Skip to main content

Public Statues and Sculpture Association

June 19, 2024

The City of Birmingham evokes a variety of associations ranging from the Bull Ring and Black Sabbath to its industrial history, but few people would immediately consider its public art. This is astonishing given Birmingham’s long and rich history in the area; in fact, Jonathan Berg claims that the City of Birmingham ‘has one of the best collections of public art in the UK’ with ‘arguably the greatest concentration and variety of significant works’ and although difficult to quantify, his assertion holds some merit.

In 1998, George Noszlopy’s pioneering Public Sculpture of Birmingham highlighted the extent and diversity of the city’s public sculpture 1G. T. Noszlopy, Public Sculpture of Birmingham (ed. J. Beach), Liverpool, 1998.. Nearly a decade later Noszlopy followed this up with Birmingham Public Sculpture Trails to which Berg contributed the photographs. 2G. T. Noszlopy with F. Waterhouse, Birmingham Public Sculpture Trails, Liverpool, 2008. These, together with three of his own publications on the city make the author extremely well-placed to produce this fascinating survey of Birmingham’s Public Art. 3Jonathan Berg, Discovering Birmingham, Birmingham Picture Library, 5th edition 2022: Jonathan Berg, Invention & Design , Elkington of Birmingham, Birmingham Picture Library, 2021; Jonathan Berg, Positively Birmingham, Birmingham Picture Library, 5th edition 2015.

Berg draws our attention to the amazing scope of public sculpture Birmingham has to offer with his readable, informative text and beautiful colour illustrations, each of which has its own brief commentary. Many of Birmingham’s public statues have moved around as the city has developed and evolved, and over the years there have been numerous changes and additions to Birmingham’s public art. In such instances, Berg records the previous site, often explaining the reason for their relocation.

Almost certainly the earliest work in the city, the impressive equestrian bronze statue of George I by Jan van Nost the Elder (c.1655 –c.1712), which stands outside the Barber Institute, was itself relocated.  Shrewdly purchased from Dublin by the Trustees of the Institute in 1937 when as Berg explains, it was among the statues of British monarchs deemed no longer desirable by newly independent Eire.

Recording the works chronologically, Berg observes that the Victorian and Edwardian periods ‘left a remarkable legacy of public sculpture’ and highlights an impressive group of statues by leading sculptors in Birmingham. The statue of the Quaker corn merchant, Joseph Sturge, (1862) a founder of The British Anti-Slavery Society,  whose abolitionist campaigning resonates today, is a fine example. His Portland stone figure, flanked by Charity and Peace is by John Thomas (1813–1862) one of the most successful sculptors of the period. Thomas was talent spotted in Birmingham by the architect Charles Barry and worked for him on the façade of the city’s Edward VI’s Grammar School (demolished), before moving to London to sculpt figures on the Houses of Parliament. Berg’s photograph, however, shows this significant statue is now in dire need of maintenance.

The New Sculpture movement is well-represented in Birmingham as Berg demonstrates. Albert Toft (1862–1949), who began his career as a principal modeller for the local art-metalwork manufacturer Elkington & Co., was responsible for the marble statue of Edward VII (1913); the bronze Boer War Memorial (1905) and the bronze figures of the four services on the exterior of the First World War Hall of Memory (1925). New Sculpture also features in Birmingham’s architectural relief sculpture with works in terracotta by Benjamin Creswick (1853–1946) on the former Bloomsbury Public Library and by Harry Bates (1850–1899) on the façade of the Victoria Law Courts designed by Aston Webb and Ingress Bell.

Birmingham’s civic sculpture was continued by William Bloye, a son of Birmingham and prolific sculptor, who even today is little known outside the city, and to whom Berg justifiably devotes an entire chapter. Bloye became assistant to George Frampton in London before returning to Birmingham to work in a style which reflects the New Sculpture as can be seen in his relief Allegories of Art & Industry (1919). Later he trained with Eric Gill and Berg’s short text highlights the influence this had on his style.

A sculptor whose work fell into obscurity due to changing taste, is William Mitchell (1925-2020). His vast Brutalist abstract concrete reliefs and sculptures which decorated shopping centres and underpasses in cities such as Coventry and Brighton in the 1970s became subject to removal decades later. In Birmingham though, the Climbing Wall (1968), Mitchell’s three reliefs with bold geometric and Aztec-like designs remained in place. Made from concrete cast in situ they enhance the subway entrances of Hockley Circus flyover. Part of Birmingham’s post war regeneration programme, their importance as the first works of their kind was recognised in 2022, when they were Grade II listed. The refurbishment of Quayside Tower, also saw the foresighted retention of Mitchell’s nineteen preformed concrete reliefs which had been commissioned by the local architect, John Madin, for his 1965 office block. Berg perceptively flags up these reliefs too as worthy of listing.

