Curator's Choice: Ironbridge Gorge Museum

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The Independent Culture
David de Haan is Senior Curator of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

'The Iron Bridge itself was a brilliant advertising campaign, the supreme symbol of the Industrial Revolution. Abraham Darby III built the bridge to promote sales of cast-iron. Even before the bridge was completed, he commissioned artist William Williams to paint it as he would like people to see it - in a picturesque valley on a sunny day, being admired by wealthy visitors - and then had engravings done so Coalbrookdale iron could be promoted further afield.

Darby paid 10 guineas for the painting in October 1780. The bridge was still under construction, but he got Williams to show it finished and already in use (it was not completed until the following year). The atmosphere is fresh and clean, even though the Shropshire valley was famous for being the most industrialised and polluted in the world. Evidence also suggests that Williams used an earlier sketch he had done of the Gorge, superimposing the bridge from an engineering drawing supplied by Darby.

Over two centuries later the bridge still attacts visitors and the oil painting now hangs in the Elton Gallery in Coalbrookdale, Telford, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum. It was bought at auction in 1992 with help from various trusts.

Today the gorge is as Williams painted it, the industry having long gone. The museum looks after numerous historic sites spread over the six square miles of this World Heritage Site - including the Blists Hill Open Air Museum, the Museum of the River, Coalport China Museum and Jackfield Tile Museum.'

Ironbridge Gorge Museum, open daily from 10am, Ironbridge, Shropshire (0952 433522)

(Photograph omitted)