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Art and civic culture in Birmingham in the late nineteenth century

  • Roy Hartnell


This paper looks at Joseph Chamberlain's Birmingham and claims that George Dawson's famous ‘civic gospel’ which laid the ground for the municipal reforms was permeated by a consensus view of the moral and civic role of art. It suggests that it was this combination of philosophy in action through art which created the special Birmingham context for a vibrant civic culture which led to the political and artistic achievements of the 1870s and 1880s. For a few brief years, this combination enabled Birmingham to stand above other British cities and lay claim to the titles of ‘the best-governed city in the world’ and ‘perhaps the most artistic town in England’.



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1 Carlyle, T., Letter to his brother, 10 08 1824, quoted in Showell, W., Dictionary of Birmingham (Oldbury, 1885), 30.

2 St Johnston, A., ‘The progress of art in Birmingham’, in The Magazine of Art (London, 1887).

3 Ralph, J., ‘The best-governed city in the world’, in Harper's Monthly Magazine (New York, 06 1890).

4 Timmins, S., The History of Warwickshire (Birmingham, 1889), 207.

5 Dawson, G., Inaugural Address at the Opening of the Free Reference Library, 26th October 1866 (Birmingham, 1866).

6 Dale, R.W., Political and Municipal Duty (Birmingham, 1884).

7 Armstrong, R.A., Henry William Crosskey: His Life and Work (Birmingham, 1895).

8 Seed, J., The Culture of Capital (Manchester, 1987), 27.

9 Chorley, K., Manchester Made Them (Manchester, 1950), 265.

10 Brooks, M.W., John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture (London, 1989), 235.

11 Birmingham Daily Post obituary of Chamberlain written by the Editor, J.T. Bunce, 23 October 1883. He also designed many larger mansions in the growing suburbs of Birmingham for his well-heeled Liberal friends including ‘The Grove’ (1877) for William Kenrick and ‘Highbury’ (1879) for Joseph Chamberlain.

12 Morris, W., Address, Birmingham Municipal School of Art (Birmingham, 1894); Rewald, J. (ed.), Camille Pissarro: Letters to his son Lucien (London, 1943); letter from Eragny, 5 November 1891; Adams, E.B., Bernard Shaw and the Aesthetes (Columbus, Ohio, 1971), 16; Wainwright, W.J., Report, Museum and School of Art Committee (Birmingham, 1890).

13 Rothenstein, W., Address, Birmingham Municipal School of Art (Birmingham, 1908).

14 Southall, J., Notes for Speech at unveiling of his fresco in Birmingham Art Gallery, 1916; see Breeze, G., Joseph Southall: Artist-Craftsman (Birmingham, 1984), 86.

15 The sculpture by Antony Gormley erected in Victoria Square in 1991 cost £70,000. The sculptor claimed ‘it should recapture a sense of the collective body – to make visual statements that can act as a cohesive force within the self-questioning and self-determination of a people and place.’ The former MP for Selly Oak, Sir Anthony Beaumont-Dark describes it differently – ‘On a good day my children could have done better – it looks like a doodle on the back of an envelope.’ Metronews, 20 September 1991, 3.

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Art and civic culture in Birmingham in the late nineteenth century

  • Roy Hartnell


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