My final week as Artist in Residence at the Museum is now over, the past month has gone so quickly, packed full of new sights, events and meeting new people. During my residency I have been researching pieces within the collections, this research will now be used to create a new piece for BMAG to go on display in January. Continuing with my own practice, interested in the act of looking, the residency has encouraged me to focus on the history behind ‘the gaze’ concerning Women and their image. This is something that became prominent during my research where many of the prints and drawings I looked at depicted women carrying out private acts, often within interior settings, documenting these for the viewer to enjoy. My progress and the ideas behind my new work and its development will be documented by the BMAG team in the coming weeks, please keep an eye out!
I have now moved out of my studio, a space I have made my own during my time here. Not only used as a space for my daily practice I have held workshops for the public and opened it every Wednesday afternoon for visitors to come in and see what I have been up to.
On Friday the 17th of October I held one final printing drop in session, visitors were invited to take inspiration from the woodcut prints of Sir Edward Burne Jones I found in the collections and create their own Lino printed bookmarks.
Here is my own finished bookmark:
It was great fun to help others create something that they could take home and use, everybody enjoyed the Lino method of printing and made some great finished bookmarks.
The public facing studio has provided me with a wonderful space suited to my practice, through the glass panel I was able to watch passers by enjoying their visit as well as watching them watch me work. I thought I would play with this idea of the watcher and the watched by covering the glass with semi opaque plastic with peep holes cut away.
I invited the audience to peep through these observing stations to view inside my studio and view myself, in the process photographing this action. It has encouraged me to question the act of looking within a gallery setting, where looking is actively encouraged. This is not limited to the artwork on display alone but it can also be a place to watch other visitors too! I became aware of this within an engraving called The Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1787 engraved by Pierto Antonio Martini (from the painting by Johann Heinrich Ramberg), where the focus of the viewer is not purely on the gallery display but on the characters themselves within the exhibition.
Thank you everyone who participated, here are some images of those who decided to have a peak:
I would like to work with these images further, the blurred outlines of the viewers interests me as you have to fill in the missing information. I have experimented with these few images digitally, as seen below, but I would like to eventually turn them into prints.
Looking through the peep holes visitors could observe me inside my studio:
I keep returning to this circular shape to frame my images, over the coming weeks I will explore how I can create a sculptural structure that forms this shape on which I hope to print upon. For now, here are some previous experiments into this form:
Finally I want to thank all the staff at BMAG who have given their time generously to view works, arrange events and help me to develop my ideas for this residency to produce a new commission for the Museum. I can’t wait to get started and look forward to its completion.
Whitworth Wallis Artist in Residence
On Friday 17th October staff and volunteers from Soho House Museum attended a special service at Westminster Abbey. The service was to commemorate a memorial stone dedicated to Matthew Boulton.
This is not the first time Boulton has been memorialised. Brummies are familiar with the gold statue on Broad Street that depicts Boulton, his business partner James Watt and Soho’s master engineer William Murdoch.
Matthew Boulton was a master manufacturer in the 18th century and along with other members of the Lunar Society has been credited for developing concepts and techniques that laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution.
There are several other places throughout the city of Birmingham that memorialise Matthew Boulton. Matthew Boulton College opened in 1957 in his honour, and Boulton Road in Handsworth is a stone’s throw away from Soho House, where he lived for 43 years and which displays the first of three blue plaques.
Sarehole Mill in Hall Green was leased by Boulton between 1756 and 1761. He probably used the mill to produce sheet metal until all production moved to the new Soho Manufactory in the 1760s. Today the mill displays a blue plaque recording Boulton’s time spent there. Steelhouse Lane in Birmingham city centre also has a blue plaque. It was here that Boulton was born and his father had a toy, button and buckle workshop.
In 1788 Boulton established his Soho Mint and in 1797 he won a contract to produce Britain’s copper coinage. During the next two years his mint struck 45 million coins. Boulton was able to provide the Royal Mint with better machinery and coins from his workshops were exported around the world. Most importantly, his coin designs were so good it hugely decreased forgery, thus enabling the working classes a secure form of payment for a day’s work.
On 2nd November 2011, in recognition of their advancements in engineering and coinage, Boulton and Watt were immortalised by the Bank of England on the fifty pound note.
