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South window, Great Hall,
University of Birmingham

The south window of the Great Hall, University of Birmingham, designed by Thomas Ralph Spence (1855-1913). Installed 1908 (see Ives et al. viii, n.14). There are 53 lights in all, focusing on the arms of the university itself (see below right), with the shields of the Midland counties above it, so that, as elsewhere, the decorative motifs "expressed the conviction that there was a symbiosis between the University and the region" (Ives et al. 118). Benefactors' arms are shown as well.

Left: The city's coat of arms, featuring an upraised hammer at the top, with figures representing Art and Industry at either side. Right: The University's coat of arms below, as the focal point, with the open book bearing the motto, "Per Ardua ad Alta."

Right: The Arts, richly robed in purple, with quill and book, and Literature and Language on either side, the latter with many scrolls. Left: Industry, her wheel given wings, with engineering machinery on her left and a muscular engineer on her right.

Geometry

"It might be expected that geometry would go with science, but the design and motto, Docendo Discimus ('We Learn By Teaching') shows that here is Euclid in the classroom" (Ives et al. 122).

Left: On either side of science are men engaged in mining and forging, showing the emphasis of the new university on applied science — showing also, in the case of the miner in the foreground, "the uncertain anatomy of Spence's figure designs" (Moat 123). Right: Geology, Physics and Electroplating are shown here (Sir Josiah Mason, the founder of Mason Science College, a forerunner of the university, had made much of his fortune through electroplating — see the brief history of the university in the discussion of the Aston Webb buildings).

The lower lights of the Great Hall's window, slightly obscured from the back of the hall and in the main picture above, depict other important branches of study available at the university: medicine on the left, with the middle light of the set labelled "Healing," and commerce on the right, with the first one of this set showing book-keeping, or "Records."

Spence obviously had many people to please, and much to include. Inevitably, he has assembled rather a disparate collection of heraldic allusions, representative figures and practical activities. One result is that his "choice of figures emblematic of pure and applied knowledge" has been considered "uneasy" (Foster 244). As Neil Moat has pointed out in correspondence with the author, "the depiction of electro-plating in ancient Greek dress, but with a Leclanché cell (patented by Georges Leclanché in 1866) prominently displayed, and the mining by electric light" reveal a certain and rather amusing insouciance! But the window as a whole is rich in colour, movement and interest, as well as being inclusive. Details in which Spence must have had a free hand, such as the little cherubs with their books in four of the smaller lights — two absorbed in their reading, two glancing up from it — are delightful. Perhaps the effect is most fairly described in the listed buildings text, which calls it simply "[l]avish."

Sources

Foster, Andy (some of this section has been contributed by Ian Dungawell). Birmingham. Pevsner Architectural Guides. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

"Great Hall and Quadrant Range, Birmingham." British Listed Buildings. Web. 27 February 2013.

Ives, Eric William, et al. Birmingham: The First Civic University: An Introductory History. Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, 2000. Print.

Moat, Neil. A Theatre for the Soul: St George's Church, Jesmond: The Building and Culturl Reception of a late-Victorian Church. Newcastle University: Doctoral thesis, 2011 (quoted with permission).


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Last modified 5 March 2013