Category Archives: History
Kicking off the University of Birmingham’s Arts and Science festival, the lecture from Dr Kate Ince introduced the work of the acclaimed architect Robert Atkinson; examining his professional progression as ‘architect of cinema’ and the principal architect of our very own Barber Institute. Atkinson’s ideological progression from designing ‘super-cinemas’ for the masses, to viewing the cinema as an institution which should be interchangeable with buildings and their varied uses, is succinctly demonstrated by the plans to equip the Barber’s auditorium to screen view – turning it into a cinema for all intents and purposes.
The talk itself was illuminating. A snapshot of the history of cinema development, and Atkinson’s creations, Dr Ince focused on The Regent Cinema, Queen’s Road, Brighton as the epitome of Atkinson’s career. He had a particular style, easily seen through the range of black and white photographs we were shown, although they could do no justice to the bright and vivid colours Atkinson was known to use. It is a tragedy of history that most of his work has been demolished or destroyed by fire through the 1950’s-70’s, when cinema attendance was at its lowest.
Comparing the ‘Picture Houses’ of our past and today’s multiplex giants is fascinating. They had ballrooms, The Regent had an Italian restaurant on its second floor, and crucially they were so much more beautiful than, for example, the Cineworld on Broad Street. Atkinson’s style made cinemas beautifully decorated, two storey galleries, with motifs and frescos often having an art deco feel; the classic features creating an air of elegance. The Regent Cinema exemplified this beauty and, more like a theatre to our modern eyes, it seated up to 3000 people. An example of a remaining cinema today that is similar to this, although not designed by him, is the Majestic cinema in Leeds, a listed building since 1993.
In my eyes the era of Atkinson’s architecture is a romanticised view of what cinema has come to be known as. Super-cinemas of the 1930s are perhaps a snapshot into what we have come to know as the modern cinema. However, we should look more to the past and recreate the masterpieces that cinemas were. We should appreciate film as an art form, and give them the setting they deserve. Eros News Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue Piccadilly Circus was a piece of his work, and in 2002 its interior was gutted and re-opened as a Gap clothing store. It is clear this is such a shame to the heritage of Cinema.
I turn to his work designing the Barber Institute, only twenty years before his death. The Institute we have today, although having stood the test of time, does not exactly resemble his work. For example, by the 1960s the flat roof needed to be replaced and a truncated glass pyramid was constructed in 1986-9. Atkinson presented three plans to be considered. Interestingly, one of which shows how we could have had a Barber Institute which could have looked much more like the traditional cinemas he designed, with an oval shaped entrance and two sets of steps leading up either side.
There is no doubt though that the Barber Institute is a beautiful addition to the University. Borne from the mind of an acclaimed successful architect of cinema, the fact the auditorium may soon be equipped with a screen should be celebrated. Atkinson would no doubt approve of such a use for his masterpiece.
The lecture provided an opportunity to appreciate more of Birmingham’s culture and heritage. The rest of the Art and Science festival will no doubt do the same.
As the end of the Easter Holidays dawned upon me I decided one last cultural experience of Birmingham before I became bogged down with exams, revision and a multitude of stress upon the return to University was necessary. So, I left my books behind and set forth for Brindley Place where this month’s Tell Me On a Sunday was taking place. Walking into the Ikon Gallery’s café we were greeted immediately by Katrice Horsley, the national storytelling laureate, who was to be our host for the afternoon. Dressed appropriated for the theme of ‘Feathers and Bones’ she wore a black, corseted and fabulous dress with a dark birdcage veil completing the ensemble. Reminding me of a coquettish black widow, she took to the mic to welcome us and we settled back for an afternoon of stories.
