Buildings, graffiti, carvings, architecture, art, all stemming from the same concept – people feeling the need to make their mark on the planet in their frantic yet futile quest for immortality.
We stood outside St Pauls Church, built in 1776. Here we saw the beauty of the words etched onto the buildings, the beauty of the craft. This was an exercise in making us see. People’s initials were carved on the side of the church; hieroglyphics, engravings and markings, each with their own separate meanings, each with their own stories. Deep engravings had made throughout history to tagging, now not just with permanent markers but also with stones or anything else that came to hand. Along the church, you could see dates and picture when and where the markings were made – D.L. 1809. Z. 1950.
As a species we need to function because of words on buildings. Signage etched on buildings used to indicate jobs for life, materiality on signage. Signs aren’t so much created to be part of architectural design anymore, more so than not they are designed to be disposed of when the business undergoes a re-branding, or the business goes out of business to be replaced by another business.
We were going to look at the hoardings of Taylor and Challen Limited, a Jewellery Quarter based company. Taylor and Challen owned several businesses within the Jewellery Quarter, and each one we would see would have signage emblematic of the era in which the building was owned. We walked down Henrietta Street. Underneath our feet we were invited to look down, and saw that the pavement we were walking on had been supplied by Cakemore Bricks, a Black Country brickmaker, advertising their wares literally, on the street.
Some buildings derelict and unused, some turned into resident quarters or artist studios. On our right, the Derwent Foundry, lettering at the top of the building in yellow, the premises now converted into flats, however, the lettering had been preserved. Underneath an iron bridge, we were invited to touch the bricks and see the chalk marks that had been written on the walls by today’s employees.
Right onto Constitution Hill, we noticed a stained glass window had been covered over with a sign saying that the building was now being used as the Consulate to Pakistan. A door was open, so our party went in and looked inside. We could see that the sign revealed who had put the stained glass window there to advertise their business. It previously had been owned by Barker Brothers, a silversmithers in the Jewellery Quarter. ‘BB’ had also been carved, seemingly unprofessionally, into the wooden bannister.
Back onto the street, we observed the former H.B. Sale Building, designed in 1895 and 1896 for a die-sinker firm, now in a state of disrepair, and despite bearing a golden sign saying ‘China Village Restuarant’, was now actually operating as ‘Syriana’, a Syrian/Lebanese restaurant. Up Constitution Hill, we saw three more buildings built for Taylor & Challen premises, each echoing the typography fashions of the times, one was from 1910, and another featuring ceramic tiling built in 1938, showing that a good amount of money had been spent on this signage.
We went across a side road, which saw an old pub now in use as an off-licence, and then went onto Livery Street. A hoarding erected on our left showed the back of one of the Taylor & Challen premises, its lettering painted or whitewashed onto the brickwork in capital letters, in order to give absolute visibility to passing trains/trade. To our right, the Gothic Vaughton Works, now a backpackers’ hostel, the ‘Gold and Silversmiths’ cladding chipped-off.
Taking a right, we went back onto Cox Street and saw a new-build block of flats, Midland Court, in cast lettering rather than stonemasonry. Walking up Mary Street, away from St Paul’s Square, we saw Bloc, a boutique hotel made out of engineering brick designed by BPN Architects. The name of the hotel appeared three times – visible on the side of the building, above the main entrance, and written in the window. Looking closely, it seemed as though the lettering on the side of the building had been laser-cut out of the casting that was now in place over the door. Simple, but effective, especially in terms of being pleasing to the eye and also in terms of cost.
Going down a side road, making our way, we saw a building for T&J Hughes, a jewellery case manufacturers and patterners, which boasted superb a superbly carved drain. Going onto Vittoria Street, we saw the gothic Birmingham School of Jewellery, established in 1890, and acquired by the old Birmingham Polytechnic in 1989. Onto Warstone Lane, things appeared different. The roads opened up in front of us and suddenly we were bombarded with words and logos. Thin logos of Urban Coffee Company, Coral, Tesco and Subway, all instantly brand-recognisable, and threatening to date on an ephemeral basis, rather than with the classic signage on the establishments that we had seen on our journey.
As was pointed out, permanence wasn’t always a feature in the Victorian era – an old bank, now converted into a generic HSBC or Lloyds or Natwest, simply had ‘Bank (est 1836) carved into its side. As we concluded our walk down the road, we noticed that the buildings were being replaced by a clutch of small independent businesses and jewellers, occasionally branching out into bigger buildings such as Robinson & McEwan and A.J. Smith’s (a variety works.) Opposite Vertu, on the corner of Frederick Street, we saw the Thomas Fattorini Factory, a business established by 6th generation Italian immigrants. The sign stood out against the skyline, and to our right, we could still see the top of the Library of Birmingham, standing out proudly like a Belisha Beacon. I could have made my way home from there. I reckon actually, for the sake of this piece, I should have done.