Saturday, April 11th 2014
We are heading for the thriving and lively city of Birmingham which has plenty to offer the visitor, as we have discovered on previous trips (for example, see here, here and here) but today we are not staying in Birmingham but, we hope, going on from there by a special route.
We took a number 205 bus to Marylebone Station where we caught the 10:45 Chiltern Railways train terminating at Birmingham Snow Hill. Just before noon, we disembarked one stop before the end of the line at the delightfully “retro” Moor Street Station. (See here for background information on this Edwardian survivor.)
As we usually do, we went from Moor Street Station, through the Bull Ring into New Street. Known to travellers mainly as the name of Birmingham’s main railway station, New Street is in fact a long pedestrian thoroughfare lined with shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants. We had had a picnic breakfast aboard the train but we soon stopped at a Costa for coffee and cake!
Birmingham has a lot of fine buildings, many of these dating from Victorian times and now protected by an English Heritage listing. We admired and photographed a number of these as we continued our walk. Above are just two examples.
We reached our destination at Snow Hill Station where, in addition to the railway, there is also the Birmingham terminus of the Midlands Metro tram service. Were you to board the tram and pay £5, you would in exchange receive a return ticket to Wolverhampton and this is what we had planned to do. The route passes through Wednesbury and West Bromwich to arrive at a station called Wolverhampton St George’s. There are 23 stations along the route, including the two termini.
The distance from end to end is just over 12½ miles and the journey takes about 30 minutes. There is plenty to see along the route, especially if this is your first trip. Thus we arrived at Wolverhampton and, of course, set out to explore!
We found our way to a long thoroughfare called Dudley Street. This is a pedestrian-only street and some of the older shops are to be found here, as well as some spanking new ones. It seemed just as busy as Birmingham’s shopping centre but the pace was a little less frenetic perhaps. You felt you could stop and look around without people running into you.
Not the least of Wolverhampton’s impeccable Victorian credentials is this equestrian statue of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. By Thomas Thorneycroft (1815-85), the sculpture bears a simple inscription, “Albert, Prince Consort, born 1819, died 1861”, and was inaugurated by the Prince’s widow on what is said to have been her first public engagement after his death. That fact, together with the noble solidity of the Prince’s bearing, somehow makes this a very touching memorial.
From there, we made out way to the great church of St Peter. Church managers like to boast that their church has existed from ancient times but in the case of St Peter’s the boast has substance for there was a church here by no later than the 10th century, though the current building has been altered and extended since then.
In front of the church is a sculpture by Charles Wheeler (1892-1974), the eminent sculptor who grew up in Wolverhampton. No one can now know what Wulfrun actually looked like but this sculpture presents a plausible suggestion. Wulfrun is thought to have been the grand-daughter of King Aethelred I and was therefore a high-ranking citizen of Anglo-Saxon England. There is a curious story that in 943 she was abducted by Vikings when they captured the fort of Tamworth. This was presumably in order to extract a ransom as she appears again (assuming it is the same Wulfrun) in 985 when King Aethelred II grants her ten hides1 of land at a place called Heantune, which in Anglo-Saxon means ‘high farm/enclosure’. In 994, Wulfrun donated various pieces of this land as an endowment to the minster church that she helped found. The settlement that grew up around it thus became known as Wulfrun Heantune, which mutated in due course into modern Wolverhampton.
We next went to visit the Wolverhampton Art Gallery and here we spent some time. Photography was allowed everywhere except in one gallery where I think there were copyright issues of some kind. What follows is a selection of items seen. The gallery has a strong hands-on orientation which, I suppose, is the current fashion, though I am uncertain as to how much good this does. It also takes away valuable space that could otherwise be used for exhibiting works of art.
We were met in the entrance by this slightly startling sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi who looks as though he is running to catch a beach ball. The sculptor is given as Atri Brown, an artist about whom there seems to be little information available. Cecil ‘Atri’ Brown was born in 1906 and was active in the earlier half of last century. I have seen a hint that he is/was a local lad but don’t know this for certain.
It took me a moment to realize that this spiky portrait bust is in fact made out of wire coathangers welded together. The subject is Richard Jobson, Scottish TV presenter and film producer, among other things. If you do not know him, you may (or may not) find illumination on his Web site. The sculptor, David Mach (born 1956) is also Scottish and apparently chose Jobson as his subject because of his “typically Scottish features”. Mach also has a Web site and seems to have a bit of a thing about coathangers but also does other forms of sculpture and installations.
This piece represents Moses clutching to his bosom the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments which he has presumably just acquired from God. I like its modern feel and the way the figure is pared down to essentials without losing expressiveness. It has a mythic quality, which is fair enough, I think, given the subject. Evett (born 1923) has a Web site here.
I also liked this sculpture, entitled Diana and Actaeon. It is by local lad John Paddison (1929-2000). Similar to Moses, it has modern styling and a mythic feel to it but also a feeling of realism. In his portrayal of Diana, the artist has broken away from the conventional Greek beauty and made a rather ordinary-looking female figure whose movements nonetheless show the determination of her desire for revenge. In this representation, of furious goddess participates in the destruction of Actaeon, apparently shooting at him with a bow while his own hounds tear him to pieces. (If you need reminding of the story of Diana and Actaeon, there is a succinct account here.)