Katrice captured the audience with the tale of her mother, the beautiful woman who taught her the secret of the ‘3D pout’ but allowed herself to relax amongst her animals. In a comical telling of her mother spending the little money they had to purchase chickens, Katrice shared the story of her childhood with her Mother through these little chicks. They were the ‘happiest days of my mom’s life’ we were told. The whole room seemed to collectively hold their breath as Katrice gazed silently and with glassy eyes at something in the past. From the warm humorous tale of her mother and the chickens we were then reminded of the theme ‘Feathers and Bones’ and we learnt of her mother’s death of lung cancer. In an emotional finish, Katrice tells of seeing her mother’s body, ‘a husk’ which she dressed as the feather boa sister. From this tale of her mother we learn how Katrice was given her wings, her feathers, from her Mother but we are left with the poignant note that feathers turns to bones ultimately.
Next to the stage was Guari who lightened our hearts with a story of ‘Bootie’ the squirrel she met when she was researching in an Indian Village. She talked about learning the difference between asking questions for research and the opinions and personalities you learn through actual conversation; she told of how this was denied to her because she was an ‘ignorant city girl’. Everything changed for Guari when an injured squirrel adopted her as her mom. She comically described Bootie ‘peeping out of my ponytail’ and how this squirrel brought her together with the village community. A laugh went round the room as she recalled the moment it was discovered her ‘little daughter’ was in fact a son. In-keeping with ‘Feather and Bones’ we learnt about Bootie’s death, but were left with the heart-warming reminder of the ‘little baby squirrel that ran towards people instead of away from them’.
David took to the stage next and with gruesomely comic details described his medical history and how a condition he developed in his bones led to his hospitalisation, but also the making of some special friends. With vivid descriptions, we shared his hospital experiences from the death of his friend John, as well as the spurting of blood over a nurse which led to his decision to take up painting. We are reminded how despite death and the body going to bones, memories live on and David credits his painting due to this brief friendship with John.
Next up was Cath who enthralled us with a story from her childhood; a tale of boredom on childhood holidays which takes on a supernatural feel as she intones the ‘Cry of Dart’ in a dark voice. The story of an apparently un-kept grave always adorned with permanently present fresh flowers is a spooky one until, in an anticlimactic move which induces laughs from the audience, we learn that ‘The council pays a bloke to do it’. The disappointment in the room that the ‘spirit’ doesn’t exist was evident but so was the enjoyment gained from this refreshing twist at the end.
Polly then entertained us with a ‘nugget’ from her youth, a young love story which ended in vegetarianism. The humour is evident in the tale with memories of this ‘dark, handsome boy’ she fell for and her good humoured cringing at herself when remembering the crush she had on him. She recalled the essay she wrote him on the subject of vegetarianism and we felt for the younger her while she remembered with us the realisation that he, sadly, didn’t share her feelings of affection. The tale ended with the humour of sods law that upon meeting years later they both have boyfriends but only she was a vegetarian.
An American woman finished off the story telling with her tale of a life full of ‘feathers’ and birds that were thrust upon her by her enthusiastic mother. She regaled us with stories of her bird ‘Teely’ and the bird sound affects she added in were brilliant. We delighted in her tales of the birds depression and she finished by telling us how these birds have always been a constantly important feature in her life, despite never wanting to keep any of her own.
Tell Me on a Sunday is a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The intimate café at the Ikon gallery and the high standard of storytelling makes it an experience you will be hard pushed to find elsewhere. The stories may make you laugh, they may make you reflect upon your own life, but what is for sure is that you will really enjoy listening to them.
Words and photography by Libby Hewitt
Last Thursday night I went on a tour of Berlin…in Birmingham. Part of the fantastic Fierce Festival of live art, Berlin Love Tour was a guided tour of the German capital city through the streets of Birmingham, led by Hilary O’Shaughnessy. Hilary, as she explained at the outset, had lived (and loved) in Berlin after leaving her native Ireland. The Berlin Love Tour came from an idea by O’Shaughnessy and Tom Creed, and was first performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2010.
