20 April 2016

Birmingham's Silver Fish

At the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham is a magnificent swan automaton made in silver in 1773 by James Cox in conjunction with John Joseph Merlin; both were inventors, the latter keeping Merlin's Mechanical Museum (from 1783), and the former a jeweller, toymaker and producer of large and extravagant 'sing-songs' that were sent to the East.* The Swan was formed of intricately shaped and layered silver to produce the feathers, hiding the mechanics that make the swan preen itself and then curl its neck to the stream below (made with twisted glass rods that turn and catch the light to mimic water) and catch a little silver fish, one of many that wiggle amongst the ripples (see below). The swan then lifts its head and gobbles down the little fish. It is a beautiful piece of mechanical art.

In 1774 it was in display in Cox's museum in London, and was still there in 1791, once Cox's Museum had become Davie's Grand Museum, but after that its movements are hazy till it is next heard of in France in the 1860s. What is interesting is that in the early 1800s the Birmingham silversmiths seem to have, either by accident or design, copied the design of the fishes to make intricate saleable items (below).

A silver fish vinaigrette made by Joseph Taylor in
Birmingham in about 1814.
These are vinaigrettes, which were designed to contain a sponge soaked in a sweet smelling oil that could be surreptitiously sniffed if you were unfortunate enough to be sat next to an unpleasantly fragrant person at dinner, or elsewhere. These were made by Birmingham makers such as Joseph Taylor, William Lea, Joseph Willmore, John Lawrence and others. Like Merlin's fish, they are delicately engraved with the fish's scales with an articulated body, cleverly riveted inside, so that the fish wriggles from side to side.

The Mount Holyoke Museum in Massachusetts have
an eighteenth century fish in a shagreen case,
definitely English, but the exact location of
manufacture is unknown.**

It is impossible to know if the Swan influenced the small silver fish produced later (or if earlier fish vinaigrettes, like the Mount Holyoke fish, influenced the Swan), especially as the automatons movements are hazy in the early 1800s, but it is not too fanciful to postulate that Merlin and Cox's Swan inspired a silversmith, who saw the impressive bird, and had a moment of inspiration. Whatever is the case, the little silver fish are some of the quirkiest productions from the Birmingham silversmiths, and frequently unknown as a Birmingham artefact.

* Possibly made by Merlin and bought by Cox to show in his museum
** They date the fish at circa 1750 to 1760, but as a rough estimate, it is difficult to know whether this fish was made before or after the Swan.

4 November 2015

Looking Through Windows #2: Ornament & Things Inside

In the last Looking Through Windows post, I looked at Greenery in the 'Slums', and explored how the words 'slums' was a top-down term which didn't really reflect the life that was woven into the homes that were being photographed. With a desire to knock down these houses, the photographers took pictures of buildings with cracks in the walls and broken windows, but didn't always notice the little things, that can be found, now, by zooming into the old Victorian photographs. 

This Looking Through Windows explores the things that people owned that can be seen in the shadows inside the homes (some door peeking as well as window peeking was necessary). 

I felt that this house-proud lady needed her home displayed a little more........

30 October 2015

Playbill, Theatre Royal, 1848

Playbill for 27 June 1848 at Birmingham's Theatre Royal. Click to enlarge.

Friday night, and an evening at the theatre may be the way to while-away the hours. Or, you could just look at some of this beautifully intricate graphic work on a Theatre Royal playbill from 1848.

If you do fancy a visit the Theatre Royal though, which was sadly demolished....twice (and it got burnt down in 1792 too), you can click here.

Close-up of some of the ornamentation (bottom left). 

Close-up of some of the ornamentation (top left). 

The usage of a more modern typeface for the period.

The bill has a tiny bit of usage of sans-serif.

The playbill was for a charitable event raising funds for the perpetual curatorship of Shakespeare's house. Among the actors was Charles Dickens, as was George Cruikshank, an well known illustrator of the day.

The bill was printed by Josiah Allen & Son on Colmore Row.

28 October 2015

Georgian Graffiti & Political Discontent

Good advice from a graffiti artist beneath the M6 between Aston and Bromford. The concrete pillars of this 'underneath place' form canvases for graffiti, hidden from anyone but the most intrepid explorer (I was there following the River Tame through Birmingham). 

