Foreword from the editor of The Friends of Brantwood

Friends of Brantwood may remember that some years ago we had a very interesting article about Benjamin Creswick, the former Sheffield knife grinder who became a successful sculptor and first met with Ruskin in 1877. ("Benjamin Creswick: Living Testament to St George’s Museum at Walkley," Lianne Hackett, Friends of Brantwood Newsletter, Spring 2001.)

Creswick’s developing talent was fostered, encouraged and promoted by John Ruskin for a period of four or five years in Sheffield, Coniston and Bewdley, and after a successful, albeit short career in London, was sought by George Baker, Birmingham’s foremost Ruskin adherent for the new Birmingham Municipal School of Art where he taught for over thirty years.

We were delighted when Creswick’s great granddaughter, Annie Creswick-Dawson joined the Friends last year and to learn that she is actively researching his work and life story. She maintains a very attractive and informative website www.benjamincreswick.org.uk and has kindly agreed to share some of her story in future pages of the newsletter.

In the meantime, she has learned of the worrying state of certain sculptural works in Birmingham and has sent the following alert:

The Bloomsbury Library, Nechells Parkway, Birmingham, is a Grade 2 Listed Building designed by the architects Jethro Cossins and Peacock in 1890 and the foundation stone laid in 1891. Along the main facade of the building are a series of superb buff terra cotta panels. When I visited the library early in 2013 it was clearly in need of repairs to the roof, however this work had been postponed. In recent months the lead was stolen from the roof and the building consequently suffered severe water damage which led to its closure. The council have erected scaffolding to protect it from further damage, but this of course means it is more vulnerable to vandalism and I have not been able to gain any reassurance that there are plans to restore the building. An approximate estimate of around one million pounds is required to carry out the necessary work, but as yet no in-depth survey has been carried out and the many years of neglect make it likely that this is a conservative estimate. Not only is this a loss of a vital study place where I had previously seen many young people working, but also a real concern for the safety and preservation of the Creswick sculptures.

The Creswick panels were described by George Noszlopy, the Hungarian art historian and author of several books on the public sculpture of the English midlands. In Public Sculpture of Birmingham Including Sutton Coldfield (1998, Liverpool University Press) he wrote as follows with my own additions bracketed thus [ ]:

The large panel 276cm high x 90cm wide shows figures of Art, Craft and Industry presenting their wares to Birmingham which is represented as a semi-nude, classically draped female holding a mural crown in her lap and a laurel branch, the symbol of victory and achievement in the arts, in the crook of her arm. The figures are surrounded with fruit and flora, as well as armaments, which represent an industry of particular importance to Birmingham. [There is also a gift of textiles being presented by the female figure on the left side of the panel but this appears to have sustained some damage to the hand between the Noszlopy photograph published 1998 and my own image taken in 2013.]

Art, Craft and Industry presenting their wares to Birmingham. 276cm high x 90cm wide. [Click on images to enlarge then.]

Industrial Labor. 142 x 53 cm.

Rural Labor. 142 x 53 cm.

[The small panels, each one 142cm high x 53cm wide, represent Work in two panels: Industrial, [Creswick’s signature image of a forge central, with two children, a boy and girl studying at either end, and Rural, harvesting. (Below)]

Leisure pursuits: two panels Sports [rugby, cricket and lacrosse].

Leisure pursuits:" girls relax in the outdoors and enjoy the gentler pastime of skipping

Domesticity

Creswick represents domesticity by means of three generations of a melancholy family in mutual support.

Noszlopy sees the main panel as ‘more in keeping with the style of the period.’ It is noticeable however that it retains Creswick’s style; these are not generic allegorical figures but individual portraits. Certainly ‘Birmingham’ is a classically draped figure; the smoothness of her modelling separates her as the idealised vision of a fair city. This is a real woman and however much Creswick demonstrates his ability to produce the ‘highly finished’ modelling so prized at this time he still portrays a stately, thoughtful, woman with capable hands, practical despite the reflective intelligence of her gaze; a highly personalised portrait. The male figure of Art is another strong portrait with a thoughtful expression far more freely modelled, stretching out to the delicate textile being presented by a kneeling girl who looks more like a member of the arts and crafts set than a mill girl. Again an individual, the youthful figure of Industry -- possibly a silversmith or metalworker -- is a live and thoughtful and individual. The armaments portrayed are, it may be supposed made by the toiling men and women anonymous, unrepresented in the factories whose labour force Ruskin and Creswick so grieved over.

The other panels are the straightforward depictions of humanity at work and play in Creswick’s individual style that Noszlopy describes as ‘contemporary figures and workaday realism representative of his Ruskin-inspired attitude towards subject matter in public sculpture’. Creswick is showing throughout the joy he takes in ordinary life of the dignity of labour and the sweetness of youth, both at study and at play.

In Transactions of the National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry at their Birmingham Meeting of 1891, Creswick himself commented that ‘These works stand as illustrative of [my] continuing dedication to [the] Ruskin-inspired belief that ‘There is never a building in our midst but could be made to sparkle with interest, but could be made of real interest to our children for generations to come.’

Why should this building be considered important and prioritised for protection in these difficult times?

The external decorative panels on the library by Benjamin Creswick are arguably unique in his works, being an encapsulation of what Beattie describes as his ‘workaday realism.’ Creswick, born and bred in the Sheffield craft traditions so admired by Ruskin, worked from experience and from his heart with the ‘true genius’ (Ruskin uses this phrase twice: once in a letter to George Baker and also to Henry Swan ) recognised, nurtured and promoted by Ruskin, illustrating the dignity of honest work and the joys and sorrows of the life of a working craftsman and his family.

These panels were sculpted in Birmingham, Creswick’s home for many years where he headed the modelling department at the School of Art, was a leading light of the Royal Birmingham Society of Arts becoming their ‘Professor’ of Sculpture and decorating the city’s buildings with sculpture which celebrated the Arts and Crafts love of genuine craft work, particularly that of the everyday craftsman. The set of decorative panels on the Bloomsbury Library allowed Creswick to express, fully, the themes of this love of honest workmanship and the pleasures of simple life such as Ruskin envisaged when setting up the Guild of St George. Here we see children at play, youths engaged in sport and later the study and pleasure of reading -- particularly relevant to the library building. The working men are shown in a forge and rural setting, Creswick wrote in what seems to be one of his rare known texts that ‘it is indispensable that our sculpture should possess for the dwellers in [...] our cities some equivalent for the rural advantages and pleasures they are in large measure deprived of by virtue of the conditions under which they live.’ The domestic scene which shows the succeeding generations, each caring for the other, ends the series, thus showing with sensitivity and genuine respect the lives of the working people who are the lifeblood of a great city.

It is hoped that that same great city will not allow these remarkable works to fall into further decline, or even worse, be permanently lost.

References

Noszlopy, George T. The Public Sculpture of Birmingham. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press Illustrated, 1998.


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Last modified 13 January 2014