Meeting outside the Crescent Theatre (a local gem just off Brindley Place and Broad Street) were around 15 to 20 people ranging in age from early twenties to their sixties all wrapped up warm in the bitter cold. As we gathered we were accompanied by what looked like a busker with a guitar; however, his clean and smart-ish attire gave him away as part of the performance. We were then greeted by Hilary, who warned us against jaywalking (illegal in Berlin) and also that anyone expecting an erotic tour would be disappointed. She introduced us to the key themes of the performance: what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, what’s been destroyed and what remains. It was clear from the outset that the legacy of the Second World War, Nazism, and the Berlin Wall would be all pervading during the next two hours.
First stop was the Palast der Republik, a relic of the East German past which housed galleries, a theatre, restaurants, a bowling alley and a discotheque. The Birmingham backdrop for this was a piece of waste ground off Broad Street, a fitting blank canvas to get our imaginations in gear. Next up was the Mitte – the heart of Berlin, or in our case just outside the Slug next to the canal. Hilary told us how the Mitte was considered ‘poor but sexy’ and is now a victim of its reputation as the cool and hip area of the city: high rents, coffee shops and bars are the defining characteristics now (an appropriate echo of Brindley Place). The Brandenburg Gate was envisaged in place of the Regus building next to the Sealife Centre, and our guide’s moving tales of memorials to those killed in concentration camps was an interesting contrast to the suited city boys and girls hanging out and smoking outside Bank. It was at this point that the guitarist caught up with us and played Blur’s Out of Time. This brought us straight back into our modern physical surroundings and out of our journey into the past.
Our next stops were the River Spree and the Unter den Linden boulevard. At both stops we were told fragments of Hilary’s relationship with Alex, her German boyfriend, and the sinister aspects of their time together hinted at an emotionally abusive and turbulent time. The Bebelplatz was next up, projecting the site of the former royal library where Marx, Engels and Einstein had all studied on to the site of the impressive new Library of Birmingham. The Bebelplatz was also the site of the infamous Nazi book-burning ceremony of 1933. By this point Hilary’s recollections of her time with Alex were getting more intense and distressing and at the next stop at Birmingham’s Hall of Memory in Centenary Square she told of arguments through tears.
We moved on via Hitler’s bunker to the Berlin Wall, along with the climax of Hilary’s own story (all interspersed with distracting musical interludes). Stories of failed escape attempts over, under and through the wall were combined with the account of how Alex left Hilary. What was striking about Hilary and Alex’s story was the depth of her love for him, no matter how much they fought and what he did to her. The influence of the Berlin Wall was also clear; ‘it’s just a wall’ Hilary said at one point, but it is undeniably much more than a physical symbol.
Our final stop was the rooftop of the Brindley Place car park where we could look out over the city. The last account was of Stasi informants; since the wall came down and records have been released, families, friends and co-workers have tried to both forget and remember their betrayal. Hilary also explained how hard a ventricular assist device (known as a ‘Berlin Heart’) is to remove from patients, a true allegory of her time with Alex. The final scene of the performance was the guitarist accompanied by members of the Birmingham Choral Union singing Tender by Blur. His appearance brought us back to Birmingham from Berlin (and sadly in this case, to a deserted car park).
The tour was largely enjoyable and Hilary O’Shaughnessy was a brilliant guide and performer. Her skills in taking us not only to those landmarks of Berlin but also into the depths of her own relationship proved the event a true ‘love tour’. However, the regular appearances of the guitarist, Greg Milner, were at times grating and distracting. The choice of songs, mainly modern brit-pop tracks, were not in-keeping with the historic narrative and were sung in a way that they became a dirge. Considering Hilary’s story, it would be unfitting for the songs to be upbeat, but her skill in storytelling had already evoked the emotions Milner was trying to get across. The music therefore added nothing but did take something away, always bringing us back to our real surroundings. Still, it was a unique and innovative piece, truly in keeping with Fierce Festival as a whole, and I would recommend the experience to all.
