City's Greatest Architect; You May Not Have Heard of John Henry Chamberlain, but You Are Sure to Know Some of His Buildings Arts Editor Terry Grimley Looks at the Work of the Man Who Drove Birmingham through Its Golden Era of Victorian Civic Improvement

The Birmingham Post (England), June 29, 2002 | Go to article overview

City's Greatest Architect; You May Not Have Heard of John Henry Chamberlain, but You Are Sure to Know Some of His Buildings Arts Editor Terry Grimley Looks at the Work of the Man Who Drove Birmingham through Its Golden Era of Victorian Civic Improvement


Byline: Terry Grimley

Few people can have left a more substantial mark - for the good, at any rate - on the face of Birmingham than John Henry Chamberlain.

The resident architect of the Liberal nonconformist elite which drove the city through its golden era of Victorian civic improvement, Chamberlain is still without serious rival for the title of Birmingham's greatest architect.

The Civic Society's guide to Birmingham Heritage buildings, published this week, includes four buildings or structures designed by Chamberlain, plus two designed after his death by his firm, Martin & Chamberlain.

JH Chamberlain deserves to be much better known, both nationally and in his adopted city. But even Birmingham residents unfamiliar with his name are sure to know some of his buildings - particularly the Board Schools, which were acclaimed as setting national standards when first built. They still serve as Gothic landmarks dotted around the inner city, with their romantic outlines of towers and spires.

His surviving works include his masterpiece, the former School of Art (now Birmingham Institute of Art and Design) in Margaret Street, and the former Oozells Street School (now the Ikon Gallery) in Brindleyplace.

Confusingly, he was not related to Birmingham's great civic leader Joseph Chamberlain, whose house in Moseley, Highbury, he designed. He also designed the Chamberlain Memorial fountain outside the Museum & Art Gallery, which commemorates Joseph Chamberlain's services to improving the town's water supply.

JH Chamberlain, however, was not merely a jobbing designer but a fully paid-up member of the ruling intellectual elite. His theories about art and design, heavily influenced by the critic and polemicist John Ruskin, were closely integrated into the broader social views, dubbed the 'Civic Gospel', of the Birmingham Liberals. These views were shaped by a small group of influential nonconformist ministers, among whom George Dawson, HW Crosskey, Charles Vince and RW Dale were particularly important.

In complete contrast to a Dickensian view of urban degradation, they saw the city in an elevated, aspirational light. This was summarised in Dawson's ringing declaration: 'A town is a solemn organism through which shall flow, in which shall be shaped, all the highest, loftiest and truest ends of man's moral nature.'

It was said of Crosskey that he 'would excite his audience by dwelling on the glories of Florence and of the cities of Italy in the Middle Ages, and suggest that Birmingham too might become the home of a noble literature and art.'

JH Chamberlain, a member of Dawson's congregation and of Crosskey's after Dawson's death, translated this vision into brick, stone and terracotta. Born in Leicester on June 26, 1831, Chamberlain was articled to a local architect and to judge from conflicting accounts may or may not have spent some time working in London. Then came the decisive influence of his life - his discovery of the major works of Ruskin - Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps and The Stones of Venice, the latter prompting him to make his own architectural tour of Italy.

Ruskin was pro-Gothic and medieval craftsmanship, and against Classicism and the effects of modern industrialisation. His theories of architecture - which were really theories of decoration, since he had no interest in buildings per se - were based on an ideal of truth to nature.

The School of Art, with its many examples of nature-inspired decoration inside and out, including the spectacular carved roundel on the left gable facing Margaret Street, is a particularly comprehensive demonstration of Chamberlain's indebtedness to Ruskin.

Appropriately so, since Ruskinian principles would underpin the teaching which went on inside the building.

However, Chamberlain was not so slavish a disciple that he did not seek to strike a balance between Ruskinian decoration and functional design principles. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

City's Greatest Architect; You May Not Have Heard of John Henry Chamberlain, but You Are Sure to Know Some of His Buildings Arts Editor Terry Grimley Looks at the Work of the Man Who Drove Birmingham through Its Golden Era of Victorian Civic Improvement
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.