Graffiti is nothing new though (see this post about graffiti on Aston Church), and in Birmingham Archive there's a document where manufacturer and museum keeper, James Bisset, recorded the changing inscriptions on Birmingham's walls in the late 1700s. In the 1780s the inscriptions "BUCKLES" and "NO SHOE STRINGS" reveal how the waning fashion for shoe buckles was affecting local artisans who were going out of business and struggling financially. Many Birmingham buckle makers petitioned the King, who promised to wear buckles and not shoe laces, but fashion is a cruel mistress, and 'shoe strings' won the day.

In 1791 "NO PRIESTLEY" appeared on the walls, as did "The CHURCH and the KING". 1791 was the year of what later became known as the Priestley Riots (find more posts about the riots here). A tremendous tension built up in the summer of that year with a great deal of animosity towards Dissenters (religious minorities), and those seen to support the ideals of the French Revolution. This resulted in three days of rioting, mostly directed towards the Dissenters, and the destruction of several of their homes by fire and sheer will-power. Also written at that time was "DAMN THE JACOBINS"; the Jacobins took a particularly left-wing, revolutionary political stance, and Bisset himself was a member of Birmingham's Jacobin Club (see below).

James Bisset and 'Freeth's Circle'; political radicals.
Bisset is fourth from the right.

In following years came "WAR and PITT", "OLD ENGLAND for EVER", and "DOWN, DOWN with the FRENCH". This reflects the conflicts Britain fought alongside other European countries against post-revolutionary France. Bisset also notes an inscription of "DAMN all DISSENTERS", showing the continued simmering tensions between the different sections of Christianity.

A few years later the mood had changed. "BLOOD or BREAD" was plastered on the walls, as was "NO WAR" and "DAMN PITT". War, coupled with a succession of poor harvests, was leaving the masses hungry, and they called for "LARGE LOAVES". "NO K--G, LORDS or COMMONS" showed the people's discontent, as did "NO TAXES", "NO TITHES", "FREE CONSTITUTION" and "REVOLUTION". If Bisset's recording of the graffiti is to be trusted as unbiased, a huge turn in public opinion can be perceived.

With no images of Georgian graffiti to show (unsurprisingly), here are some more of the work that I found along the River Tame.

Click on the images to enlarge.

27 October 2015

Looking Through Windows #1: Greenery in the 'Slums'

During the late 1800s there was a push to clear working people's housing, like the back-to-back's and other closely packed houses, named by the decision makers as 'Slum Housing'. Birmingham Town Council (as it was called then) commissioned photographers to enter the 'slums' and take photographs, which would be used as evidence for the need of mass clearance schemes. This was a new use for photography, the camera could be used to gather information about people and the way they lived, but in this instance, to provide evidence for the demolition of unpleasant buildings. What wasn't discussed was that a photographer can frame the subject to make it 'say' whatever they wish it to say. The photographers walking round Victorian Birmingham found the slums and photographed them in exactly the way they were told; to frame that these houses needed to be demolished (see below). They missed an incredible opportunity though, of recording the fascinating social histories happening in the streets and courts around these houses, and even behind the doors.

Original full photograph of 'slum housing',
back of 52 & 54 Midland Street, late 1800s.
You can see that there is no attention to detail.
Roland Barthes calls what is captured outside of the photographers intention the 'punctum': the punctum pierces the photograph revealing the life within and outside it. I have always had a fascination with the things Victorian photographers captured accidently, and in the many hundreds of photographs of 'Slum Housing' deposited in Birmingham Archives, there are lots of accidental captures. When looking through them, I noticed all the things which show that these weren't 'slums', they were people's homes, and they lived in them; decorated and cared for them. I found myself peering like a voyeur through people's windows, making out the pattern on their net curtains, the ornaments on their window-ledge and flowers they had potted up. There is a lot of focus on the interior fashions of the upper and middle classes, but much less on the interiors of working people's homes (probably because the evidence is more sparse), but these images offer a little insight into the domestic lives of Birmingham's working people.

The following images are close-ups of the Birmingham 'Slum Housing' photographs; I have zoomed, often deeply, into the original photographs to peek through people's windows. This series shows the plants and flowers that people surrounded themselves with, in places often shaded from light.

Click on the images for extra peek-power!

IMPORTANT: These images are snippets taken from Victorian photographs, and are the artwork of Jenni Dixon. Although the original images are in Birmingham Archive, the concept of zooming into the images in order to peek through windows was contrived by the artist. If you wish to share these images, credit to the artist should be given.