Friday, January 31, 2020

Visual Catnip...William de Morgan and William Morris...

Design for printed fabric - Honeysuckle - William Morris - 1874
Over the new year period, on a trip to Birmingham I went back to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I love being there and going back to the paintings, ceramics and sculptures that feel like a remote backcloth to life. Born in Brum, but leaving the Black Country for the West Country as a child, meant that ‘The City of a Thousand Trades’ was linked to visits to the family and the familiar ; the art gallery and the jewellery quartier. 

The Blind Girl - John Everett Millais - 1856
The Pre-Raphaelite room in the gallery mesmerized me from my earliest years. I used to be shown the intricate details on the painting – painstakingly realised with such realism and in such iridescent colours. Yet with age, at one stage I grew tired of this visual overload, and shrugged it off as Victorian excess, as heavy and stifling as the typical 19th century home interior. However this tardive teenage rejection did not last long. I took up a more objective vision of art and its appreciation in general and no longer felt the need to be apologetic about any admiration I might feel for any aspect of any kind of art. Why should you feel intimidated by the dictates of (someone else’s) taste ? Or the new directives imposed on past works and visions that have been taken out of context ? I was very sad to see that the painting that had absolutely fascinated me in childhood (Hylas and the Nymphs – J.W Waterhouse 1896) had been removed from Manchester art gallery due to issues concerning the portrayal of women and their assigned role in society/life. 

Hylas and the Nymphs - J.W Waterhouse - 1896 (
Despite being ill for my latest visit to the art gallery, I did manage to make my way up to the permanent display of ceramics and tilework in the decorative art section of the applied art collection. This is housed on the open upper floor of the imposing ‘greenhouse’ gallery structure - typical of the Victorian age and widely found in libraries and stations with characteristic expanses of glass supported by ornate wrought iron. 

Design for wallpaper - Wild Tulip - William Morris - 1884
As always, one of the key exhibits on display here was work by William de Morgan (1839 – 1917). His art - pottery and ceramics - exemplifies the social and aesthetic values of the Arts and Craft Movement, just like the work of his friend, William Morris (1834 – 1896). Both men were born at a time when mass manufacturing was being driven and enabled by the industrial revolution, and was transforming life in 19th century Britain. Likewise they had witnessed first-hand the saturation of every part of society by soul-less mass produced goods whose manufacture had a dehumanising effect on the labourers and each individual for whom they were destined. I can’t help but wonder what William Morris himself would think of his prints being reproduced today in order to manufacture cheap clothing for global juggernaut H & M, in conditions dictated by fast fashion? Or indeed the Strawberry Thief, amongst his other designs, being plundered to adorn every conceivable surface, from oven gloves to teaspoon rests, much in the same way that The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady ‘accessories’ were hugely commercialized in the 1980s. 

de Morgan
To mark his disapproval of a period dominated by the race for innovation and technology, William Morris refused to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851. In this machine age, when factories delivered services and manufactured goods to unprecedented levles, art had become an industrialised commodity as another. Even though the work of both Morris and de Morgan would go on to have a significant impact of the decoration of domestic interiors in the Victorian age, they practiced their respective crafts with principle. Indeed, guided by truth and beauty, they believed that craftsman should devote themselves to their art, using traditional techniques instead of mechanically churning out vast quantities of meaningless produce. Like the initial founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, they were influenced by the writings of art critic John Ruskin and yearned for a return to a purer time, exemplified by the Medieval age. 

So it was that de Morgan worked alongside Wiiliam Morris in the 1860s, producing stained glass windows with another important late Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones. De Morgan’s formal training as a classical artist enabled him to depict Biblical scenes and those from mythology and legends. However, by his own admission, de Morgan was more a designer than a ‘real artist’. He was fascinated with obtaining an opaque, iridescent finish on glass and this led him in other directions. Although he may have established his artistic credentials during this period of collaboration with Burne-Jones, he moved away from the portrayal of angelic, Arthurian or saintly beings. As much as I loved Burne-Jones’ paintings and stained glass when young, and still love his beautiful drawings today, there are only so many wan, winsome and wilting figures in billowing drapery you can take.

