26 September 2016

James Watt's Workshop



A short video by History West Midlands, taking us inside the workshop of James Watt, which existed at Watt's home, Heathfield Hall, in the late eighteenth-century. The workshop is now reconstructed at the Science Museum in London.

9 September 2016

Samuel Raven's Snuff Boxes

Snuff box painted with the actress Mrs. Honey, c. 1820 by Raven.
From the V&A Collection.

Samuel Raven (c. 1774-1847) was a painter, particularly known for adorning papier mâché snuff boxes. It is thought that he worked for the japanner Henry Clay, before branching out on his own in about 1815 (though the plain papier mâché boxes were probably bought from Clay). 

He seems to have been admired for his skill, as on 21 February 1820 the following article appeared in Aris's Gazette:

'His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex, after having personally expressed himself to S. Raven that he was highly gratified with the Segar Case lately presented to him, was pleased to command that Portraits should be taken, by the same Artist, of his Royal Highness and the late Duke of Kent; which being now finished may be seen previous to their transmission to Kensington Palace, at Mr. Cooke's, Carver and Gilder, New Street'.

A box with the portrait of George IV is held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (seen below).
George IV, c. 1822.
From the BMAG Collection.
Signed inside, see below.

Raven was also a member of the Anacreontic Society, a social club that met at the Eagle and Ball on Colmore Street, and formed in October 1793. The society took its name from the Greek poet Anacreon, who was particularly known for writing drinking songs, as well as other verses. It is no surprise that notable socialite, James Bisset, was a member then, as well as Theophilus Richards (who ran the grand toy-shop on High Street), Peter Wyon (die-sinker), and Charles Jennings (button maker). Raven painted a devise for the society, a British crown encircled in light and a ribbon bearing the inscription 'May our Friendship endure as long as the Sun'. This hung on the wall of the Eagle and Ball, until the pub (and the street it stood on) was demolished when New Street Station was built in 1846. It reportedly then moved to the Woodman on Easy Row, but has since been lost.

Other snuff boxes painted by Raven include one of the printer and japanner John Baskerville, which is a copy of a larger portrait thought to be by James Millar. The production of the snuff box perhaps coincided with the exhuming of Baskerville's body in 1829, when it was put on display for several months at a local warehouse!
The Baskerville snuff box painted
by Samuel Raven is at BMAG.
A self-portrait of about 1816, held by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.


Below is a selection of boxes from private collections, for interest (all signed).

A lady in clouds. Signature is below.

The Duchess of Clarence, later Queen Adelaide
A selection of provocative ladies.....




And a cute little dog....


3 September 2016

The Swan Hotel in Pictures

Swan Hotel in 1829.

The Swan Hotel was a large and dominant coaching inn on the High Street throughout the eighteenth-century and before. According to Joseph Hill it was an ancient tavern, the land of which stretching across the corner of High and New Streets, and belonged to a family called Rastell during the reign of Henry VIII. Between 1666 and 1688 the landlord of the Swan was Edward Crank, who demolished the old tavern, and built another set back from the street, with a large yard in front for carriages, and erected a row of five smart town houses along the street (seen on the left of the trade card, above).* The Swan was a haunt of Samuel Johnson, who writes in 1755 'I was extremely pleased to find that you have not forgotten your old friend, who yet recollects the evenings which we have passed together at Warren's and the Swan'. Johnson resided in Birmingham in the early 1730s, initially with Edmund Hector (to whom he writes above) at Thomas Warren's bookshop situated opposite the Swan at that time (Warren's shop moved about).

Contemporary colouring of the 1829 card.

In the 1730s, as the notice below announces, you could catch a stage-coach to London at the Swan at six on a Monday morning, and return 'if God permit' on the Saturday. Take a journey on the Birmingham to London stage-coach here.



The hotel survived until the late 1950s, but was demolished before 1961 to make way for the new Rotunda. The photos below were taken in 1932 by William A. Clark.

The swan over the door. 
The entrance door with the swan over, looking up
Swan Alley. Note Fred Burn on the right.
Poor image of the alley from the other direction. Not taken by Clark.
Landing of the Swan Hotel.