Words by Andy Newnham
The sixth Flatpack Film Festival kicked off with a great night showcasing several classic silent films. This was the first event of this year’s Birmingham-based film festival, which screens a glut of films for every taste from classics such as The Elephant Man to surreal and niche shorts like The Cat With Hands.
Another Fine Mess was a showcase of black and white comedies from the early part of the twentieth century, accompanied by the expertise of Neil Brand, a pianist who accompanies silent movies across the world (he also featured on Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns TV series).
After we had taken our seats in the (surprisingly warm) cathedral along with 200 others ranging in age from teens to pensioners, Ian Francis, Director of Flatpack, gave a brief introduction to the four day festival taking place at venues across the city. It was then on to the main event as Neil Brand highlighted the recent renaissance of silent film, undoubtedly spurred on by the success of The Artist.
The first film we were show was A Pair of Tights, from 1929, which centred around a pair of tight wads taking two (hungry) ladies on a double date. Resisting their date’s calls for a slap-up turkey dinner, the ‘pair of tights’ agreed to splash out on four ice cream cones. This prompted hilarious scenes involving revolving doors, amorous dogs and fist-shaking policemen, climaxing in what can only be termed reciprocal slapstick violence. It was a great introduction to the genre and you quickly forgot that Neil Brand was playing the piano in the room throughout, his compositions matching the drama and his emphasis perfectly timed with what was happening on screen.
Next up was one of the highlights of the night: a short entitled The Dog Outwits The Kidnapper (1908). What starts out as a very sinister tale of a toddler kidnapping turns rapidly into a heroic story of canine bravery. I won’t ruin it for you, as it’s available on YouTube in all its glory, but I will say though that from a personal perspective any film involving a dog dressed up, or driving a car, is a winner in my book. See for yourself: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qApoxM41NGQ
Following these were some shorts illustrating the imagination, escapism and fantasy that characterised early black and white films. We were treated to eerie musical accompaniment for a man sneezing until he exploded (as funny as it sounds), a dramatisation of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves (as if it had been filmed on an drug induced high), and a train journey through space to the sun. These were also some of the earliest first colour films, created by artists individually hand-painting every single film cell – an arduous task to say the least, but the results were undoubtedly astonishing to audiences of the time.
Then it was the final event, starring one of, if not the most famous double act in cinema history: Laurel and Hardy in You’re Darn Tootin‘ from 1928. Audience participation was key to the screening of this film, with a drum handed out to replicate the noise of a punch to the stomach, a triangle for a kick to the knee, and pieces of paper for everyone to rip during the fabulous final scene: a mass trouser ripping involving over a dozen characters.
Accompanied by rapturous laughter, Another Fine Mess was a great start to the festival and also a great introduction to the silent film genre, the piano accompaniment and introductions to each short by Neil Brand really enhanced the event. The mixture of ages in the audience shows the variety of appeal these films have, and the overall audio and visual experience were unlike those found in Cineworld, the Showcase or the Odeon, and more like that at the theatre or the concert hall – a refreshing change to say the least.
A final thought for those who may not be too familiar with the stars of the silent comedy era: if you grew up finding the Chuckle Brothers funny, you’ll be in tears watching anything involving Laurel and Hardy.
Words by Andy Newnham
The 7th of February this year marked the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth and a multitude of events will be going on all year to celebrate one of the most famous British authors. This anniversary was marked by Lucinda Hawksley, great, great, great granddaughter of the man in question, giving a talk in the National Portrait Gallery, London, on his family and social life two days later. Since then, Hawksley has been touring the country giving the same presentation to Dickens enthusiasts everywhere; on Sunday, she came to Birmingham’s Modern Art Gallery the Waterhall.