As Berg moves into the twenty-first century, women sculptors begin to appear. Inner Spirit (2001) by Amanda Brisbane, a stunning but little-known abstract work in blue glass and Welsh heather slate, and the exuberant bronze Diving Sculpture (2006) by Cathy Lewis, lead the charge. The following decade, Berg includes Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family (2014) which was commissioned by the Ikon Gallery after public consultation. The family unit of two single sisters with two children and one on the way, makes a powerful statement about society today. At Birmingham City University, Lip-sync (2023), by Holly Hendry, is one of the most recent works to be included in the volume. Commissioned by the university and curated by Eastside projects, this sculpture is typical of Hendry’s love of fluid, seemingly dynamic materials. Berg explains its reference to the Jacquard loom and the past industries of this area, commenting insightfully that Birmingham City University would benefit from more public art like this to enhance its built environment and distinguish it from similar looking commercial buildings.

Recently, Berg recognises there has been ‘something of a boom in Birmingham’s public art’.   The Raging Bull (2022) by Artem, an animated, mixed media, sculpture symbolises the city and was inspired by its industrial heritage. Intended to be temporary, the sculpture appeared at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in 2022 , but due to popular demand is now permanently displayed in New Street Station, renamed Ozzy, after Black Sabbath’s singer, Ozzy Osbourne — a very different animal from Laurence Broderick’s bronze bull, The Guardian (2003), in the Bull Ring. Several similarly fascinating, sometimes quirky sculptures are featured too, such as Tim Tolkien’s Lanchester Car Monument (1995) commemorating the world’s first four-wheel petrol engine car, produced by George Frederick Lanchester at his nearby factory, and the colourful, Punch-like metal figure of acrobat Charles Blondin (1995) stepping onto a tightrope by Charles Richardson.

Berg draws on his knowledge of Birmingham’s social history to explain that the areas of Digbeth and Deritend have been declining for years resulting in buildings being left vacant. These have become magnates for street art and he illustrates effectively how these works can enhance neglected public spaces, as for example, the arresting sculpture Timbre (2011) by Wolfgang Buttress made from the copper roof of a former coffee shop and the stunningly vibrant painted mural, The Ratcatcher (2017) by Annatomix on a Grand Union canal warehouse wall.  These are permanent, but some works are more temporary, such as Gibb Street Woman, a mural on the former Birds custard factory, created for the High Vis festival in 2018. Sadly, though the large Venetian glass mosaic Horsefair by Kenneth Budd (1966) under Holloway Circus, which depicts the history of the site, is considered too expensive to restore. Berg expresses concern that this is one of many mid-twentieth century artworks at risk from redevelopment.

Berg is impressively knowledgeable about Birmingham and truly values its public art. He provides an excellent pictorial survey with a supporting text which both ‘tells a little of the story’ and looks to the future. The book neither sets out to be exhaustive in its commentary and coverage nor overly art-historical in its depth and analysis, but it provides an intriguing overview and sufficient information to whet the reader’s appetite to discover more. In 1887, according to an article in the Magazine of Art, Birmingham was ‘perhaps the most artistic town in England’4A. St Johnson, The Progress of Art in Birmingham, Magazine of Art, 1887, p. 159., Berg does much to argue that this is still the case.

Notes

  • 1
    G. T. Noszlopy, Public Sculpture of Birmingham (ed. J. Beach), Liverpool, 1998.
  • 2
    G. T. Noszlopy with F. Waterhouse, Birmingham Public Sculpture Trails, Liverpool, 2008.
  • 3
    Jonathan Berg, Discovering Birmingham, Birmingham Picture Library, 5th edition 2022: Jonathan Berg, Invention & Design , Elkington of Birmingham, Birmingham Picture Library, 2021; Jonathan Berg, Positively Birmingham, Birmingham Picture Library, 5th edition 2015.
  • 4
    A. St Johnson, The Progress of Art in Birmingham, Magazine of Art, 1887, p. 159.

Jonathan Berg, Birmingham’s Public Art, Birmingham Picture Library, 1 November 2023.

Hardback, pp. 180, over 300 colour illustrations

ISBN-13:  978-1739645717

£20.00