Drawing - Edward Burne-Jones
Once themes and draftsmanship become a little too standard, satiation point is soon reached, although judging by the Victorian appetite for such art, their threshold was considerably higher than mine. The paintings of de Morgan’s wife, Evelyn (1855-1919), are a case in point - for me at least. The beautifully executed recurrent female forms, striking similar poses in classical themes, soon become cloying. However it is important to realise that she was often obliged to conform to popular tastes rather than follow her own leanings since the income from her art was often the financial linchpin in the de Morgan household. Indeed, William’s scientific experiments in firing and glazing techniques from this time onwards resulted in the exploration of other forms and motifs, but did not ensure any lasting monetary gain whatsoever.

De Morgan drew inspiration from what was termed ‘Persian’ ceramics, although in fact this largely referred to16th century Islamic pottery and majolica from Italy and Spain. In this respect he resembled many other Western artists and writers who were attracted to all things Oriental. They were avid for the exotic, and eager to experience a visit to the Levant to complement or replace the more commonplace Grand Tour of Europe. William Morris himself declared: « To us pattern-designers, Persia has become a holy land».

de Morgan
With his ever-analytical, scientific mind, bolstered by a mathematical training, de Morgan found his forte in creating intricate geometric forms, playing on symmetric shapes, and tessellations. These were common in the Islamic art which he so admired, where rich floral patterns took the place of the human figures whose depiction was forbidden by faith. De Morgan departed from the staple Burne-Jones protagonists and moved away from the purely botanic-based designs of Morris. 

His ceramics were devoted to portraying a multitude of plants and mythological, fantastical and heraldic creatures portrayed in stunning patterns and colours that draw inspiration from Syrian, the Middle Eastern work, and the Iznik ware of Asian Turkey. He had seen such art first-hand when he carried out a commission in the Arab Hall of what is now Leighton House Museum. Furthermore, he would have known of the writings of Owen Jones on the subject of Islamic design from the book 'Grammar of Ornament’ (1856).

Design for wallpaper - Tulip and Willow - William Morris -1873-5
In the late 1860s, interest in home improvement was gathering momentum as changing demographics led to ever-greater property ownership. A renewed desire for tiles meant that production increased to provide surround tiles for fire places, or wall decoration and flooring in kitchens, washrooms, parlours, sitting rooms, hallways and pathways. Companies started to supply an impressive range of ‘art tiles’ to meet demand and to exhibit their wares in the international trade fairs. Yet while the work produced by ‘The Potteries’ - centred around Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire - may have made of England the most significant ceramic producers worldwide, it did not suit de Morgan’s concept of the artist potter/ceramist since it had led to uniformity without intrinsic significance. Thomas Minton and Sons perfected production techniques that enabled them to produce on an industrial scale, thus become a leading Staffordshire company throughout the Victorian era. 

de Morgan
Innovative encaustic tiles opened up additional markets and catered to new demands in tiles for public buildings, institutions and palaces, alongside home interiors. Mass-produced Minton tiles were used to replace Medieval church floors - drawing criticism from William Morris but meeting with approval from the ‘father’ of the Gothic Revival Movement – A.W Pugin. The Palace of Westminster, Victoria & Albert Museum and many other prestigious buildings were decorated using Minton tiles in England and even in the USA with the US Capitol.

