In 1596 William Shakespeare began to write his tragedy Romeo & Juliet, inspired by a narrative poem which had been popular while the Bard was still a boy in Stratford upon Avon. In nearby Birmingham a remarkably similar tale was being lived out between two prominent families: the Smalbrokes and the Colmores.
The problems between the Capulets and the Montagues were, in the original story, based merely upon mutual envy. Shakespeare escalated the grudge into a full-scale feud, which mirrored the running battles and hatred which divided the townsfolk of sixteenth century Birmingham into two camps – those who supported William Colmore and his sons, and those who favoured the brothers Richard and Thomas Smalbroke.
The origins of the feud concerned libel actions; accusations of usury and nepotism; disputes over wills and even a disputed marriage settlement: Thomas Smalbroke’s wife Elizabeth was the sister of William Colmore and of Ambrose Colmore who was a joint defendant against a charge of embezzlement brought by his brother against him and Richard Smalbroke.
A complicated web of suspicion and lies which led eventually to the Court of Star Chamber – the highest in the land – and even to an armed stand-off at Blakesley Hall in Yardley.
Blakesley Hall is the house which Richard Smalbroke built in 1590 on land which he had inherited from his father. Richard divided his time between his main residence The Ravenhurst at Bordesley and Blakesley Hall which was also the matrimonial home of Richard’s only son Robert.
On 1st July 1604, at Bordesley Thomas Smalbroke was attacked with a hunting staff by William Colmore’s son Thomas. Colmore then tried, unsuccessfully, to shoot his enemy who ran for safety to the house.
When Thomas Smalbroke rode to Packington for a warrant for the arrest of his attacker, Colmores waited to intercept him on his return along the Coventry Road. Richard got to him first and the pair made it to Yardley. Later that evening Thomas set off again for his home at the top of the Bull Ring but was met by one of his sons who told him to go back to Yardley where the brothers watched from the top floor window of Blakesley Hall as young Colmore and his servant, both armed with pistols, sought a Smalbroke to shoot.
The town was not safe for any of the Smalbrokes that night. William Colmore was ‘most irreligiously and profanely swearing and protesting many times by the blood of God that he would his son had well boxed Smalbroke’ – that he ‘would to God he had sped him’.
Thomas Smalbroke told the Town Constable to arrest Thomas Colmore, but it was only by the intervention of Sir Thomas Holte of Aston that the writ was finally served.
Also sheltering in the house at the time of the siege were Richard’s son and daughter-in-law and their eight-year old daughter Barbara who would, two years later, inherit Blakesley Hall and all its lands on the death of her father. Her mother Elizabeth would then re-marry. Her new husband was that same Thomas Colmore! Had he and Elizabeth known each other before she married Robert? Had he been waiting in the wings for a second chance to claim his bride and were they the real-life star-crossed lovers with an altogether different ending. Who was the true target for the Colmores on that July evening in 1604?
A final twist to this saga. In 1614 Richard’s granddaughter Barbara married Henry Devereux of Castle Bromwich Hall. Her new mother-in-law, Lady Devereux, was formerly Catherine Arden – a kinswoman of Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden whose family seat was Park Hall, Castle Bromwich. Did William Shakespeare get all of his inspiration for his play from that poem? Or did his mother tell him about the goings-on in Birmingham?
As one of Blakesley Hall’s team of visitor-friendly volunteers, I hope that the embellishments to the above true record of sixteenth-century events sound plausible enough to claim, if not a possible Shakespeare connection, then at least a parallel with one of his most loved plays. Yardley may not be a substitute for Verona, but beautiful Blakesley Hall, in old age, remains inspirational.
Volunteer at Blakesley Hall
Matthew Boulton was a founding member of the Lunar Society. The group were made up of 14 members who would meet once a month during a full moon. These meetings would often take place at Boulton’s home, Soho House, in the dining room, now known as The Lunar Room. The group was comprised of some of the greatest minds of the period and contributed to scientific understanding.
The other founding member was Doctor Erasmus Darwin. Physician, botanist, zoologist and grandfather of Charles Darwin. An enormous man in both personality and stature, Darwin had an enormous appetite for ‘natural philosophy’ and scientific discovery. In his most famous work ‘Zoonomia’ Darwin anticipated natural selection. He is also credited with inventing a steering device for his carriage that would be adopted for cars more than 130 years later.
Like Darwin, Boulton was also fascinated by the beauty that occurred in the natural world and kept a fossilry at Soho House. This room has specially commissioned cabinets which hold forty specimens drawers for Boulton’s vast collection of fossils and minerals.
Other members of the Lunar society included Josiah Wedgewood, best known for his beautiful pottery and skill as a chemist; Joseph Priestley who discovered several ‘airs’ including oxygen and invented soda water; James Watt, Boulton’s business partner at Soho and engineer who improved the efficiency of the steam engine.