On 10th March 2009, he along with other industrialists and inventors was honoured with the issue of a Royal Mail postage stamp. The stamp bares his image alongside the Soho Manufactory – home to his Sheffield Plate, Sterling Silver tableware and Ormolu ornamental wares.
Matthew Boulton is celebrated in St Mary’s Parish Church, Handsworth. Boulton, Watt and Murdoch were all buried in the churchyard. The church was later extended over the site of his grave. In recognition of this, inside, on the north wall of the Sanctury is a large marble monument to him, commissioned by his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton.
Very active in public life, Boulton was involved with Birmingham Dispensory (which provided the poor with medicines), the General Hospital and established Soho Manufactory’s insurance scheme. This provided financial support for his workers who were sick and became the model for later schemes.
In the Westminster order of service The Bidding reads:
‘We come to add another illustrious name, that of Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, to the long list of distinguished men and women from the United Kingdom and from overseas who are buried or memorialised in Westminster Abbey.’
‘James Watt was given a memorial 189 years ago, within a few years of his death in St Paul’s Chapel […] Now an omission will be corrected. Matthew Boulton, without whom his achievements might not have been recognised, will be memorialised beside his business partner.’
Boulton and Watt’s Smethwick engine, the world’s oldest working steam engine can be seen at Thinktank Museum and the Archives of Soho House, including thousands of Boulton’s letters can be viewed by appointment at the Library of Birmingham.
Visitor Services Assistant,
It is my third week at the Museum, and it has been a busy one before I leave on the 17th of October. This week I visited the Museum Collections Centre in Duddeston, home to all the objects not currently on site at Museums across Birmingham, I ran a ‘Big Print’ workshop on the 4th of October in my studio as one of many activities taking place within the Museum as part of Fun Palaces, and I have been working on my ideas for the Final work.
During my time at the Museum I have been carrying out research into pieces held at the Museum to generate a new piece of work in response to what I have seen. Taking inspiration from artists such as Hans Sebald Beham and Helen Chadwick who have used a circular shape within their work, I have been playing with this circular form as a basis to my work. When looking at these artists I became aware of the effect the circular form had on me as a viewer, the shape draws your attention into the image having associations with an old fashioned peep hole of which to view others through.
Here is a piece I am working on that incorporates this circular frame:
I have been playing with the use of coiled newsprint paper to form a circular surface on which to screen print upon, I am interested in the distortion of imagery to create a closer inspection from the viewer. During my residency I have seen many images that observe women carrying out certain actions from bathing to changing to sleeping, all private and quite intimate acts however, they are on display for us to observe. It is the subject of women and their image which I think I will focus on as the basis to my piece.
I wanted to learn more about how other artists have used photography within their work to stage certain acts and how they use technology to distort the images they work with. Two artists that do this are Mohammed Bourouissa and Semyon Faibisovich, artists who have pieces held at the Museum Collections Centre (MCC). It was a great opportunity to view the pieces in person and see the techniques used by the artists.
Semyon Faibisovich’s images examine contemporary urban life in his home town of Moscow and particularly the lives of those at the bottom of the social ladder. Using a mobile phone, Faibisovich takes photographs of people on the streets and uses these low resolution images to make his oil paintings, enlarging the images to life size and then painting over the image creating pixelated distortions. This was clear when up close to the works entitled Repose, from At the Stop series, 2009 and Sick on the Way?, 2008 from the same series.
Mohammed Bourouissa is an Algerian photographer who uses staged photography to create images that appear real, often depicting moments of physical or emotional tension through the careful arrangement of people and their gestures. They leave you questioning what has happened in the image or what will happen, I like the suspense he creates leaving you wanting more. I saw La rencontre (The Meeting) and Le toit (The Roof), 2005-2007 during my visit to the MCC and both looked at this tension between the characters depicted.
After viewing these specific pieces I spent the rest of my time exploring the vast number of objects and works stored within the centre, it is very easy to get carried away! These are just some of the things I came across:
The Museum Collections Centre (MCC) has a huge natural history collection, with examples of taxidermy ranging from delicate butterflies to a brown bear! Although not relevant to my practical work it was fascinating to see such an array of animals dating back from the 1800’s.
The MCC holds open afternoons for the public on the last Friday of every month and are open for pre-arranged tours and study days, for more information or to make a booking visit: www.bmag.org.uk/Museum-collections-centre.