As a public speaker and lecturer on Dickens as well as 19th century literature, art and culture, Hawksley was well suited to presenting an in-depth talk. Focusing on the lesser known facts, Hawksley took her audience through Dickens’s life, starting with his parents and the debtor’s disgrace faced by his father, and ending with his humble tombstone. She emphasised the importance of certain figures in regards to his fame, such as George Hogarth, a journalist who first published Dickens’s work Sketches, under the pseudonym ‘Boz’, in the Evening Chronicle. Moreover, Hawksley drew attention to Dickens’s social impact on 19th century culture and his activist writings campaigning for reform. Indeed, she revealed his dramatic impact on the poor quality of the Yorkshire schools where bad children were sent to board. Upon hearing of two boys who were blinded by the awful conditions, Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby, which highlighted these issues and within two years all of these Yorkshire schools were shut down. These nuggets of information lent further authority to her argument and showed the audience how Dickens’ works were thoroughly important, focused on topical issues of the time. The talk was perfectly balanced between being in-depth enough to entertain any scholar of Dickens, and being accessible to those who have had no engagement with the texts; it was a brilliant preview to her book Charles Dickens written for the bicentenary.
This event is only one of many going on around Birmingham about the celebrated author, but with Hawksley’s extensive knowledge matched with her family ties it was a terrific introduction. She also referred to many important events occurring this year in regards to his anniversary. Hawksley disclosed that although Dickens stated in his will that he wanted no memorial in England, two statues are set to be erected this year, one in Portsmouth where he grew up, and one in Southwark, London to honour this influential figure. Moreover, it was revealed that the Royal Mail is set to produce Dickensian stamps which will be released in June, two of which are available for preview now. Hawksley provided a fantastic insight into why Dickens has become the icon he has today, and we she should look beyond the books to see the influence he had on his society.
For more Charles Dickens events, see the exhibition currently on display in Birmingham Univeristy’s Muirhead Tower Atrium.
Also keep an eye out for the up and coming production of Great Expectations @ the Crescent Theatre.
Words by Eleanor Campbell
Lace. What does it evoke? I envisage yellowed net curtains, doilies and Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. A bygone age, elegant Edwardian ladies twirling parasols, fragility and antimacassars on chairs. What I do not imagine is a swathe of Swarovski crystals, a mesh of metal or a suspended mattress of feathers. Cue Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery‘s Lost in Lace exhibition located in the Gas Hall, which sets to reform the way we view the aesthetic quality of lace.
Instead of focusing wholly on the materials that make up lace (typically cotton or silk), the 20 leading international artists involved in this exhibition also concentrate on the intertwining, interconnectedness of their mediums and on the meanings translated through semiotics. Naomi Kobayashi of The Cosmos Series reveals how, ‘Like lace, [her] work is about the spaces in-between. The columns rise up like mist, giving a light flexible border dividing exterior and interior within an architectural space. This semiotic notion is also carried forth in Iraida Icaza Panam‘s series of Untitled Photographs of Lace, which she exclaims convey the ‘duality of darkness and light, the creative tension between negative and positive.’
Other striking works within the exhibition include Nils Völker‘s installation One Hundred and Eight. Initially, his work may appear seemingly unrelated to the core theme of lace. The viewer stands in front of forty-eight inflating and deflating bags that mimic the respiratory motion of the lungs. The complexity of this work however, lies beneath what the viewer can see, in the form of a circuit board. This circuit board is an interwoven web of wires that mimic the intricacy of lace. Through this, we discover that the practise to create patterns indicative of lace are not only bound to be used as embellishment or decor, but can extend way beyond into the world of engineering.
This exhibition is, in essence, like a dream-world. Annie Bascoul’s works Moucharabieh and Jardin de lit, lit de jardi ncan be seen to work hand in hand, and are evocative of a fairytale world. Bascoul’s floral lace partition Jardin de lit, acts as a kind of thicket that the prince must pass to reach the Sleeping Beauty in her chamber, Moucharabieh.The Princesses’ lace dresses hang in an exhibition space created by Chiharu Shiota entitled After the Dream, to the opposing side of the Gas Hall. In light of this, we can note how all these separate works of art interlink together in the viewer’s imaginations, just as lace does.
