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.

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Birmingham and Cornwall

Among the Missing

Recently I saw an excellent exhibition at the Penlee House Gallery in Penzance, Walter Langley and the Birmingham Boys. Before I saw the exhibition I was only vaguely aware of the connections between Birmingham artists and the Newlyn artists, but the connection is clearly a significant one. As the gallery information says, quoting from the Magazine of Art in 1898, “It was Birmingham that first discovered Newlyn”. Walter Langley himself was Birmingham born and trained, and was commissioned by a Birmingham patron to paint the lives of working fishermen in Cornwall. From a poor, working-class background himself, Langley sympathised with the hard-working and often difficult lives of his subjects, and the paintings on show in the exhibition demonstrate the depth of his empathy.

Paintings such as ‘Waiting the Return of the Fleet’ (1903), for example, demonstrate the patience and pain of the women in the fishing community – Langley’s figures are wholly believable, and conjure up their lives for the viewer. Paintings like this and ‘Lingering Hope’ (1882), which shows an elderly couple evidently thinking of their missing son, are both very much of the Newlyn School, in their style and their subject matter, but also very much of their time. There is something remarkably – and appealingly – Victorian about Langley’s paintings. The subject matter was bound to appeal to Victorian culture, I suppose: tragedy, religion, work, and some wistful orphaned children, are combined nicely in the subjects and beautifully executed, too. In several cases, lines from Tennyson (including some from In Memoriam) are used as a title, which heightens the sense of tragedy and loss.

The paintings cover life in fishing communities, from love and loss to hard work and poverty, with moments of joy interspersed with pain. Of all the painters, however, Langley’s are, to my eye at least, the best: they are generally unsentimental, almost factual, in their depiction of the life of the village, and yet they have the power to move the viewer. This is particularly the case with the paintings of loss, such as ‘Disaster!’ (1888), in which the stricken face of a young woman with a child dominates the foreground, and ‘Among the Missing’ (1884), in which one can feel the tragedy, and it is difficult not to become immersed in the potential stories of the characters portrayed.

The exhibition includes paintings by a range of artists who were trained in Birmingham but painted in Cornwall, including Edwin Harris, William Banks Fortescue, Frank Richards, William Arthur Breakspear and William John Wainwright. I found the work of these other artists to be often more sentimental and idealised than those of Langley, often verging on the pastoral. There is certainly less hard work and sorrow in the work of these other artists, and it is the Victorian unflinching facing of life and death that Langley depicts that makes his paintings stand out.