Finally, thank you to everyone who came to ‘The Big Print’ drop in session to have a taster of what you can achieve through printmaking. From 11-4pm the studio was full of people experimenting with polystyrene prints and mono printing, some fantastic work was made which people could take home or add to the ‘Big Print’ wall in my studio to remain till the end of my residency.
Next week will be my final as artist in residence at BMAG, it has gone so quickly! I am keen to hold one last printing workshop, this time with adults, taking place on Friday the 17th of October between 12.30-2.30pm. We will be making bookmarks inspired by Edward Burne-Jones intricate woodblock patterns I came across in the collections using a Lino print.
Here is one of Edward Burne-Jones’s designs in the collection originally made for the boarder of a book to get you started:
Whitworth Wallis Artist in Residence
150 years ago today the Sultanganj Buddha, one of the most important objects in Birmingham’s collection, was offered to the Corporation of Birmingham. On 7 October 1864 Samuel Thornton, a former mayor of the city, wrote to Birmingham Borough Council offering:
“…the colossal figure of Buddha, and the large marble one, to the town, to be placed in the Art Museum, now being erected, where they may be duly and properly located for the free inspection of the inhabitants of Birmingham…”
Samuel Thornton’s main business was as a railway ironmonger but he also had an interest in ancient India. Following its discovery by engineers constructing the Indian Railway in 1861, he paid £200 to have the two-metre tall copper Buddha transported to England.
In 1867 the Buddha went on display in the ‘Corporation Art Gallery,’ a room in the Central library. In 1885 it went on display in the newly built Museum and Art Gallery. Today the statue is displayed in the Buddha Gallery. Offerings of flowers are frequently left at the feet of the statue by Buddhist visitors. To commemorate the 150th anniversary, the statue will be blessed by monks from the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara at a public ceremony on Wednesday 8 October between 11am and 1pm.
Curator of World Cultures
In 1596 William Shakespeare began to write his tragedy Romeo & Juliet, inspired by a narrative poem which had been popular while the Bard was still a boy in Stratford upon Avon. In nearby Birmingham a remarkably similar tale was being lived out between two prominent families: the Smalbrokes and the Colmores.
The problems between the Capulets and the Montagues were, in the original story, based merely upon mutual envy. Shakespeare escalated the grudge into a full-scale feud, which mirrored the running battles and hatred which divided the townsfolk of sixteenth century Birmingham into two camps – those who supported William Colmore and his sons, and those who favoured the brothers Richard and Thomas Smalbroke.
The origins of the feud concerned libel actions; accusations of usury and nepotism; disputes over wills and even a disputed marriage settlement: Thomas Smalbroke’s wife Elizabeth was the sister of William Colmore and of Ambrose Colmore who was a joint defendant against a charge of embezzlement brought by his brother against him and Richard Smalbroke.
A complicated web of suspicion and lies which led eventually to the Court of Star Chamber – the highest in the land – and even to an armed stand-off at Blakesley Hall in Yardley.
Blakesley Hall is the house which Richard Smalbroke built in 1590 on land which he had inherited from his father. Richard divided his time between his main residence The Ravenhurst at Bordesley and Blakesley Hall which was also the matrimonial home of Richard’s only son Robert.
On 1st July 1604, at Bordesley Thomas Smalbroke was attacked with a hunting staff by William Colmore’s son Thomas. Colmore then tried, unsuccessfully, to shoot his enemy who ran for safety to the house.
When Thomas Smalbroke rode to Packington for a warrant for the arrest of his attacker, Colmores waited to intercept him on his return along the Coventry Road. Richard got to him first and the pair made it to Yardley. Later that evening Thomas set off again for his home at the top of the Bull Ring but was met by one of his sons who told him to go back to Yardley where the brothers watched from the top floor window of Blakesley Hall as young Colmore and his servant, both armed with pistols, sought a Smalbroke to shoot.
The town was not safe for any of the Smalbrokes that night. William Colmore was ‘most irreligiously and profanely swearing and protesting many times by the blood of God that he would his son had well boxed Smalbroke’ – that he ‘would to God he had sped him’.
Thomas Smalbroke told the Town Constable to arrest Thomas Colmore, but it was only by the intervention of Sir Thomas Holte of Aston that the writ was finally served.