This exhibition was also refreshingly favourable in terms of its interactive elements. Individuals are encouraged to touch examples of the works of art through samples provides in conjunction with them, There is a section towards the back of the Hall in which visitors can cut snowflake-like patterns from paper and contribute their own work of art, by threading and interweaving yarn through other pieces on the wall that visitors have left before them, creating their own little memory. Lace has a timeless quality. Through this innovative exhibition, we can clearly see how it is not restricted to a bygone age, but can be carried forth in new and exciting ways in a whole range of materials.
Words by Jessica Holroyd
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is currently home to an exhibition of Ten Drawings by the Italian Renaissance polymath genius, Leonardo Da Vinci. It is a huge coup not just for the gallery, but also for culture in Birmingham as a whole. So it is with fervent anticipation that I ventured into the city centre to visit the early sixteenth century master.
For those who have not visited Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, it’s a grand imposing feat of architecture that really makes for a particularly dramatic journey on your way through to the Da Vinci room. Under the vast ceiling of the entrance hall, patrons are greeted by a statue of Lucifer, surrounded by a wall of different landscapes and shaking a spear. The Da Vinci exhibition is hidden deep in the bowels of the gallery, which is actually a masterstroke in terms of the layout: this allows time for visitors to contextualise Da Vinci in terms of all the art, culture and history, both before and since his time. Walking through the gallery almost creates a montage effect of the past 600 years of human history, whilst building the anticipation of seeing the work of a true undeniable genius up close.
Finally in the room with the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition, there was a tangible sense of reverent religiosity amongst the thirty or so patrons in the room, as though talking too loudly would damage the drawings. Certainly there was no question of flash photography because the images are over 500 years old and vulnerable to damage from exposure to bright lights. Perhaps most unusual about the exhibition is that, despite being beautiful, the works were clearly never intended for display. A striking contrast from Da Vinci’s iconic works such as the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper, instead this royal collection serves more as a narrative of his life and work. For a start most of them are not works of art at all but sketches and diagrams of academic interest. There are designs for weapons, chariots, maps, precise anatomical drawings of dissected humans, plants and even designs for men’s fashion. The wide cross section on display gives an insight into Da Vinci’s great, curious, enquiring mind: his fascination with and ability to excel in so many fields is irrefutably inspiring.
The anatomical diagrams displayed on two sides of a glass case are particularly impressive. They are drawn so precisely and accurately that it is possible to catch a glimpse of a great empiricist brain at work. The closer I looked at one of them, the more I noticed ink bleeding through the page, only to then realise that these two masterpieces were scribbled down on either side of one piece of paper. To Da Vinci, they were just scraps of sketches drawn on rag paper, but to us they are priceless and infinitely precious testaments to human endeavour.
The drawings hang in roughly chronological order, each with a short synopsis beside it providing a vague biography of Da Vinci and explaining the origin of the work. This becomes unexpectedly moving at the end of the cycle where we see drawings he made as an elderly man. It is disheartening to see the brilliant enquiring genius somewhat lose that curiosity that made him so vital, moving to becoming obsessed with drawing old bearded men and apocalyptic scenes. It is a deeply melancholic end to the collection, reflecting on ageing and death. One leaves the gallery not only with a respect and admiration of Da Vinci, but also with a feeling of kinship with him as a mortal fallible man.
The exhibition opened on Friday 20th of January and now, a week later, the huge initial crowds have largely subsided. The main room was busy, but with a quiet contemplative atmosphere and the gallery was dotted with a few rather sad forgotten looking ‘Da Vinci queue’ signs. Nevertheless, now is the time to go and fully appreciate Leonardo Da Vinci’s work without having to queue or travel to Italy. The collection is in Birmingham until the 25th of March so there is definitely no excuse for missing it.
Words by James Grady