de Morgan
 The need for ceramic tiles to meet the standards of the Arts and Crafts Movement led de Morgan to set up his own firm in the 1870s. The continued desire to recreate the unique finish of the rich ceramics created in 9th Century Egypt also led him to virtually burn down his workshop at one stage during a (presumably failed) experiment. Nevertheless, he did finally manage to produce lustreware with such skill that he became an expert in the field. A partnership with the architect Halsey Ricardo resulted in a number of important commissions, including Debenham House, London, in 1905 and the design of schemes for the decoration of twelve P&O liners, and the provision of tiles for the purpose. In 1883, de Morgan was also commissioned by Lewis Carroll to design several red lustre tiles featuring fantastic beasts -  a snark, jabberwock, eagle, dodo, among others – to decorate the surround of a fireplace…
Since de Morgan’s work has no religious content or intent per se, unlike much of the art that had inspired it, it has been criticised for being merely clever geometrical patterns that are soulless. Furthermore, the costly production processes meant that de Morgan’s creations were only truly accessible to a select public, with the obvious financial means to afford such expense. This limited their growth, posing restrictions on the public since it excluded the vast majority and ultimately had an impact on sales. In addition, aesthetics were evolving. 

Taste changes, and as no longer in the spirit of the times, De Morgan & Co folded in 1907. Having finally perfected his lustreware technique in later years, he wrily remarked that “All my life I have been trying to make beautiful things and now that I can, nobody wants them." Indeed, through concentrating on the creative process, he had overlooked the aesthetic mood at the turn of the century, with the result that his motifs and patterns appeared somewhat outdated.

de Morgan
What I find the most endearing and admirable in de Morgan is this earnest, even dogged approach to art and experimentation and the fact that despite being born into a lineage of mathematicians, he was apparently inept at managing the financial aspects of any of his endeavours. For all his love of figures and the beauty of mathematics, he was notoriously bad at the books ! He was also known for his sense of humour – shared by his wife – and again, I think that makes of de Morgan a most congenial character, very far from the dour, caricatural image we might have of the average Victorian. 

de Morgan
The expressive, organic, undulating forms and flowing lines of Art Nouveau had overtaken the heavier, history-bound, cluttered style of the 19th century. The beginnings of change had already made themselves apparent in the black-and-white illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898). His art marked a striking move away from the more reassuring style of Burne-Jones which had been a key inspiration and influence in Beardsley’s short life. Whilst Burne-Jones dealt with a dream-like domain of myth and legend, his young admirer’s Aesthetic art bordered on the nightmarish, with its troubling, almost menacing edginess. In this new climate, de Morgan’s designs no longer had their former relevance or success. The Minton company was able to adapt to the times by introducing Art Nouveau designs influenced by the Vienna Secession art movement, founded by Gustav Klimt and others ; de Morgan could not and would not make the change. On the closure of his company, he literally turned the page, and added a new chapter to his life…. through literature. 

de Morgan
It is interesting to think that over his lifetime, he was to have greater success from the novel-writing that he ultimately turned to - once the commercial opportunies of ceramics had finally failed him. Today, of course, the de Morgan name is synonymous with art, and probably not literature, even if William published seven best-selling novels in this final phase of his life, gaining him acclaim in England and the USA. 

de Morgan
These decorative arts operate as visual catnip on me – drawing me in every time. Just the name given to some of de Morgan’s iridescent finishes is enough to make me dream. Moonlight and sunset lustre… How magical is that ? 

de Morgan

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Lady's Slippers - the Magic of Orchids...

The odds of any green plant or cut bloom surviving the special gardening attentions and flower arranging skills of my two cats are rather slim so if a pot or vase cannot be suspended from - or perched on – some high place, it is systematically relegated to the balcony.

Unfortunately, the voracious vine weavils have put paid to many a plant –  regardless as to whether these were intended for indoor or outdoor life. All my favourite forms of foliage tend to be targeted by the evil weavils. Leaves of ivy, buddleia, passionflower and honeysuckle are chewed to tatters whilst the roots below the soil are gnawed to shreds.

As disheartening as all this can be, however, I have come to resign myself to the idea that the balcony should simply be left to accommodate plants that will not whet the appetite of these marauders. I, meanwhile, can feast my eyes (and nose) on the plants at the garden centre and take photos of the most beautiful specimens to prolong the pleasure and to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

This tactic has worked out quite well, and especially at the present time as the balcony has had to be stripped entirely due to renovation work. Last weekend I made my usual addict’s dash to the garden centre in order to get my regular ‘floral fix’ and was not left wanting.

