Birmingham Summer Conference 2018 reports
Reports on our Summer Conference 2018, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston Campus
Friday 31 August to Sunday 2 September 2018
University Greenheart Project and Campus Tour
Robert Peel (and Dr Malcolm Dick)
On Friday afternoon 22 of us donned hard hats and boots to be shown round the Greenheart Project by Chris Churchman of Churchman Landscape Architects and Wilmott Dixon’s (the contractors) site manager. This building site is central, geographically but also aesthetically and socially, to the University. When Sir Aston Webb envisaged the buildings which formed the earliest part of the campus during the early years of the 20th century, his striking clock tower formed the centrepiece, as it does today. The first redbrick buildings at the heart of campus were designed to express pride and confidence. Viewed from the Bristol Road and the University’s pitches below, the buildings have been likened to both a hilltop town and a Byzantine monastery: visitors may form their own view.
These first buildings were completed in 1909, some nine years after the University was established and given its Royal charter by Queen Victoria. The University’s founder Joseph Chamberlain remarked: “When these buildings are complete, they will be the best of their kind in Europe and perhaps the world.”
In the 1920s, architect William Haywood paid careful attention to these views when he created walkways of tree-lined boulevards from the ornate gates at the north of campus to the clock tower; the space which will become the Green Heart. However, in the late 1950s, the views were curtailed with the completion of the former library across the boulevard. This, disrupting the views and the flow of people in both directions. The library building has been taken down but the electricity substation at its base has remained, which has been given a brick facing and incorporated into the landscape. This will still restrict views across the Greenheart looking up towards the gates but will permit unobstructed views downwards.
Views of the ‘new’ campus looking from the north
The restoration of this space as a vibrant heart to the campus has included new planting, with the ‘stilt rows’ of hawthorn, chosen for their restricted height, already meeting at the tops within their beds that will absorb any surplus surface flow of water. The materials of the walkways have been carefully selected to blend with the appearance of the buildings. Along the elevated approach leading to the new library tower at the side, electromagnetic induction within the surface creates kinetic energy that can be used to power devices. The social function of the space is being emphasised by the inclusion of seating areas and refreshment points. We shall have to go back to admire the completed project.
Visit to Special Collections at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham
As a research student at the University of Birmingham working on gardens and gardening in eighteenth-century Birmingham I count myself fortunate to have the collections held at the Cadbury Research Library close at hand. Yet when I started my PhD I had no concept of just how useful these collections would be to me nor how the CRL’s holdings of rare printed books in particular would influence my research. The CRL has been a revelation to me as much, I think, as it was to the small group of delegates it was my pleasure to arrange a visit for on the eve of the Gardens Trust’s Annual Conference.
The Cadbury Research Library in the Muirhead Tower lies at the heart of the rapidly evolving Edgbaston campus. The University’s Special Collections of over 200,000 rare books dating from 1471, some four million manuscript archives as well as photographic material is held at the Library. These materials are used extensively in the University’s teaching and research programmes and collections are of national and international importance: the Mingana Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, including the Birmingham Qur’an; the Noel Coward Collection, the papers of Joseph, Neville and Austen Chamberlain, the records of Save the Children and the Church Missionary Society.
Amongst the climate-controlled stacks, though, can also be found a wealth of material of interest to garden historians and it was a glimpse of this material that I wanted to reveal to delegates. My own knowledge can still only scrape the surface of the holdings but in consultation with Martin Killeen, Head of Rare Books and Special Collections Engagement, a carefully curated sample of books, photographs and magazines was displayed in the Cadbury’s Heslop reading room.
William Turner’s New Herbal (1551) and a first edition of Andrew Marvell’s Poems(1681), which includes ‘The Garden’and ‘Upon Appleton House’, were amongst early works displayed. Pierre Pomet’s Compleat History of Druggs (1725) and William Withering’s Account of the Foxglove (1785) continued to remind us of the utility as well as the beauty of plants. Withering was part of an informal group centred on the midlands that we now call the Lunar Society and was important in applying the Linnaean taxonomical system of plant identification to the British flora in A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain (1776). The botanical publications of his friend, fellow ‘Lunatick’ and physician, Erasmus Darwin, were also on display in the form of his poems The Botanic Garden (1791) and The Temple of Nature (1803). The idea of nature enclosed in a temple continued with Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora (1807), its highly coloured plates illustrating some of the very many plants that had been introduced in Britain from very far away. The CRL holds a long run of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and the first volume (1787) similarly underlined the number of new plants that gardeners needed to know how to cultivate.