The collection at Soho House reflects the interests and contributions Boulton and the Lunar Society made to 18th century Britain.
The collection at Soho also includes several time pieces. The pendulum clock was invented in 1656, only a century before Soho House was built. The longcase clock (also known as the grandfather clock) was first created to house the pendulum and works by the English clockmaker William Clement in 1670 or 1671.
The most famous clock in the collection is the Ormolu Clock. A popular style in France, ormolu is the process of grinding gold, mixing it with mercury and gilding it to bronze and other metals at high temperature. There are two ormolu time pieces at Soho, the most famous being the Sidereal Clock in the Drawing Room. Sidereal time uses the position of a star to measure the days, hours and minutes. The star will be found in nearly the same location on another night at the same sidereal time. However, unlike solar time which relies upon the sun, sidereal is much more exact. A sidereal day is about 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.0916 seconds. It does not account for longer days depending on the earths position, nor leap years. The exactness of sidereal time is most probably is reason it never gained in popularity.
As well as treasures from the land, Boulton looked to the skies for answers to the world around him. Astronomy and meteorology were two of his passions. The earliest recorded working telescopes were the refracting telescopes developed by Lippershey, Janssen and Metius in 1608 in the Netherlands and soon after improved by Galileo.
Originally Boulton intended to have an observatory built in the grounds of Soho House, but for what ever reason this was never fully realised. He did however have a telescope positioned on the roof of the house. He was so obsessed with keeping weather records that when away on business his daughter Anne would observe changes for him. In his twilight years he still insisted on viewing the stars from the roof, even on bitterly cold nights.
The land around Soho House was slowly sold acre at a time by Bouton’s grandson. A inner city built up area today, the views enjoyed by Boulton in the 18th century would have been very rural. You can experience a taste of this on the Heritage Open Weekend (13th and 14th of September) when we will be offering free rooftop tours.
We will also be celebrating the achievements and inventions of the Lunar Society on 6th September with a free family event ‘Crazy Science‘.
For more information on all upcoming events at Soho House visit: www.bmag.org.uk/events
Visitor Services Assistant,
Donald Rodney (1961-1998) has been described as “fascinated by the way things live and rot”, which is reflected in the use of milk and copper coins in his sculpture ‘Land of Milk and Honey II’, currently on display in Birmingham Museums, Waterhall Gallery.
Born in Birmingham in 1961, Rodney was one of 12 children born into a Jamaican family. His family lived on Marshall Street in Smethwick, which became the centre of controversy when white residents gained council support to bar black families from moving into the street. Rodney spent most of his childhood in and out of hospital with sickle cell anaemia. Whilst hospitalised he would spend his time producing countless sketchbooks, which became his own tool for voicing his pain and to record his views on black identity and racism in the UK.
Rodney completed a pre-degree course at Bourneville School of Art and then studied art in Nottingham where he met fellow student Keith Piper. In the early 1980s Piper and Rodney formed part of an artist led group called the Blk Art Group. The artists in this group made thought-provoking work which responded to the crises of race relations in the UK and Overseas.
‘Land of Milk and Honey II’ was created as part of Donald Rodney’s final exhibition ‘9 Night in Eldorado’ held at the South London Gallery in 1997. The exhibition was a eulogy to the memory of his father who had died three years earlier. The sculpture consists of a vertical glass vitrine, filled with milk and copper coins. These materials have reacted with each other and shifted over time to create a striking range of colour, texture and pattern – a continual process which will alter its appearance. At the moment its possible to see how the coins have shifted downwards leaving varying shades of vibrant green.
The artwork is a metaphorical piece relating to the move of Caribbean people to the UK in the mid 20th century, including the artist’s father. The title of Rodney’s sculpture evokes the mythical ‘land of milk and honey’ that his father believed he would find when he travelled to Britain in the 1950s. The subsequent souring of hopes is shown through the inclusion of milk and copper coins. The use of these materials represents the artists own exploration of fragility in relation to his illness of Sickle Cell Anaemia and for what he saw as the diseased nature of modern British society and the treatment of the black community. Themes of fragility, sickness and decay recur in Rodney’s work and other artworks by him include X-Rays of his cells to tiny sculptures made from skin.
Land of Milk and Honey II has been acquired through the Contemporary Art Society. It is on display as part of STATIC: Still Life Reconsidered at Birmingham Museums’ Waterhall gallery, situated on Edmund Street. The display is on until December 31st 2014.
The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest gallantry award, given for acts of outstanding courage. The 23 August 2014 marks the centenary of the day the first Victoria Crosses were awarded during the First World War.
Charles Alfred Jarvis was born in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire on the 28 March 1881. During the First World War he served in the 57th Field Company of the Royal Engineers.
