Stained Glass and Birmingham School of Art

large_book4.Yesterday I attended the launch of a new book, Stained Glass Window Makers of Birmingham School of Art. Written by Roy Albutt (who is a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society), the book examines the work of 11 stained glass makers all affiliated to the School of Art, some of whom may be familiar names to visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, such as Florence Camm and Sydney Meteyard. The book offers information on each individual, including a brief biography and the other arts in which they worked, and cover their training at and relationship to the School of Art in some detail, alongside a description of their works and a helpful Gazetteer which details where their work may be found. Importantly, for a book of this kind, it is also well-illustrated, with 51 colour plates which demonstrate the vibrant appealold-church-smethwick-149x300 of these works. It is likely to appeal to enthusiasts of stained glass and ecclesiology, as well as those interested in Pre-Raphaelite-style work, but it also offers the challenge to those in the Midlands to visit the places listed and admire the beautiful works in person.

Roy is keen to stress the importance of the Birmingham School of Art. Certainly, from the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, the Arts and Crafts-style work it produced was hugely popular and influential, and Roy hopes that his book will inspire others to research this overlooked area of art history. He made considerable use of the archives and researchers at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), part of Birmingham City University, which carries forward the work of the School of Art, and I hope his work will inspire further interest in this area. Years ago I did some work on The Quest, the Pre-Raphaelite-style magazine produced by the School of Art, and I am inclined now to consider returning to it.

The book is available from Roy’s website for £12.95.



The Birmingham School of Art

Birmingham, as an industrial city, has held a complex place in the history of British art, becoming a centre for the anti-industrialist Arts and Crafts movement, heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism and William Morris.  Prizing beautiful hand-crafted objects over cheap mass-produced goods, the craftsmen and women abided by Morris’ stipulation that Art should be “by the people and for the people” in the form of everyday objects in the home.  The Birmingham School of Art grew rapidly in the late 1800s as an educational focus for this movement in Birmingham.   In 1877 Edward Taylor became the head of the school and it was under his direction that it expanded in modern and often controversial ways.  The Birmingham school was radical in its new proposals – it was the first school to teach “executed design”, which involved not only the design process and the theory of design but also the practice of craftsmanship in working the design in the intended materials.   There was an obvious conflict of interest between the manufacturers who were keen to have well-trained, skilled workers and those who wished to pursue Art for their own careers.  Many of the local industrialists, however, were followers of Ruskin’s “Art industrialism” ethos and were on the board of the Art School, and with the rapid growth and development of branch schools in the 1890s any conflict of interest was quickly resolved. The Tangye brothers in particular were industrial entrepreneurs who provided the school with a considerable amount of funding.

The Central school, housed originally in Margaret Street (above right), and now part of Birmingham City University, was the more advanced school, while the Branch schools were more elementary.  Some concentrated on the jewellery or furniture trades, while others were along the more traditional Art School lines.  The Branch schools ran evening classes and traditional Art classes, while the newly built Central School in Margaret Street was equipped with airy, modern workshops for the execution of designs by students of craftsmanship.

One of the oldest and most popular Branch Schools was the purpose-built Moseley Road Art School (left), built in 1898 as a direct result of the expansion of interest in Art in Birmingham.  This was built to a design that was appearing all over Birmingham at this time, inspired by the work of architect John H. Chamberlain.  The architectural firm of Martin and Chamberlain was responsible for all the Birmingham School of Art buildings, being architects to the Board Schools from 1871 until 1902.  A journalist of the time commented that “All [these buildings] paraded the bright red brick of revolution and the pink terracotta symbols of municipal pride”.  This “parade” of new, bright, artistic buildings was a direct result of the “Civic Gospel”, a programme of municipal regeneration for Birmingham which planned to make Birmingham the centre of a new Renaissance.  This plan had been instigated in the 1870s by various members of the board for municipal regeneration and artistic committees in the city; the people of Birmingham had worked together as never before to produce a new, creative, thriving metropolis, and they had much of which to be proud.