The greenhouse was awash with a flood of pale purple and pink, elegantly borne on stems rising from rich green leaves. Once synonymous with the exotic and rare, we now find orchids on sale everywhere – from supermarkets at knock-down prices to petrol station forecourts as a last-minute gift. Indeed they often seem to have become a little too commonplace and vulgar even – sprayed in gaudy colours, glitter-coated and decorated with naff ribbons! The ones here, however, were breath-taking.

I always found the word ‘orchid’ to sound beautiful and remote; other-wordly, in fact. And yet its origin is a little more earthy… derived from the Greek word (orchis) for testicle, due to the supposed ressemblance of certain root tubers to the male genitalia! Latin names were used for the specimens displayed at the centre, although the familiar names were just as magical ; Moth Orchids, Lady’s Slipper and Venus Slipper.

Whichever the genus, the petals of each orchid seemed artificial, made up from some kind of luxurious, waxy synthetic material, delicately painted in rich colours. The Phalaenopsis –  from the Greek phalaina ‘a kind of moth’ with the suffix -opsis meaning ‘having the appearance of’ is probably the best-known commercial orchid. Flat flowers, with strangely formed parts, are arranged on long, arching stems, while long, ‘leggy’ roots trail below. Native to a number of Asian countries and Australia too, the Moth Orchid is now a staple in florist’s shops and garden nurseries in climates far less hot and humid.

Cypripedioideae is an orchid subfamily commonly referred to as Lady's Slipper. These are recognized by the flower’s slipper-shaped pouches (modified labella). Its intriguing beauty, wields the same power over passing insects that are irresistably drawn down into the pouch, thus fertilizing the flower.

Paphiopedilum, often named the Venus Slipper, is a genus of the Lady Slipper Orchid. The name is derived from Paphos in Cyprus (the mythical birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite) and the Greek word pedilon for ‘slipper’. It is native to a list of countries that sound as if they are drawn from a children’s book of adventure and exploration from a bygone era; Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, southern China, New Guinea and the Solomon and Bismarck Islands… This genus is largely cultivated by seed, as opposed to tissue culture, which means that each plant is unique.

Zygopetalum is a scented variety of the orchid family, with a name that refers to the yoke-like form of the flower’s lip (from the Greek ‘zygon’). The fragrance and petal marking attract the insects that will then act as pollinators. Unlike the other orchids on display, with origins scattered over the eastern hemisphere of the globe, the Zygopetalum is ‘merely’ a native of certain areas of South America. Of course, all orchids that are hybridized and cultivated for mass-market sales today will never have seen their natural habitat as production now is international in scope. So, maybe not so remote and other-worldly after all, but just as mesmerizing. And the best aspect about getting horticultural fixes for free? The variety of ‘drugs’ is never-ending – changing with the seasons and the latest hybrid breakthrough so that I rarely know what I will come across. That really is magical !

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Greenery in the Black Country - St Martin's Church Birmingham...

I fell ill while travelling back to England on New Year’s Eve, so when I finally arrived at destination I was feeling green and more than a little sorry for myself. I slowly trundled my over-sized suitcase out of the coach station and headed off towards the main streets of the city centre. As I braved the hill gradient of the road and wheeled my unruly luggage up the slopes, I saw the now familiar, yet ever-surreal vision that greets all visitors to Birmingham and native Brummies alike.

The Victorian edifice of St Martin’s church is surrounded by the futuristic blobitecture of the Selfridges Building... So it is that the ‘Mother Church of Birmingham’ stands next to this millennial cathedral to consumerism. The church spire and spiky forms of its Neo-Gothic architecture is virtually dwarfed by the height and sheer volume of this bulging magma of modernity - albeit already a little dated since its inauguration in 2003. Both are set in the Bullring, near the old market area that has accommodated traders and their wares since the Middle Ages.