There was another entrance to the Swan around the corner on New Street (see below, far left). The street on the right of the trunk manufacturer is Worcester Street, and when the Rotunda was built, this became Worcester Passage, which was covered and cut underneath the building.

New Street (left) at the corner of Worcester Street (right).

1 August 2016

John Baskerville's House and Something Unexpected in the Garden

Baskerville's house at Easy Hill.

John Baskerville was a japanner, letter cutter, type founder and printer in Birmingham in the mid eighteenth-century. Japanning was his initial, and also very prosperous, trade, which enabled him to build himself a grand house on the outskirts of Birmingham in 1745, at Easy Hill. By the 1770s the Birmingham Canal and its wharf had encircled the house, and the town was encroaching nearer and nearer (see map below).

1778 map highlighting the house at Easy Hill, with a long tree lined drive
garden, and possible orchard. Birmingham is expanding onward.


Baskerville died in 1775, and the house was lived in by his widow and daughter, and his daughter owned it until 1788 when it was bought by John Ryland, who had the images below produced. They give some interesting detail of the ornamentation, and if anyone knows what the statues are, please let me know in the comments.

Easterly front of Baskerville's house.

Southerly front of Baskerville's house.

Close-up of the statues.
The house is thought to have been demolished in about 1795, and the land utilised for manufacture, and by a canal wharf, the construction of which, in the 1820s, unearthed Baskerville's corpse, which he had asked to be buried in a catacomb built especially for the purpose in the garden. Below is a drawing of said corpse, produced by Thomas Underwood in 1829, after the body had been on display. It says something about Baskerville's fame and renown that this seemed acceptable. 



30 July 2016

Birmingham's First Book (Probably)

A Sermon Preached, p. 1.

Above is the title page of what is probably the first book printed in Birmingham, produced by Matthew Unwin, whose press was near St. Martin's church. The book is not dated, which suggests that it was printed in the same year as the sermon was preached, 1716. Unwin also printed two other known books in Birmingham; A Loyal Oration (see below) and The Martyrdom of King Charles the First, both in 1717. The Martyrdom of King Charles was written by 'J. B.', thought to be the Reverend John Bridgeman, who was Master of King Edward's School on New Street between 1705 and 1714. A Sermon Preached [...] (title page above, and continued below) was written by Thomas Southall, the vicar at Harbourne, so these were both local works. 

Like most Birmingham booksellers and printers, Unwin worked near St. Martin's church, but he didn't seem stay long in Birmingham; he probably married Frances Bourne at St. Mary's in Handsworth in 1717 (30 Apr), but by 1722 a Matthew Unwin is recorded as a bookbinder in Leicester, taking on a Humphrey Haywood as an apprentice,* and continues to print a number of books in the town, before being buried there in 1749.**

Some more of the pages of A Sermon Preached [...] are below, AND some of A Loyal Oration are further down.

A Sermon Preached, p. 2.

A Sermon Preached, p. 3.

A Sermon Preached, p. 4.

A Sermon Preached, p. 5.

A Loyal Oration
A Loyal Oration, imprint 1717.
In the third section (above) is a reference to the Rector of the newly built St. Philip's church who had apparently been 'displeas'd and nettl'd' with such a 'scurrilous Discourse'.

A Loyal Oration, p. 5.

Birmingham's next major printer was Henry Butler (more a printer of ephemera rather than books). Then came Thomas Warren, who printed extensively in the town.

..................................................................................................

* 4 March 1772, and listed as a bookbinder.
** Exposition of Common Prayer ('Mr Unwin, Printer at Leicester' (1737)), A Catalogue of Books. In Divinity, History, Law, Physick, Mathematicks, Poetry, Classicks ('Matthew Unwin, printer and bookbinder' (1743)). Some note that this Matthew Unwin is not the same as at Birmingham, but in 1741 (20 Aug) 'Frances, wife of Matthew Unwin' was buried at St. Martin's in Leicester aged 49. In relation to the marriage to Frances Bourne near Birmingham, this would suggest that both are the same man. Unwin dies in Leicester in 1749 (buried 14 March at St. Martin's) and leaves a will (proved 1750-not seen).

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........