Charles Jarvis was one of five men to receive the Victoria Cross on the 23 August 1914. Jarvis worked for over an hour under enemy fire while attempting to blow up a bridge over a canal at Jemappes in Belgium.
‘Charles Alfred Jarvis, L-Corporal., No 3976, 57th Field Coy., Royal Engineers. Date of Act of Bravery: 23 Aug. 1914. For great gallantry at Jemappes on 23 Aug in working for one and a half hours under heavy fire in full view of the enemy, and in successfully firing charges for the demolition of a bridge’. London Gazette 16 November 1914.
He received his medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 13 January 1915.
The other medals are campaign medals rather than awards for gallantry. The 1914 Star was given to everyone who served in France or Belgium between 5 August and 22 November 1914. The bar on the ribbon is known as the Mons bar and indicates that the person had actually been under fire in that period. The British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal were given to everyone who served in the war and its immediate aftermath. The oak leaf on the ribbon of the Allied Victory Medal shows that Jarvis was mentioned in despatches for his bravery.
Charles Jarvis died in his native Scotland in 1948 at the age of 67.
See an image of Charles Alfred Jarvis and find out more about him on the Angus Council website.
David Symons, Curator.
I am lucky enough to be a volunteer at Blakesley Hall, the dearest little Tudor gem out in Yardley surrounded by its own garden oasis, just bliss.
Here at Blakesley Hall we have all sorts of events going on for children, from Totstime Tuesday to Crafty Thursday. But the one that appealed to me above all was held on National Play Day 6th August and that was ‘Teddy Bears parachuting Picnic’ complete with a teddy bear hospital. I begged to be allowed to come in to help on that day as it sounded such fun and oh I love teddies. I was so very pleased to take part that I jumped at the chance when asked to become Nurse Teddy in charge of the teddy bear hospital. Here is my account of a happy sunny day enjoyed by the Blakesley Hall team.
I arrived early (as all good volunteers should), the sun was already high in the sky and everybody scurrying around, tables being moved outside and teddy parachute wire in place. My position of choice was in the corridor that leads to the outside world but also looks down on the reception area so good vantage point to say hello to teddies and minders. My table was set up with Maddies help and I donned my ‘uniform’, an apron covered in teddy bears and a mini teddy bear as a ‘fob watch’ and finally my official museum name badge of course. I had bought with me my teddy sick bed complete with pine bed, bedding and ‘sick’ rabbit to use as a conversation piece. I had travelled by bus with all this with much hilarity (one bus driver asked if I was leaving home). I straightened the bedding, checked my badge machine was in place and doctors kit by my side then a quick nod and thumbs up from Kim and we were open for business.
Within moments the children, Mums, Dads and assorted adults were flooding in complete with regulation teddies, dollies, dinosaurs, monkeys and all sorts of wonderful furry shaped objects. The sun had put a smile on everyone’s face and the children charged out into the fresh air looking for the hidden teddies in the grounds or eager for their own loved furry to fly. One or two shy ones hung back and it was then I was able to tell them the secret of the rabbit sitting in the teddy bed pretending to be a teddy (but don’t tell anyone).
For a little while I was only saying hello and explaining that after teddy had ‘flown’ do come and get him checked out. But very soon they were flooding back to have ted examined. If you want to examine a teddy for any injuries this is how you do it. Reassure owner, lie teddy, monkey etc. on back flex arms and legs, check eyes and head for bumps however this can altered, reduced or changed if a queue. Pronounce teddy fit or in need of a cuddle or two and then make a ‘Brave Blakesley Bear’ badge and send child on their way. Fortunately we had no serious injuries as everybody knows teddies bounce.
Some funny things did happen during the day. Two woman unconnected bought antique teddies to be examined by me to see if they could be mended in the mistaken belief that we had a fully functioning dolls hospital. With one of the ladies I had this very surreal conversation about not being set up for extensive surgery but eager to please I gave her an overview of how to mend the teds wobbly leg and we decided between us maybe he shouldn’t be flown.
One child insisted on having six plasters on her ted, he could hardly breathe, what is it with plasters and children? Later in the afternoon one three year old carefully dragged the giant panda off that had been sitting in the entrance hall and left her tiny teddy in its place fair swops she thought.
Late into the afternoon when everybody was flagging I had a last minute rush the teddies, plasters, bandages and badges were fairly flying out. I did pause for a moment and think with a longing for home and tea. Then I thought naa this is much more fun out at Blakesley Hall with the team being silly surrounded by sun burnt happy faces!
Volunteer at Blakesley Hall
Are you a fan of art? We’d like you to join us to play ‘The Curation Game’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
‘The Curation Game’ lets you have a go at curating your own display, whilst at the same, helping to shape the future appearance of the galleries.
