for the war effort in 1940, and a different figure was later cast and put atop the Memorial. The Bolsena War Memorial was also moved from its original site in Piazza Umberto to its current location at Via Cassia Vecchia/Via Antonio Gramsci.

Bolsena War Memorial, original castings and location. Image courtesy of bibliolabo.it

The foundry at Parsons Green Lane passed to James Martin, who went on to form two short lived companies: The Albion Art Foundry Ltd. in July 1919 and The Fulham Bronze Company Ltd. in December 1920. The new owners of the foundry continued to use the letterhead of Alessandro, no doubt to benefit from the first class reputation that had been established over the previous twenty years or so. The telephone directories continued to list Alessandro for some time after his departure. Alessandro’s brother Ercole, who had worked alongside him for so many years, started his own foundry just over a mile away at West Kensington.