Whilst the contribution of women to history continues to be overlooked their contribution to gardens, gardening and plant knowledge was on display in the Heslop Room. Elizabeth Blackwell’s Curious herbal (1739) with illustrations drawn, engraved and coloured by her for a publication that saved her husband from debtor’s prison reminded us of the commercial imperative behind many publications. An edition of Letters written by the late Right Honourable Lady Luxborough, to William Shenstone (1775) showed the influence of women in the creation of gardens as did volumes by writers Maria Jacson, Birmingham-born Jane Loudon and, of course, Gertrude Jekyll. Mounted photographs of Highbury and its grounds, home of the Chamberlain family, whet the appetite for Sunday’s visit and, fired by now by his mission, Martin had also delved into the archive of Norman Painting (Phil Archer in the radio series ‘The Archers’) and brought out gardening magazines and books from this keen Warwickshire gardener’s archive now held in the Cadbury Research Library.
It was a delight for me to be able, with Martin’s generous support, to take the group on a visit to the Library and to show off just a very small part of its wonderful collections which have saved me many a trip to perhaps better-known libraries in London; I will always try the CRL catalogue first! But the Library is not just for staff and students of the University; it welcomes anyone to visit and register and use its collections. Researchers can explore its rich resources in a purpose built, modern reading room, the Heslop Room, which is fully wireless networked with a range of computer terminals where you can explore the comprehensive online catalogues and web resources. Whether you are a new visitor exploring for the first time or an experienced user the team in the Cadbury Research Library will help you and support you in your research.
The CRL’s website can be found by Googling ‘Cadbury Research Library’, and you will find links to the online catalogues from this site. Many of the books mentioned in this piece can be seen on the Library’s Flikr page which can be linked to through ‘Digital Images’ on the main page and then going to ‘Albums’ and ‘Botanical Art’.
Garden Statue Rescued from Iconoclasm
During the annual conference at the University of Birmingham, a number of delegates took the opportunity to enjoy the exquisite collection of paintings in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Based on the commercial wealth of the late Lord Barber, the Institute was founded by Lady Barber in 1932 and bequeathed to the university. The splendid Art Deco building was designed by the cinema architect, Robert Atkinson, and opened by Queen Mary in 1939. The first director, Professor Thomas Bodkin, acquired the collection between 1935 and 1952, including the equestrian statue of King George I that stands on the lawn outside the entrance. Bodkin had been the director of the National Gallery of Ireland until 1935, and was well aware that, in the aftermath of Irish independence, the statue was endangered by the threat of republican iconoclasm. It was the destruction of an equestrian statue of King George IIin 1937 that persuaded the Corporation of Dublin to sell the George I to Bodkin for the Barber Institute.
The bronze statue was commissioned from the sculptor, John Nost II, by the Corporation of Dublin in 1717. Erected on Essex (now Gratton) Bridge, the equestrian was unveiled on 1 August 1722 amidst great celebrations. When the bridge was rebuilt in 1755, the statue was removed and stored until 1798 when it was re-erected in the gardens of the city’s Mansion House. This was the first of five equestrian statues of the king sculpted by John Nost II for Whig patrons commemorating the Hanoverian Succession. Following the Dublin commission (1717–22), three would adorn the aristocratic country house gardens at Hackwood Park, Hampshire (1722), Cannons, Middlesex (c.1723) and Stowe, Buckinghamshire (1723–24), while the final would grace another urban space, Grosvenor Square garden in London (1725–26).
