Culture: A Testament to City's 19th Century Culture; the Recently Opened British Galleries Are among the Star Attractions Attracting Crowds to London's Victoria & Albert Museum since Admission Charges Were Abolished. They Include Many Treasures from the West Midlands - among Them a Complete Room from a House in Birmingham, as Terry Grimley Discovers

The Birmingham Post (England), March 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Culture: A Testament to City's 19th Century Culture; the Recently Opened British Galleries Are among the Star Attractions Attracting Crowds to London's Victoria & Albert Museum since Admission Charges Were Abolished. They Include Many Treasures from the West Midlands - among Them a Complete Room from a House in Birmingham, as Terry Grimley Discovers


Byline: Terry Grimley

Here is a sad story with an ending which, if not altogether happy, you may at least have mixed feelings about.

It involves William Henry Chamberlain, Birmingham's greatest architect, and William Kenrick, one of the city's prominent citizens in its golden age of cultural and civic enterprise in the latter half of the 19th century.

Kenrick (1831-1919) had wanted to be an artist but ended up an industrialist and politician, part of the civic-improving nonconformist clique associated with Joseph Chamberlain, whose brother-in-law he became.

Who else would Kenrick turn to to design him a house but John Henry Chamberlain, himself a prominent member of this group who also designed Highbury for Joseph Chamberlain (to whom, incidentally, he was not related).

Kenrick's house, The Grove in Harborne, was built in 1877-78. It was in Chamberlain's usual neoGothic, Ruskin-influenced style, familiar in Birmingham from such buildings as Highbury, the School of Art, the various inner-city board schools and the late-lamented Reference Library.

Like other buildings by Chamberlain, The Grove featured outstanding craftsmanship. The marquetry panelling in sycamore and oak in its small ante room is of a quality extremely rare for a house anywhere in 1870s Britain.

Today this room can still be admired, but it is the only part of The Grove to survive, and you have to travel 100 miles from its original location to see it. The house was bequeathed in 1962 to Birmingham City Council which, deciding it was unsuitable for conversion to a nursing home, promptly demolished it.

Fortunately, someone intervened to arrange for the ante room to be dismantled and presented to the Victoria & Albert Museum. It now has an honoured place in the British Galleries, a ravishing survey of national applied arts from 1500 to 1900, where it provides a testament to Birmingham's 19th century culture and 20th century Philistinism.

Opened last November at a cost of pounds 31 million, the British Galleries is the V&A's biggest project since the Second World War, incorporating a total of 3,000 exhibits.

It is perhaps ironic that so much space is devoted to a room by an architect so little known outside Birmingham (and some people would argue that Chamberlain is far too little known inside Birmingham). In the V&A's magnificent displays, this room from Harborne takes its place alongside such legendary exhibits as The Bed of Ware, the monstrous four-poster which was already a tourist attraction in Shakespeare's day, and is referred to as such by Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. Right at the beginning of this stroll through design history the visitor is brought unnervingly face-to-face with Henry VII, in a bust by Pietro Torrigiani which is based on a death mask but appears paradoxically lifelike.

Other exhibits which bring us almost as close to the history of the monarchy include Henry VIII's writing desk and James II's wedding suit.

And throughout the displays there are items which link to the history of the West Midlands, either having been made here or having some other connection.

For example, The Bradford Table Carpet (1600-1615), a decorative table cover, was probably embroidered in London but acquired its name because it was once owned by the Earls of Bradford at Castle Bromwich Hall.

The West Midlands played a significant part in the early history of British textiles through William Sheldon, a rich Warwickshire squire who set up the country's first two significant tapestry workshops in Barcheston, Warwickshire, and Bordesley, Worcestershire (1570-1625), in an attempt to compete withFlanders and the Netherlands. Among many examples of Sheldon's products in the British Galleries is an elaborately embroidered glove which Shakespeare, son of a glover, might have appreciated. …

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Culture: A Testament to City's 19th Century Culture; the Recently Opened British Galleries Are among the Star Attractions Attracting Crowds to London's Victoria & Albert Museum since Admission Charges Were Abolished. They Include Many Treasures from the West Midlands - among Them a Complete Room from a House in Birmingham, as Terry Grimley Discovers
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