Walter Crane, advocate of the Arts and Crafts movement and author of many books on the subject, was the Examiner for the Birmingham School of Art in 1889, and his Examiner’s Report praised the work of the School and suggested the extension of the School in line with the growing interest in arts and crafts, and the development of crafts workshops. This was partly due to an increase in the number of women students attending the municipal Art schools in Birmingham, both as fee-paying and scholarship students.  Crafts were seen as a suitable occupation for a woman, although many argued that it was merely fashionable, and that women “amateurs” were taking up the places at the schools which could have been more useful occupied by men.  In 1920 the Moseley Road school added an extension on to the back of the building, which can still be seen today, as workshops specifically for women students. Birmingham School of Art was the first Art School in the country to pass into municipal control, in 1883, and thus gain financial autonomy, and later they fought for and were to win independence in their teaching methods.  It became the model for similar schools in London and Leicester, and by the turn of the century the newly formed Board of Education, which covered Science and Arts, was so proud of the work of the Birmingham School that it sent the students’ work all over the world to be displayed.  The younger generation of artists that came from the Art Schools were more open to ideas and influences from diverse sources and soon made a name for themselves that was a tribute to the work of the Civic Gospel thirty years before. The Moseley building has been flagged as being at risk by the Victorian Society.

One Million Tiny Plays About Britain

I am easily tempted by Amazon’s Kindle Daily Deals, and often buy a book I might not otherwise buy, because it’s cheap and it sounds interesting. Last week’s purchase was One Million Tiny Plays about Britain, by Craig Taylor, who, among other things, writes for The Guardian, and it is from his column of the same title that this book is derived. As someone who loves overhearing conversations on the bus or in the street, and often reports amusing ones to friends, I found this book particularly appealing. These snippets of conversation are imagined, not really overheard, although one can imagine that many of them were inspired by real life, as there is often the ring of truth about them. Each ‘play’ is quite short, and they don’t link up at all, so it’s easy to zoom through them (I had read nearly half the book in one sitting before I remembered that I was only going to have a quick look at it), but the plays provide some remarkable insights into people’s characters, as well as into contemporary life in Britain.

The characters who appear in the plays are from all walks of life, and a range of nationalities, but they all appear in different places in Britain. The reader is launched into a conversation between (usually) two protagonists, and after a crucial moment, the dialogue ends. I was often left wondering what had come before, and what would happen next, which is the point, I think: you have to use your own imagination to get the most out of the plays. You can read the plays as entertaining, some very funny, but actually there is more to see: some are sad, such as the confused elderly woman talking to a visiting nurse; some are amusingly familiar, such as the father trying to stop his small daughter talking; and some are just hilarious and made me want to read them out to anyone who would listen.  The plays have also been performed, and you can see a taster here.

The plays cover a huge range of aspects of contemporary British life, from immigration and racism, to relationships, love and infidelity; sport, shopping, house-buying; drunken behaviour and crime, and emo teens. You could read this book in a couple of hours, but it’s worth spending more time over, as each play is well-crafted and conjures remarkably vivid scenes and characters with just a few words. It exposes Britain in all her glory, or otherwise, and is irresistible. At a time when we are celebrating all things British, it seems appropriate to read this book.

By the way, as a result of reading this book, I find myself constantly eavesdropping. I overheard a great conversation last week:

Man 1: Well, they only install domestic-grade products, so only up to 8 feet tall.

Man 2: But do they do triples?

Man 1: Yes, of course. Call him – he’s a lovely bloke, though he’s a bit of a disaster.

I have no idea what they were talking about but was highly amused. You have been warned: this book will turn you into an eavesdropper.

The Mystery of ‘A Persian Youth’

I do like a good mystery, and this one has got me thinking. In BMAG this week, I noticed a painting entitled ‘A Persian Youth’, oil on canvas, painted around 1840, and gifted to the museum in 1930. It was originally attributed to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and indeed the BMAG website still attributes it to Rossetti; but recent research suggests it’s not by DGR. The gallery are looking for alternatives; suggestions have included an early Millais, or even Richard Dadd. Any suggestions? To me, there is something about this chap’s face which reminds me of some of the faces in Millais’s ‘Ferdinand and Isabella’, but of course that’s not enough to go on. (And actually it seems equally reminiscent of the figure in Dadd’s ‘Bacchanalian Scene’).