The Le Secq des Tournelles Museum
Josef Moos
HEPHAISTOS 5/6, pp. 14-5
Tr: Mike Spencer


Rouen, about 50 miles northwest of Paris, is not only the city of France's national saint, Joan of Arc. It is also the home of the the world's largest collection of French atristic ironwork: more than 15,000 pieces housed in the former Church of Saint Lorant. Hephaistos colleague Joseph Moos visited the museum and reports on another stop on his quest for the traditional roots of European metalwork.

The Le Secq des Tournelles Museum

The chaos of the revolution of 1789 brought to an end the age of great French metalwork. Many works of the great masters were completely destroyed. Many works would be known to us today only in the form of maquettes had it not been for the efforts of the nobleman Jean-Louis Le Secq de Tournelles. In the middle of the 19th century, Le Secq assembeled in his Paris home a collection of fine blacksmith's and locksmith's work that was then so little valued that it sold my the pound. After his death in 1882, his son, Henry, gave up his occupation as a notary and devoted himself to extending and completeing the collection, which he exhibited publically for the first time at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900.

The Paris Exhibition was the the world's most prestigous trade fair for art, handcraft and industry and Le Secq's exhibit was a sensation second only to the Jugendstil work of the Vienna School. Not only did the collection exhibit historic works -- for example a screen from the shop of Ourchamp discovered in the Department of the Oise, made in 1202 and thought to have been long lost -- it served to engender a reconciliation between contemporary French metalwork designers and their rich history and tradition. At that time they had completly abandoned traditional art smithing, employing decorative elements and ornaments chiefly as a pleasant historical allusion in work executed exclusively in cast iron -- cheaper and favored for mass production.

Henry Le Secq was an industrious collector and, by the turn of the century, there was no room for more in his Paris residence. Part of the collection was moved to the Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre but the Master was unhappy with this solution. In the inadequate accommodations in the Louvre, the pieces evinced only a a bare shadow of their splendor.

In 1909, in order to make the collection accssible to a larger public, Henry Le Secq published a selection of the pieces in the form of a classic "pattern book" -- 1400 objects in 130 folio plates. But the time was not yet ripe for a resurgent awareness of French metalwork tradition.

The management of the Louvre rejected Le Secq's proposal for a suitable display of his collection. But in 1917, the City of Rouen offered him the Church if St. Laurent -- secularized during the French Revolution -- as an exhibition space. So the exquisite collection departed the capital forever and could at last be exhibited in the manner demanded by its historical significance and its importance to the craft. There only remained to Henry Le Secq a few years -- until his death in 1925 -- to devote to mounting the huge collection in the new venue. Today the collection fills the entire nave, the choir and the transepts as well as galleries on either side.

Now the visitor has an unhindered view of grills and railings, crests and window screens that present him with with a corss section of the full range of artistic smithing from the 13th through the 19th centuries. Pieces in typical "church gothic" style as well as objects from middle class homes facilitate study of the typical ornaments and symbols of the period. Despite its uniqueness and splendid display, the museum is but little visited. It shares the fate of many museums worldwide that live a sort of shadowy existence because they specialize in a craft or the history of handcraft. The ironwork department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, comparable in breadth and quality to the museum in rouen, also has a small number of visitors. (Hephaistos will rport on this museum and the English blacksmithing scene in the nest issue.)

The great variety of the objects in "Le Secq des Tournelles" more than repays a visit. In the transepts and upper galleries the viewer encounters the entire catalog of "locksmithing" in iron: locks for chests and screens, keys -- both functional and symbolic -- tools such as compasses, augers and saws, door and furniture fittings, domestic objects such as shears, stirrups and kitchen equipment, lamps, corkscrews, coffee mills, iron clocks, iron combs and baskets, chains as well as jewelery, iron [tobacco] pipes, chests and religious objects fill glass cases and line the walls. The museum exhibits over 300 pieces of iron jewelery, the first French tobacco pipe from the 16th century and a diverse collection of door knockers of the sort in vogue in the 15th c. -- not so much to announce callers as to ward off unbidden guests, human or ghostly, whowere supposed be terrified by the iron grotesques.

The collection of household utensils reveals the commonplace of earlier times: gridiron and crane jack, stirrup and knife have long been part of everyday affairs, but even parsimonious renditions show the hand of the smith at anvil or vice and ornamental touches typical of a period. Possibly a consequence of the royal decree from the year 1650 that elevated fine blacksmithing to one of the "free arts" along with painting, carving and music. (German ironwork of the same period was very plain.) Another interesting item: the spoon is often missing from sets of eating utensils -- in France the gentry ate with knife and fork while the spoon was the (only) eating utensil of the peasant.

With the exception of a single chest and key, everything in the collection if from French speaking districts. Examples from the museum appear in practically every pattern book, coffee-table book and critical publication that has appeared in France in this century on the subject of ironwork. It is to be hoped that the Museum will find more friends among the "colleagues at the anvil", for a visit will repay the effort for everone intent on exploring the roots of the craft.

Copyright © 1996 HEPHAISTOS Internationale Zeitschrift für Metallgestalter. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for educational or other not-for-profit purposes.


A pictorial catalog of this spectacular ironwork collection was published by Henry Rene D'Allemange in 1924. It was reissued by Dover with an English intro and translated captions in 1968 (ISBN 0-486-22082-6) at US$6.50 in paper.
I don't know if it's been kept in print or reissued by Dover or not but it's certainly worth many times the original price if you're interested in ironwork.

Updated 18 Aug 1996 -- Michael Spencer