Also sheltering in the house at the time of the siege were Richard’s son and daughter-in-law and their eight-year old daughter Barbara who would, two years later, inherit Blakesley Hall and all its lands on the death of her father. Her mother Elizabeth would then re-marry. Her new husband was that same Thomas Colmore! Had he and Elizabeth known each other before she married Robert? Had he been waiting in the wings for a second chance to claim his bride and were they the real-life star-crossed lovers with an altogether different ending. Who was the true target for the Colmores on that July evening in 1604?
A final twist to this saga. In 1614 Richard’s granddaughter Barbara married Henry Devereux of Castle Bromwich Hall. Her new mother-in-law, Lady Devereux, was formerly Catherine Arden – a kinswoman of Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden whose family seat was Park Hall, Castle Bromwich. Did William Shakespeare get all of his inspiration for his play from that poem? Or did his mother tell him about the goings-on in Birmingham?
As one of Blakesley Hall’s team of visitor-friendly volunteers, I hope that the embellishments to the above true record of sixteenth-century events sound plausible enough to claim, if not a possible Shakespeare connection, then at least a parallel with one of his most loved plays. Yardley may not be a substitute for Verona, but beautiful Blakesley Hall, in old age, remains inspirational.
The plot thickens! Since writing this blog post I have found out that Robert Smalbroke died from natural causes in 1603, so it seems that Thomas Colmore’s errand to Blakesley in 1604 was not to murder him but a failed attempt to elope with his widow.
Volunteer at Blakesley Hall
I am lucky enough to be a volunteer at Blakesley Hall, the dearest little Tudor gem out in Yardley surrounded by its own garden oasis, just bliss.
Here at Blakesley Hall we have all sorts of events going on for children, from Totstime Tuesday to Crafty Thursday. But the one that appealed to me above all was held on National Play Day 6th August and that was ‘Teddy Bears parachuting Picnic’ complete with a teddy bear hospital. I begged to be allowed to come in to help on that day as it sounded such fun and oh I love teddies. I was so very pleased to take part that I jumped at the chance when asked to become Nurse Teddy in charge of the teddy bear hospital. Here is my account of a happy sunny day enjoyed by the Blakesley Hall team.
I arrived early (as all good volunteers should), the sun was already high in the sky and everybody scurrying around, tables being moved outside and teddy parachute wire in place. My position of choice was in the corridor that leads to the outside world but also looks down on the reception area so good vantage point to say hello to teddies and minders. My table was set up with Maddies help and I donned my ‘uniform’, an apron covered in teddy bears and a mini teddy bear as a ‘fob watch’ and finally my official museum name badge of course. I had bought with me my teddy sick bed complete with pine bed, bedding and ‘sick’ rabbit to use as a conversation piece. I had travelled by bus with all this with much hilarity (one bus driver asked if I was leaving home). I straightened the bedding, checked my badge machine was in place and doctors kit by my side then a quick nod and thumbs up from Kim and we were open for business.
Within moments the children, Mums, Dads and assorted adults were flooding in complete with regulation teddies, dollies, dinosaurs, monkeys and all sorts of wonderful furry shaped objects. The sun had put a smile on everyone’s face and the children charged out into the fresh air looking for the hidden teddies in the grounds or eager for their own loved furry to fly. One or two shy ones hung back and it was then I was able to tell them the secret of the rabbit sitting in the teddy bed pretending to be a teddy (but don’t tell anyone).
For a little while I was only saying hello and explaining that after teddy had ‘flown’ do come and get him checked out. But very soon they were flooding back to have ted examined. If you want to examine a teddy for any injuries this is how you do it. Reassure owner, lie teddy, monkey etc. on back flex arms and legs, check eyes and head for bumps however this can altered, reduced or changed if a queue. Pronounce teddy fit or in need of a cuddle or two and then make a ‘Brave Blakesley Bear’ badge and send child on their way. Fortunately we had no serious injuries as everybody knows teddies bounce.
Some funny things did happen during the day. Two woman unconnected bought antique teddies to be examined by me to see if they could be mended in the mistaken belief that we had a fully functioning dolls hospital. With one of the ladies I had this very surreal conversation about not being set up for extensive surgery but eager to please I gave her an overview of how to mend the teds wobbly leg and we decided between us maybe he shouldn’t be flown.
One child insisted on having six plasters on her ted, he could hardly breathe, what is it with plasters and children? Later in the afternoon one three year old carefully dragged the giant panda off that had been sitting in the entrance hall and left her tiny teddy in its place fair swops she thought.
