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Council House, Birmingham. 1874-79. Yeoville Thomason (1826-1901). Mainly Wrexham and Coxbench stone (see Foster 63). Victoria Square façade, Birmingham.

Rather confusingly, this is not the Town Hall, which is a refined, impressively temple-like structure diagonally opposite its south-west corner, built in the early 1830s. It is one of those "second-generation" municipal offices answering the increased need for such services in these rapidly expanding conurbations (Cunningham 220, n.2). Land was acquired for the new offices in Birmingham as early as 1853, only for "bickering and misunderstandings" to delay their construction (Briggs 232). The competition for their design, presided over by the ubiquitous Alfred Waterhouse, was itself something of a farce. It was supposed to be anonymous but the architects' identities were well known (Shackley 134), and Waterhouse's choices were brushed aside in favour of Thomason's, as the local man. However, he was asked to include elements from one of the other designs. The idea was for the new building to be more in keeping with the old, but there is still a disjunction. Andy Foster writes: "Thomason's revised façade speaks a civic language in its giant Corinthian order, and central dome, but its opulent Renaissance manner gives it a palatial air" (63). Perhaps nothing could better reflect the spirit of this later period.

Left to right: (a) The rounded corner of the Council Office, nearest to the Town Hall. (b) The main entrance bay. (c) The central pediment and dome.

The columns at the main entrance and corner do echo those of the Town Hall, giving some sense of unity to the civic buildings, though the sheer streamlined dignity of the Town Hall still sets it far apart from this rather fussy façade. Within the projecting corner are the Council Chamber and Lord Mayor's Parlour; within the main entrance is the impressive main staircase (see below). Everything in this central bay is sumptuous, from the six regal lions surmounting the balustrade over the portico, to the panels of rich carving between the upper storey windows, to the lush foliage on the cornice above ("plundered from Owen Jones's Grammar of Ornament," according to Foster 63). The dome is larger than it seems from below; the pediment, designed by Thomason himself and executed by R. L. Boulton & Sons, shows Britannia with her arms outstretched to reward the Manufacturers of Birmingham with laurel wreaths. N.B., Richard Lockwood Boulton (c.1832-1905), an admirer of Ruskin, also worked on the carvings on Northampton Town Hall (see Read 240).

Mosaic by Salviati.

This is perhaps the most impressive element of the entrance bay, its figures helpfully identified in gilded lettering, showing that they represent Science, Art, Liberty, Municipailty, Law, Commerce and Industry. Mosaic work was fashionable at the time. Cf. the mosaic in the vestibule of Manchester Town Hall, or indeed the mosaic on the canopy of the Albert Memorial in London, both from the same period. But it was also in advance of its even more widespread use by Arts and Crafts architects like Charles Harrison Townsend later in the century.

Glimpse of the interior. Left to right: (a) Main staircase. (b) Decorative ironwork by staircase. (c) Looking up from the half-landing, through a window at the side.

The main staircase rises from the entrance past an elegant lift on the right, installed to take Edward VII up on his visit of 1909. It divides into two at the half-landing. Here, Thomas Woolner's touching statue of a young Queen Victoria stands opposite John Henry Foley's more formal statue of Prince Albert. Above rises the inner part of the dome, nicely described as rising "on eight ribs with rosettes decorating the intervening panels, and spectacular squinches with three setbacks" (Foster 64) — "squinches" being the supports, here recessed with intricate carving on each of the arches, for the heavy dome. The banqueting rooms at the front are especially grand (again, see Foster 64).

Related Material

References

Briggs, Asa. Victorian Cities. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Cunningham, Colin. Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls. London: Routledge, 1981. Print.

Foster, Andy. Birmingham. Pevsner Architectural Guides. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

Read, Benedict. Victorian Sculpture. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982. Print.

Shackley, Barbara. "H. R. Yeoville Thomason." Birmingham's Victorian and Edwardian Architects. Ed. Phillada Ballard. Wetherby: Oblong Creative (for the Victorian Society, Birmingham and West Midlands Group), 2009. 123-152. Print.


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Last modified 16 August 2012