24 July 2023

Chamberlain Memorial
Fountain in Birmingham:
Venetian masterpiece or
‘architectural scarecrow’?

The Chamberlain Memorial Fountain in Birmingham was erected in 1880 in honour of Joseph Chamberlain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

When I was in Birmingham last week, I revisited the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain in Chamberlain Square. I was particularly interested in seeing it once again to see the mosaics by Antonio Salviati (1816-1890) of Venice.

Salviati was singularly responsible for rejuvenating the glass-making traditions on the island of Murano, and on Saturday (22 July 2023) I was discussing how his works in England include the five mosaic panels in the reredos at the High Altar in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church in Tamworth.

The Salviati family were glass makers and makers of mosaics based on the island of Murano in Venice and in London. They worked first as Salviati and Co and later, after 1866, as the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company.

Antonio Salviati of Venice crafted the mosaics on the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain in Birmongham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Antonio Salviati became interested in glasswork after taking part in restoration work on the mosaics in Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice by Lorenzo Radi, and he founded Compagnia Venezia Murano in 1866, transforming the reputation of Murano glass and re-establishing Murano as a centre of glass making.

Salviati’s work can be seen in many European churches, and they include the altar screen for the high altar in Westminster Abbey, several mosaics for the grand dome in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, mosaics in the chapel in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and his iridescent mosaic glass panels in the reredos in Tamworth, completed in 1887. He died in Venice on 25 January 1890.

His works in Birmingham can be seen at the Council House and in the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain.

Antonio Salviati transformed the reputation of Murano glass and re-established Murano as a centre of glass making (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Chamberlain Memorial Fountain was erected in 1880 to honour the public service of Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), a prominent businessman, councillor, mayor and MP in Birmingham and the city’s leading statesman. Chamberlain himself was present at inauguration ceremony on 20 October 1880.

£3,000 was raised in public funds to create the monument. It was designed by the architect John Henry Chamberlain (1831-1883), and is one of several monuments in the city to Joseph Chamberlain.

The statesman and the architect were not related, but they were personal friends and both were members of the Liberal elite that dominated civic life in Birmingham at the time.

JH Chamberlain was known for his Victorian Gothic style. He was one of the earliest exponents of the architectural ideas of John Ruskin, and his later works were increasingly influenced by the early Arts and Crafts movement.

Many of JH Chamberlain’s projects in Birmingham were designed in partnership with William Martin, the city’s public works architect, and they were among the architects who shaped Birmingham. JH Chamberlain tended to take the lead in design matters while Martin saw to the more practical side of running their practice.

JH Chamberlain’s notable, surviving works include Highbury Hall and the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain. Shortly before he died, he completed the designs for the Birmingham School of Art.

The carvings on the fountain are the work of Samuel Barfield of Leicester, JH Chamberlain’s favourite sculptor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Chamberlain Memorial Fountain is Grade II listed. It is 20 metres (65 ft) tall and in neo-gothic style, reminiscent of the Albert Memorial.

The Gothic-style memorial has a spire and four gabled faces with arches filled with diaper and mosaic work. The south side has a 50 cm (20 in) portrait medallion of Joseph Chamberlain by Thomas Woolner on the south side. The south side has a portrait medallion of Chamberlain by Thomas Woolner. There are corner pinnacles and a crocketted spire with lucarnes and an iron finial.

The carvings of the capitals and the crocketted spire are the work of Samuel Barfield of Leicester, JH Chamberlain’s favourite sculptor. Salviati was commissioned to do the mosaics after their success with the Birmingham Council House.

A granite plaque recalls how much Chamberlain did for the city, including establishing a safe, reliable water supply and a gas supply for all citizens. The plaque reads:

‘This memorial is erected in gratitude for public service given to this town by Joseph Chamberlain, who was elected Town Councillor in November 1869, Mayor in November 1873, and resigned that office in June 1876 on being returned as one of the representatives of the Borough of Birmingham in Parliament, and during whose Mayoralty many great public works were notably advanced, and mainly by whose ability & devotion the Gas & Water Undertakings were acquired for the town to the great and lasting benefit of the inhabitants.’

The pools around the fountain were removed in the late 1960s, but in 1978, the Birmingham Civic Society celebrated its Diamond Jubilee by designing and paying for the pools to be reinstated. The Portland stone spire underwent a major clean-up in 1994.

Many sculptors and architects have reacted negatively to the memorial. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, writing in 1966, said the memorial is an ‘ungainly combination of shapes.’ John Roddis, a local sculptor, described it as ‘an architectural scarecrow’ and a’ hash of ornamental details.’

The modern library building beside the fountain has been much criticised, mostly due to the staining of the stone chip and concrete cladding panels which have not been cleaned or replaced with stone cladding. The building was once described by King Charles as ‘looking more like a place for burning books, than keeping them.’

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner dismissed the memorial as an ‘ungainly combination of shapes’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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