Whilst the aluminum discs of this metallic amoeba shone out like hundreds of compound flies’ eyes, it was actually the shock of bright green algae on the masonry of the church that caught my eye on a sunlit start to the year 2020. The intense colour was so magical that I resolved to come back and investigate. Unfortunately I continued to feel bad throughout my entire stay – even greener and colder than the old stonework – and so the final photos were rather flat and I didn’t even manage to take shots of the obvious views, even less explore! There is no picture of the Selfridges Building!

The history of St Martin’s reflects that of the city itself; a continual adaptation to the social, cultural and commercial sea changes brought about and bolstered by developments in technology, communication and consumerism. The face and form of Birmingham’s city centre have been the focus of several sizeable transformations since the Industrial Revolution, but above all and most radically, in the aftermath of the Second World War and now again from the early 2000s.

Ambitious new visions for the second city of England have resulted in a series of extensive urban reconstruction projects that have radically altered the landscape and even the role of Brum itself, just as canals did with the industrialisation of the 18th century and the expanding train networks later on. Indeed, the waterways and railways that were carved into and around the city acted as veins and arteries, circulating goods and supplies to the vital organs of the Black Country. Birmingham was the pulsing heart of the Industrial Revolution, and the network of canals was both the cause and consequence of its growth. Fast-forward some 300 years, to the 1960s, and pro-car urban planning likewise sought to give a dynamic boost to a city that was finally ready to rise from the shadows of post-war restrictions. This resulted in the ‘concrete collar’ of thoroughways that ploughed through Birmingham’s centre - the Inner Ring Road – leading the way to an exciting new future…

At its heart was the revamped Bull Ring market area which emerged as the Bull Ring Shopping Centre – a shining example of commercial mall-inspired modernism - clad in the boxy, grey concrete attire of Brutalist architecture. Other such buildings appeared from the late 50s onwards, all dashing in their inspired vision, but dismal to behold - for me, at least. Whilst campaigners have called for their conservation - the Brutiful Birmingham Action Group being one – many of these monoliths have been demolished to make room for the new ‘new’. With bright hope for yet another brave, brand-new world, these vertical visions of 60’s dynamism are now being floored in their turn, just like the sprawling patchworks of dirty Victorian back-to-backs that had been demolished to make way for them.

The reality of living and working in and around these high-rise horizons soon hit as hard and cold as the bold, unforgiving materials they were constructed from. Spaghetti junctions and tower blocks rising high above ground, pedestrian subways below, and interminable roads between were no longer futuristic emblems of promise but pointed to a rat-race destiny for those caught in this concrete maze. Discontent that was voiced over post-war redevelopment has led to an ongoing overhaul of the centre of Birmingham that continues to this very day, but by its very nature, this can only be problematic. What do you preserve ? What should go ? According to Sir Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer and Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, "there is little of real worth in our architecture" and with that withering assessment, vast plots of land were wiped clean of their architectural past, to be built over with imposing concrete constructions of limited life span, yet life-long notoreity. It has even been remarked that at least the Luftwaffe ‘merely’ left rubble behind in their trail of devastation….

Urban renewal is, of course, nothing new. Each successive major civic project is largely built on, or alongside, the site of its predecessors. One man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison. Augustus Pugin – architect pionnier of the Gothic Revival movement referred to the city  as "that most detestable of detestable places - Birmingham, where Greek buildings and smoking chimneys, Radicals and Dissenters are blended together". The Arts and Crafts Movement, born of the Birmingham Set (including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones) would reject the art and architecture of heavily-industrialized Victorian England and finally give way to Edwardian and inter-war styles, ultimately leading to Modernism.