All these sculptures were modelled on the earliest surviving example of an equestrian statue, which is the 2nd century AD bronze of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Rome. They also influenced the two equestrians of King George II subsequently created by John Nost III for urban public spaces in Ireland: St Stephen’s Green in Dublin (1753–58) and Tuckey’s Bridge, Cork (1760–61). In each one, the equestrian monarch stands on a high pedestal and is depictedeither in Roman military dress or in contemporary armour (as in Nost II’s Dublin statue). He also sports the laurel crown, which is a classical symbol of victory. In the wake of the defeat of the Jacobite uprising in Scotland during 1715, John Nost II’s Dublin commission was a characteristic proclamation of loyalty to George I (1714–27) by the Irish Protestant elite in the face of Catholic support for James III, who claimed the throne on behalf of the exiled Stuart dynasty. Similarly, the equestrians of George II sculpted by Nost II’s son, John Nost III, commemorated the continuity of the Hanoverian dynasty after the Jacobite cause had been finally crushed at the battle of Culloden in 1746.
However, in 1922, two centuries after the unveiling of Nost II’s equestrian King George I, Dublin became the capital of the Irish Free State. These statues now symbolised the years of British colonial rule and were prime targets for destruction by republicans. The best known example is probably Nelson’s Pillar(1808) in Dublin’s O’Connell Street.This 121 foot high Doric column was designed by William Wilkins and topped with a statue of the admiral by Thomas Kirk. The column’s detonation, in March 1966, marked the IRA’s unique contribution to the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. However republican iconoclasm was by then far from novel. In Dublin alone, the equestrian statue of King William III in College Green by Grinling Gibbons (1700–01) had been blown up in 1929, and John Nost III’s equestrian King George II in St Stephen’s Green was similarly dynamited in 1937.
Fortunately, despite proposals for relocation, Nost II’s King George I had remained in the Mansion House gardens, where it was less visible than those located in more open public spaces. Moreover, the destruction of Nost III’s King George II proved to be the catalyst that ensured the survival of his father’s George I. After this bombing, Dublin Corporation found it expedient to deport George I by selling the statue to Thomas Bodkin. Installed outside The Barber Institute later in 1937, this monumental statue continues to remind that gardenesque spaces are sympathetic to public sculpture. Note though the collar of ferocious spikes around the top of the pedestal, which are intended to deter assault by ne’er-do-wells and Jacobites.
The rest of the Conference
Both of us were looking forward to our first visit to the Edgbaston University Campus and we were not disappointed. We travelled from Norfolk and used the occasion to fulfil a long-term invitation to stay with friends, but most participants were accommodated within walking distance of the venues. After an opportunity to browse the specialist bookstalls and chat over coffee on Saturday morning, we were treated to four presentations in the comfort of the Muirhead lecture theatre.
Our first talk was given by Professor Stephen Roberts, a Victorian Birmingham historian, on the life of ‘Brums’ in 1889 – the year their town secured city status. (We learnt that locals prefer to be known as Brums, rather than Brummies.) Professor Roberts quoted from several newspaper articles from 1889 and it was obvious that the Brums were not easily impressed by modernity and ostentation. His talk introduced us to Joseph Chamberlain, a dominant figure in Birmingham (and later, national) politics.
Our next speaker, Maureen Perry, told us about Chamberlain’s acquisition of land to build Highbury and his relationships with his neighbours, including George Cadbury – they didn’t see eye-to-eye!
Doctor Katy Layton-Jones’ presentation on the urban context of public parks had a strong message for us – parks are under real threat from lack of funding and development pressures.
The value of local community support for them was highlighted by our next speaker Carey Baff, the Chair of the Birmingham Open Spaces Forum. This group works closely with other organisations to promote the preservation and use of green spaces in their city.
We enjoyed a buffet lunch before going to visit Winterbourne House and Garden on the north-east edge of the Campus. This Edwardian House was started in 1903 for John Sutton Nettlefold and has a fine example of an Arts and Crafts garden skilfully laid out in ‘rooms’ on the sloping valley-side. The upper terrace at the rear of the house looks down onto a lawn bordered by a stone and timber pergola and an avenue of young limes. Beyond this was the walk to the sandstone rock garden with a lushly-planted ravine, water garden and a Chinese bridge. The walled garden’s borders, still with enough colour to hint at their mid-summer glory, showed off the recently-restored glasshouse behind. A range of modern timber greenhouses displayed impressive collections of cacti, succulents, orchids and carnivorous species. The house was furnished with period items and an upstairs bedroom contained a small museum of the family firm’s manufacturing history.
