Architectura Victoriana: The JH Chamberlain tours

Looking at Victorian Architecture can be like seeing evidence from an ancient civilisation, one far in advance of our own. Their buildings were designed to allow adaption and extension without spoiling an intrinsic harmony, but so often when we do, it is with an insensitive eye and clumsy hand. The new bricks don’t quite match in size or colour, ornamentation is courser, tiles and glazes duller and flatter. A gothic window may be filled in like an eyepatch, or a new entrance cut through a wall with none of the theatre or sense of occasion beloved by the Victorians.

It’s fun to watch tastes in architecture come and go, almost like watching a carousel. Arts and crafts touches are almost tidal in their acceptance and rejection. Times of austerity can have an effect on design but we have never quite ever dared to revisit the outrageous opulence of the 1890s. But we can reappraise our take on it: a tiled surprise beneath the hall carpet or intricate wood work laying dormant below a thin veneer of plywood.

I’ve always loved witnessing the playfulness that Victorian designers had, the fun the architects had is more obvious than any time before or since. I love seeing their treatment of factories and warehouses: many times presenting them as palaces or civic buildings. The Tolkien-inspiring Waterworks tower in Edgbaston is essentially a chimney disguised as an richly ornamented Italianate tower. Sometimes these disguises are to appease the residents of well-to-do areas but often it is for the fun of designing something wonderful. John Henry Chamberlain (who designed the waterworks tower) is surely the most flamboyant of Birmingham’s Victorian architects, continually surpassing his own benchmarks of decorative design, whether for industrial works, hospitals, churches or homes.

I was very pleased to be commissioned by Birmingham Architecture Festival to create a guided tour about Chamberlain. I regularly meet people (including residents) who express surprise that Birmingham can yield an architecture tour, yet the streets I walk down in the city centre are lined with astonishing work of a calibre to rival any other English city. And not lone examples, but entire blocks of beautiful brick and moulded terracotta. The Birmingham I picture is rich and red. We have been fortunate to be granted access to Margaret Street School of Art and visitors will see the careful detail present at every level, from stair posts to hand-shaped bricks to light wells. The tour will end at Ikon gallery and indeed take in all the Chamberlain work in the city centre.

Two tours are running at 3pm that afternoon (Sun 26th May) : Joe Holyoak will lead Architectura Victoriana: Brick and portray Chamberlain through an architect’s eyes, I will lead Architectura Victoriana: Art from the perspective of an artist. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance from Ikon.

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