Nothing remains constant, and nor should it, but what we consider to have become obsolete by the criteria of our time, should surely not be obliterated and in so doing annihilating the past. Many rows of grand red-brick Victorian buildings have long been replaced by other forms of otherness and this process is still very much ‘work in progress’. More recently, the concrete ziggurat of Birmingham Central Library was replaced by another version of newness for our multi-tasking, multimedia era. Other parts of the city are due to be rejuvenated ; the expanse of the Custard Factory Complex, just beyond Digbeth Coach Station is now being measured up. Of the original 70s Bull Ring area, the iconic cyclindrical Rotunda has survived although its towering sci-fi office space now provides high-rise accommodation. The Bull Ring Shopping Centre, freed of the Inner Ring road, has morphed itself into the blob-like Bullring, linked to the Grand Central around New Street Station and is hub to serious Shopping (capital S). I can't help but wonder how long it will stand there, in its current state and style. My remaining blurred memories of the late 60’s-to-70’s city centre are no longer valid – I recognise very little - and these simply go to underline the notion that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

The church of St Martin has stood its ground throughout all of this extensive reconstruction activity, and has been witness to the waves of change that have visited its urban surroundings. Although itself victim to the blitz bombing in the war years, its spirit and architectural structure has remained largely intact so that it is still a landmark in a city that has, in parts, changed beyond recognition. And perhaps no part of the city has changed as much as the Bull Ring market area.

Until the 17th century, St. Martin’s was the only church in Birmingham. This was a Mediaval village centred on the retail and wholesale markets of the Bull Ring, a name referring to the blood sport of bull-baiting. Towards the end of the 13th century, a red sandstone church was founded by the de Bermingham family, thus replacing an earlier edifice which had been a simple place of worship, thought to date back to Saxon times. Burials took place in St Martin’s up until the construction of St Philip’s church in the early 18th century, in order to meet the spiritual needs of the congregation and their dead. This Baroque edifice stood outside the historic centre of Birmingham, although today we naturally assume this to be the oldest quarter since there appear to be fewer modern buildings in the vicinity - for the moment at least. St Philip’s was built of brick faced with stone, enabling it to resist over time, unlike St Martin’s whose sandstone weathered so poorly that by the end of the 17th century ‘serious deterioration’ required drastic measures to be taken to preserve the church. In an attempt to save the edifice, it was entirely flanked in a thick protective red-brick casing. This may have ‘done the trick’, but resulted in an aesthetically displeasing whole -  of Neo-Classical design. Of the original Medieval church, only the spire was visible for the next 200 years.

By the 19th century, criticism of this "hideous pile of brick and whitewash" was rife and the poor taste of interfering churchwardens was blamed. Not only was the original form obscured - "buried in its ugly tomb, literally bricked up" - but other features had also been added. It was later remarked that the interior surpassed the exterior in "unsightliness". Indeed, over the course of the 18th century tall round-headed windows with cast-iron frames were added – later pointed out as being more appropriate to factory buildings; certain aisles had been extended; a vestry constructed; low, flat Georgian ceilings set in place and medieval wall paintings whitewashed and plastered over. Furthermore, the erosion of the masonry had continued regardless of the alterations and represented a serious threat to the building. All in all, the church was seen to be a disgrace to the status of Birmingham.

Despite appeals, lack of funds meant that only the tower and spire could be restored. Finally, however, money started to be raised from the 1870s in order to carry out a complete rebuilding of St Martin’s. The resulting Grade II listed church, designed by Alfred Chatwin, is an example of gothic Victorian architecture. The whole church, with the exception of the recently restored tower and spire, was taken down and rebuilt in an accurate 14th century style, enabling the architect to study all remaining original forms and features. Indeed, in order to retain the aspect and spirit of the former Gothic edifice, the new choir stalls were carved from its surviving medieval roof timbers. Trained under Charles Barry, Chatwin had worked on the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament alongside both him and Pugin. It is therefore highly likely that the open-timber roof was inspired by the great ‘hammer-beam’ roof of Westminster Hall. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, there had been a boom in the population and thus a considerable growth in the number of  parishes. Birmingham officially became a city in 1889, and St Philip’s church assumed the status of cathedral at the turn of the century. St Martin’s continued to fulfil its role, administering to its parishoners and opening its doors to those passing through.