The ‘Game’ is very simple: choose as many paintings and objects as you want, and arrange them into your own exhibition. Group works by theme, colour, place, date – it’s up to you!
Next choose your interpretation – do you want facts and figures, or videos and photographs? This is your chance to tell us what makes the perfect display.
By playing the ‘Game’ you will help us with our re-display of the 17th Century galleries. We want to figure out what people like and dislike about 17th Century art, and what helps visitors to make the most of their experience here.
You can play ‘The Curation Game’ in Gallery 25 at BMAG on:
Friday 22nd August, 2pm-4pm
Thursday 28th August, 11am-1pm
Come along and play, or just pop by for a chat and find out more about the 17th Century project.
More information can be found on-line at http://birminghambaroque.wordpress.com/
National Gallery Curatorial Trainee at Birmingham Museums
This is one of our most frequent questions and the response always fills me with great pride. The simple answer is that it was purpose built as a museum and art gallery, and when it first opened its doors on November 28th 1885 it was as full of art as it is today.
Perhaps a broader question would be ‘WHY did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?”
The answer to this question is best understood as a series of steps beginning in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.
STEP 1 - Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham were competing to become England’s ‘second city’. The Middle Classes began to use art galleries as a means of expressing their identity and to raise the civic profile of the cities they lived in. However, in order for public museums and art galleries to be built local councils and governments had to change their attitudes towards the arts – this was a slow process. Groups of Art Reformers sprung up in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. They championed the idea of setting up galleries and had four main aims:
- To provide healthy recreation for the Working Classes
- To improve workers’ satisfaction in pleasurable labour and industrial design by providing objects of study
- To help workers to lead more fulfilling lives by showing them the grace and beauty of the world
- To help audiences see the ugliness created by industrial capitalism and make them change the modern urban environment
STEP 2 - Birmingham School of Design was established in 1843. Those involved with the school wanted an Industrial museum to display objects that would inspire the artisans. They wanted a gallery that would make art accessible to the greatest number of people. Suddenly there was an institution devoted to creating beautiful things but the setting was far from inspiring. The city centre was crowded with filthy slums. Chimneys churned out black smoke and people worked around the clock in unhygienic factories. (For a more fleshed out description of how bad conditions were for the average worker Charles Dickens gives some great descriptions of Birmingham and the Black Country during the 1840s in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’).
STEP 3 - Birmingham’s local government had a reputation for ‘penny-pinching narrow-mindedness’ (Stuart Davies, ‘By the Gains of Industry Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1885-1895’). As evidence of their lack of interest in culture, they failed the Free Libraries and Museums Act when it first came into being in 1845. It was finally passed on the 21st February 1860 and a committee was formed to create a library and Museum and Art Gallery. Around this time leading citizens remade the local government and the city was in a position to embrace some of the ideas advocated by the Art Reformers.
STEP 4 – The Birmingham Midland Institute opened a small exhibition of objects and pictures in 1860. The exhibition included the Bust of David Cox (so I like to think of this as the beginnings of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery!)
STEP 5 – Over the next 15 years the collection grew rapidly. There were numerous successful exhibitions including one of amour and jewellery, which attracted 160,000 visitors in 1868. There were huge donations from Philanthropists such as the Tangye Brothers, which amounted to millions of pounds in today’s money. The Public Picture Gallery Fund was launched in 1871 to collect and commission paintings. Frederick Leighton’s ‘A Condottiere’ was the first to be purchased in 1873. Mayor Joseph Chamberlain gave £1000 of his own money for an industrial museum in 1875. All of this interest meant that the council was under pressure to find a site and funds to build a gallery in the centre of the city.
STEP 6 – Joseph Chamberlain municipalised Birmingham’s failing gas works and made them highly successful.The company grew and had to move out of its offices. The council used the profits from the gas company to build new offices on the land acquired through the Free Libraries and Museums Act and put an art gallery on top. This is why there are so many stairs in the main entrance to the museum, as most of the galleries are on the second floor. Henry Richard Yeoville Thomason won a competition to design the building and Whitworth Wallis was selected to be the keeper. This meant he was responsible for collecting, displaying and securing the collection.
Saturday November 28th 1885 – The permanent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was opened with a celebration at the Town Hall and an address by the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII). It consisted of the main entrance, the Vestibule and Round Room, the ‘long gallery’, the Wedgewood and Italian galleries (no prizes for guessing what was in those) and the Industrial Hall. Nowadays the Italian gallery is the shop, the Wedgewood gallery is the Buddha gallery and the ‘long gallery’ is the Edwardian Tea Room.
I hope this goes somewhere to explaining – in a simplified way – how there came to be such a grand building in the centre of Birmingham and why it is such an important institution to the city and its people. In fact the simple answer to ‘Why did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?’ is for the people.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
For more information about the History of BMAG read the previous blog post: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery History Project.