After a well-attended AGM we gathered in the Noble Room for drinks and the tastefully planned three-course conference dinner. The role of this year’s after-dinner speaker went to Paul Rabbitts whose job-title is Head of Watford Parks Department. Worryingly, Paul began by announcing that he is officially one of Britain’s Dullest Men! (See his entry in Dull Men of Great Britain, 2015, Leland Carlson). Paul is a self-confessed bandstand obsessive but his talk turned out to be anything but dull and his enthusiasm infectious. By the end we could all identify the Walter MacFarlane 249 form a 279 bandstand design!
The New Research Symposium
Sunday, 2 September 2018
Dr Patrick Eyres
Our 8th NRS took place in Highbury Hall, the imposing High Victorian Gothic mansion built in 1878–79 for the Birmingham MP, Joseph Chamberlain. The polychromatic splendour of the interior was once the setting for social and political gatherings. However, in the early 21st century, there is a hint of the Hammer Horror set and a suggestion of Vincent Price in the shadows. Nonetheless, this proved to be a particularly fine NRS and the four speakers concentrated our minds and dispelled any associations with the lingering ‘gothicism’ of the place.
The principal aims of the NRS are to provide a forum for the presentation of new research in the field of Garden History and to encourage researchers whose subject is as yet unpublished. As ever, there was a full house of delegates, who were most appreciative of the range of topics and the professionalism with which they were presented. These ranged from the late 18th century to the present, as follows:-
~ Stephen Radley, A Landscape of Aspiration: Charles Tibbits, Humphry Repton and Barton Hall, Northamptonshire.
~ Camilla Allen,The Three Cathedrals of Trees: Glencruitten, Whipsnade, Milton Keynes.
~ Elizabeth Michel, The Restoration of the Garden in Berlin of the German Impressionist Painter, Max Liebermann.
~ Cassandra Funsten, The Monastery Garden of the Palermo Archaeological Museum created by Antonino Salinas.
Summaries of the first two of the presentations have been published in our Autumn 2018 issue of the GT news 8 , with the others to be published in our Spring 2019 edition.
The rest of the Conference, cont’d
Joseph Chamberlain’s former home at Highbury was the setting for the second day of the conference. Our excellent hot lunch, served in the beautiful Arts and Crafts dining room, rounded off the morning’s Symposium (described above).
We were introduced to Highbury’s restoration project by Doctor Alison Millward and Doctor Phillada Ballard (both trustees of the Chamberlain Highbury Trust) before Friends of Highbury guided us in groups around the grounds. It was interesting to learn about how much clearance of this sizeable park had already been achieved, the sowing of the wildflower meadow and the views they would like to reinstate – if all local parties are agreeable. It was also evident how much the lower part of the park was being used by all sectors of the community for recreational activities. Many Victorian features remain, although some like the original driveway have been lost in undergrowth, and a long-term restoration is planned. Many paths and stonework are in various states of disrepair however, the lower ponds are still an attractive aspect. Interestingly some of the springs that feed the ponds now emerge (sometimes unexpectedly) higher up the sloping grasslands. It is thought that this is due to reduced levels of water abstraction by local industry, which has led to a higher water table*.
We took a diversionary route, past the hives of the Birmingham Beekeepers Association, to reach a stone structure known as ‘Joe Chamberlain’s Look Out’. It was from here he would make speeches to the thousands of local people he invited to tour his grounds on special open days. We returned to his impressive house for tea and delicious cupcakes before going our separate ways.
Meeting delegates from twelve other county gardens trusts as well as individual Gardens Trust members was a particularly interesting and worthwhile aspect of the whole Conference weekend. Many thanks indeed to Virginia Hinze and her team for all their hard work in organising and delivering this enjoyable programme of events.
* though I suspect these are more than likely to be the remnants of a sophisticated, though now blocked, land drain scheme. Ed.