History of the museum
The Musée Le Secq des Tournelles is a museum devoted to the art of wrought ironwork. The idea for the collection came from Jean-Louis-Henri Le Secq Destournelles (1818-1882), a painter who studied in Paris and Rome, and became one of the first photographers in France. As such, he was commissioned by Prosper Mérimée to photograph various French monuments when the latter became head of the historical monument department in 1845. These assignments led to his discovering numerous pieces of ironwork adorning towns and ancient monuments, and he started his collection in around 1865.
His son Henry (1854–1925) continued to add to it before donating it to the City of Rouen, when he was researching information on his ancestors (1917). Shortly before that, in 1900, the collection hit the headlines when Henry Le Secq loaned nearly a thousand objects to the Paris Universal Exhibition (the Ironwork Retrospective section). The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris then obtained permission to exhibit part of it (published in 1909), but did not have enough room, and the collector preferred the idea of Rouen. The city, aware of the exceptional nature of this heritage, allocated the fine late 15th century church of Saint-Laurent to it. This had been saved from ruin in 1893 and restored in 1911 for the millennium of Normandy.
The museum was inaugurated there in 1921: "The Saint-Laurent museum opened to a throng of visitors, with wrought-iron craftsmen finding subjects to study and art lovers regaled with artistic sensations," wrote the delighted donor. Until his death in 1925, he continued to add to and remodel the museum, where he worked as the curator. A number of connoisseurs subsequently added choice pieces: a donation from Germany (1951), the Bréard legacy (1951) and the Sangnier-Dessirier legacy (1957). As a result, the collection now contains nearly fourteen thousand pieces. It offers visitors to Rouen a striking overview of the art of wrought-ironwork: forged and moulded pieces as well as those created by silversmiths.
The museum's originality lies in the concept underlying the collection. Jean-Louis-Henri Le Secq des Tournelles appreciated the infinite resources of this metal: iron can be used to make a greater variety of objects, from the largest to the tiniest, than any other metal. When hot-worked, it is as malleable as modelling clay; when cooled, it is extraordinarily hard and sturdy. Its mastery requires long and intensive training, which often accounts for its extreme perfection. Iron is thus used for both large items – stair rails, strongboxes and prison bars – and personal objects such as jewellery, lighters, tools and sewing accessories. It is particularly useful for keys and locks: devices for protecting both gates and the smallest caskets. And it is also found in pieces by silversmiths, inlaid in gold or tortoiseshell (a type of work the English call "piqué").
This collection thus reveals a wealth of artistic or picturesque objects made of or containing iron. Historically, it ranges from the Gallo-Roman era to the 20th century, and geographically, includes pieces from all over Europe (including Germany, Britain, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia) as well as several objects from the East (Arab countries and India). Highly sophisticated pieces (master's locks and silversmith work) rub shoulders with attractive folk art objects (shopsigns and cooking pots). Only traditional weapons are excluded, as these are already found in other collections. The main themes represented are shop and property signs, cutlery, trade tools, objects of embellishment and enjoyment, and equipment and decoration for churches, homes and doors, particularly locks, coffers and caskets.