Late into the afternoon when everybody was flagging I had a last minute rush the teddies, plasters, bandages and badges were fairly flying out. I did pause for a moment and think with a longing for home and tea. Then I thought naa this is much more fun out at Blakesley Hall with the team being silly surrounded by sun burnt happy faces!
Volunteer at Blakesley Hall
This is one of our most frequent questions and the response always fills me with great pride. The simple answer is that it was purpose built as a museum and art gallery, and when it first opened its doors on November 28th 1885 it was as full of art as it is today.
Perhaps a broader question would be ‘WHY did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?”
The answer to this question is best understood as a series of steps beginning in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.
STEP 1 – Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham were competing to become England’s ‘second city’. The Middle Classes began to use art galleries as a means of expressing their identity and to raise the civic profile of the cities they lived in. However, in order for public museums and art galleries to be built local councils and governments had to change their attitudes towards the arts – this was a slow process. Groups of Art Reformers sprung up in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. They championed the idea of setting up galleries and had four main aims:
- To provide healthy recreation for the Working Classes
- To improve workers’ satisfaction in pleasurable labour and industrial design by providing objects of study
- To help workers to lead more fulfilling lives by showing them the grace and beauty of the world
- To help audiences see the ugliness created by industrial capitalism and make them change the modern urban environment
STEP 2 – Birmingham School of Design was established in 1843. Those involved with the school wanted an Industrial museum to display objects that would inspire the artisans. They wanted a gallery that would make art accessible to the greatest number of people. Suddenly there was an institution devoted to creating beautiful things but the setting was far from inspiring. The city centre was crowded with filthy slums. Chimneys churned out black smoke and people worked around the clock in unhygienic factories. (For a more fleshed out description of how bad conditions were for the average worker Charles Dickens gives some great descriptions of Birmingham and the Black Country during the 1840s in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’).
STEP 3 – Birmingham’s local government had a reputation for ‘penny-pinching narrow-mindedness’ (Stuart Davies, ‘By the Gains of Industry Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1885-1895’). As evidence of their lack of interest in culture, they failed the Free Libraries and Museums Act when it first came into being in 1845. It was finally passed on the 21st February 1860 and a committee was formed to create a library and Museum and Art Gallery. Around this time leading citizens remade the local government and the city was in a position to embrace some of the ideas advocated by the Art Reformers.
STEP 4 – The Birmingham Midland Institute opened a small exhibition of objects and pictures in 1860. The exhibition included the Bust of David Cox (so I like to think of this as the beginnings of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery!)
STEP 5 – Over the next 15 years the collection grew rapidly. There were numerous successful exhibitions including one of amour and jewellery, which attracted 160,000 visitors in 1868. There were huge donations from Philanthropists such as the Tangye Brothers, which amounted to millions of pounds in today’s money. The Public Picture Gallery Fund was launched in 1871 to collect and commission paintings. Frederick Leighton’s ‘A Condottiere’ was the first to be purchased in 1873. Mayor Joseph Chamberlain gave £1000 of his own money for an industrial museum in 1875. All of this interest meant that the council was under pressure to find a site and funds to build a gallery in the centre of the city.
STEP 6 – Joseph Chamberlain municipalised Birmingham’s failing gas works and made them highly successful.The company grew and had to move out of its offices. The council used the profits from the gas company to build new offices on the land acquired through the Free Libraries and Museums Act and put an art gallery on top. This is why there are so many stairs in the main entrance to the museum, as most of the galleries are on the second floor. Henry Richard Yeoville Thomason won a competition to design the building and Whitworth Wallis was selected to be the keeper. This meant he was responsible for collecting, displaying and securing the collection.
Saturday November 28th 1885 – The permanent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was opened with a celebration at the Town Hall and an address by the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII). It consisted of the main entrance, the Vestibule and Round Room, the ‘long gallery’, the Wedgewood and Italian galleries (no prizes for guessing what was in those) and the Industrial Hall. Nowadays the Italian gallery is the shop, the Wedgewood gallery is the Buddha gallery and the ‘long gallery’ is the Edwardian Tea Room.
I hope this goes somewhere to explaining – in a simplified way – how there came to be such a grand building in the centre of Birmingham and why it is such an important institution to the city and its people. In fact the simple answer to ‘Why did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?’ is for the people.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
For more information about the History of BMAG read the previous blog post: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery History Project.