Although Birmingham was a prime target for enemy offensives in the Great War due to the importance of its munitions works, Zeppelin attacks caused no damage to the city thanks to extensive black-out measures and anti air-craft surveillance. The same cannot be said of the Second World War, when Birmingham bore the brunt of Luftwaffe attacks. After London and Merseyside, Brum received a greater tonnage of high explosives than any other region. In the air-raids that wreaked havoc on the city centre, the Bull Ring received many direct hits and St Martin’s was not spared the hostilities. The church did survive the attack of April 1941, even though almost all of the Victorian stained glass was destroyed, with the exception of one work of Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones. His transept window had been removed and stored safely just prior to the bombing.

Fortunately, just as many other churches and spiritual centres, St Martins’ is still anchored in city life today, adapting itself to its environment. There was a photography exhibition on show when I visited, but apparently it is even used as a venue for music concerts too! It has always assumed several roles as an active pivot and focal point in the heart of the Bull Ring ; working for and with the congregation, the community, culture and even commerce via social enterprise. I am not at all religious myself, but I love to see the historic and the ‘meaningful’ (for the lack of a better term) alive in the present, able to be observed in context and with hindsight; unapologetic at a time when everything has to be justified, labelled, sterilized and reduced to bite-size, safe doses for convenience.

Living in a connected, supposedly globalised society, we want everything to be slick, rapidly and easily accessible, geared to the individual yet attached to a network when it suits our personal needs and desires. Everything appears to be a commodity, to be swiped, consumed, shared and liked, or clicked away without a trace. History seems to be an anti-dote to all of that. The frenzy of acquiring stuff, this cult of consumption of things and now Experiences (with a capital E) have taken on such huge proportions that they have become some kind of juggernaut that will crush and devore anything that stands in their path. This seems to be a road to ruin, and one on which we will lose ourselves. How can you understand life and find meaning in a land without lasting traces, a horizon devoid of visible historic landmarks?

We do not even notice what is happening to our urban landscapes anymore. Much of the heritage of a city – mainly, but not exclusively architecture – is being deleted without a backward glance. We often no longer recall what was there in the recent past and worse still perhaps, we do not even care. By the time we realise the fate of a building or any plot of land, the planning permission has already been granted, and we are powerless to act, should we wish to do so. Nothing seems secure anymore and that makes me all the more grateful for edifices like St Martin’s, when few historic buildings can be assured a future. As lifestyles evolve, aspirations and expectations in life are modified in line with changing patterns and means of consumption. Our previously-treasured high streets are undergoing a shift that guarantees nothing but assured incertitude. This could be just as positive as negative in outcome, but we need some kind of constancy in these quick-sand times. The impressive historic buildings that are still standing in Birmingham’s city centre are, generally speaking, no longer home to the old, powerful institutions.

Beautiful, high-set porticos, majestic doorways, vaulted ceilings, vast Georgian rooms with classical fittings, late Victorian brick and terracotta façades, coloured faïence brickwork now all serve as backcloths to lounge 'living and chilling' spaces; wine bars, eateries, cafés and the like. The banks, insurance companies, lofty firms and prestigious retail stores seem to have moved out – online, overseas or out of town. A former children’s hospital has even become a casino – well, why not ? Better that than left as empty, boarded up and/or derelict buildings. However, I fear that once revenues decline, these short-term occupants –albeit all instantly-recognizable big brands - will follow suit. This will leave multiple premises – the city’s heritage - in a poor state of repair, having been modified out of recognition to meet fleeting modern requirements. These edifices risk falling easy prey to property developers with their wrecking ball or sneaky current practice of gutting historic buildings to preserve a veneer-thin frontage ('Facadism') as a nod to the past. This would appear to be more a two-fingered salute to our history... and our very selves.

The Bull Ring and parish church of St Martin, Birmingham, 1880s, unknown photographer