This beautiful work by Robert Jackson Emerson (1878-1944) was created in 1940. At first sight a work on the theme of “mother and child”, the baby has been given wings on his ankles, hence the title. Though born in Leicestershire, Emerson taught for some thirty-odd years in the Wolverhampton Municipal School of Art which makes him a Wolverhampton artist if only by adoption. A short article on this sculpture will be found here.
My last sculpture is by Charles Wheeler and it is entitled, reasonably enough, Mother & Child, and was probably sculpted in the 1960s. You might like to compare this with his sculpture of the Lady Wulfrun, shown earlier. This figure is notable for its elongation of the lower body, while the torso, arms, head and child have more natural proportions. Unlike paintings, which are flat, sculptures are meant to be viewed in the round. Positioning in galleries, however, does not always make this possible. Here we can access the sculpture on three sides and so I have taken several photos and combined them in a slide show. You can view it by clicking on the above image.
The art gallery’s collection includes several rooms of paintings. Above you see a general view of the Eighteenth Century Gallery, with the clothes rack in the foreground. These are garments for children to dress up in. I am not convinced that this either improves their understanding of art or helps encourage them to visit art galleries. I would prefer the space to be used to exhibit art as it should be seen and to allow more items to be accommodated.
This gallery is dominated by a large portrait of an obviously affluent family. It is attributed to Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) and is carefully planned and posed though the result is conventional. There is something curious about it: although it is “the family of Eldred Lancelot Lee” and shows his wife and ten children, the pater familias himself is not present. That is odd because the wealthy enjoyed having their portraits painted to show their wealth and status. Why, then, is the principal person missing? The eye is drawn to the eldest son in the foreground, proudly posed with his hand on the hilt of his sword. His bright blue coat make him stand out against the paler colours of the women’s dresses. The artist has chosen to focus on him in place of the missing father. (Update: The “mystery of the missing father” has been solved – see comments below.)
This trio of small paintings by Edward Bird (1772-1819) reflects the artist’s interest in unusual-looking people, grotesques and low-life. The pictures are perhaps meant to be humorous, mocking both tea drinkers themselves and (by exaggerating the supposed evils of tea) those who condemn it. They are caricatures or cartoons and compare tea drinkers, whether they indulge in order to follow fashion (1) or because they are addicted to tea (3), with the calm and contentment of the abstainer (2).
I was, of course, not going to miss the portrait of the magnificent beast shown above! Charles Towne (1763-1840) painted landscapes, animals and hunting scenes. Painted at a time when wild animals such as tigers were seen as exotic and frightful, fit only for zoos and as targets for big game hunters, the painting nevertheless captures something of the animal’s beauty, even if the head is more like that of a domestic moggy than of a tiger!
In the Victorian section there was the usual range from the sentimental, exemplified by the above scene of the soldier’s return to his home village by Philip Richard Morris (1838-1902), to the taste for the extoic (see below). As far as paintings were concerned, there was nothing that particularly took my attention in this section.
The above painting was done either by William-Adolphe Bouguerau or by someone working “in the manner of” the artist. It corresponds to a period when there was great interest among artists and writers in the customs, costumes and habits of localised groups of people such as beggars, gypsies, peasants and even certain classes of people in towns. The approach was “picturesque” rather than realistic.
My interest was, however, caught by this extraordinary majolica fountain in the middle of the gallery. Unfortunately, I know nothing about it though I was told that it had originally been kept outside. The decorative elements include a strange mixture of Classical mythology (the horned head of the god Pan), Western motifs (the winged cherubs) and lifelike representations of fish. It appeared to be in remarkably good condition with hardly any damage – all the more surprising as the material of which it is made is known for its fragility.
Leaving the gallery, we had a little look around town before starting back. We were far from seeing all the town has to offer and may even have missed the best bits. Perhaps we will return another time and try again. We found this old Victorian (1895) post office. No longer used for its original purpose, it is huge. This is just the façade: round the corner in the next street we found more of it, including what I supposed to be the sorting office and the parcels office.
In several places over the façade there appeared the “VR” monogram of Queen Victoria and, over the door, this elaborate piece of carving which includes the date 1895. This must have been an impressive institution in its day. It is no longer in use, however, and sports a property dealer’s board advertising it as a “restaurant opportunity”. The post office, as a business, is still in the same street (Lichfield Street), having moved twice already.
As for us, it was time to start the return journey, first taking the tram to back Birmingham, where we had a late lunch or early dinner in an Italian restaurant before regaining Moor Street Station and boarding our train to Marylebone.
Waiting for the 205 bus outside Marylebone Station, I could not resist photographing, as I always do, the iron and glass canopy stretching between the station and what was once the station hotel. It fascinates as much with its elegant design as with imaginings of the Victorian ladies and gentlemen it once sheltered from the elements as they moved between the hotel and the station, accompanied by flunkies carrying their voluminous luggage. Their day is long past and even more distant from us is the day of the Lady Wulfrun, benefactress of the minster church and perhaps unwitting founder of the town that took her name. And yet, both eras are still in some sense present, written as they are into the fabric of this strange little island nation.
1A hide was a unit of land measurement, though it is difficult to say exactly how large it was as its value seems to vary from place to place. The word is cognate with hiwan, meaning ‘family’, and the hide was considered enough land to sustain a family. It was also used as a land measure for tax purposes.