Ceramic frieze series on the façade of the Aston Webb Buildings of the University of Birmingham, just below the parapet, by Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933). This part, above the entrance of the Great Hall itself, depicts "the enthroned Goddess Learning" handing "the wreath of scholarship to the new University, represented by a kneeling man in modern academic dress" (Foster 243). The frieze as a whole brings together Bell's skills with ceramics and as an illustrator, and gives an Arts and Crafts touch to those parts of the complex that were completed in 1907.
The friezes on the teaching blocks depict men engaged in the various industries with which the Midlands were associated, and in which the students would be expected to play leading roles. Blocks A and B were both for engineering students. On A Block (now Earth Sciences) the first of three scenes is dominated by the furnace, but there is also drilling equipment here, and someone in a supervisory role, with plans. Those who attended the new university would direct such work, rather than engage in manual labour themselves. This is more in line with Carlyle's Captains of industry ideal than the Arts and Crafts ethos, but is, of course, well suited to this context.
In the next scene on A Block, four brawny workmen with their sleeves rolled up are shown with their engineering machinery. The one on the right bends to tighten a large nut, while his companion stands by with another large spanner or pincer. Apart from this man, the rest seem stretched to the limit. This is all much more realistic than sculpture, such as Joseph Keller's contemporaneous Industry, depicting maidens with tools or models of various structures.
Finally, on this block, another set of activities: again, workmen are engaged with complex machinery and heavy tools.
The scene above is the first of three on B Block. It clearly relates to civil engineering. On the left, a well-dressed man takes notes or makes calculations as a surveyor studies the land. Ahead of them, workmen in their shirt-sleeves push long wheelbarrows or carry implements. In the background stands an impressive viaduct. Here is an iconography for the modern age, not just of honest labour but of technologically-based endeavour facilitating more technological advances.
In the next piece of frieze on the same block, the focus shifts to electricity. A line of workmen men spool out a cable. Behind them stand telegraph poles, their wires disappearing into the skies. Note here, and in the scene above, examples of the decorative panels dividing the scenes, with columns and vine motifs in an Arts and Crafts style — see Peter Rose for Bell's long association with the Art-Workers' Guild and its offshoot, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society..
In the third and last scene in this sequence, the two men on the right consult a plan, while workmen swing their pickaxes rhythmically, breaking up the ground for laying pipes. In the foreground is a huge spade; in the background, a grand suspension bridge. This scene of workmen labouring with their implements is somewhat reminiscent of Walter Scott Bell's Iron and Coal or Ford Madox Brown's more famous Work.
C Block on the other side of the Great Hall was for Mining and Metallurgy students (see Ives et al., 117). The frieze here shows a line of coalminers, men at anvils, and other activities similarly related to the department. For purposes of teaching colliery safety and management, there was a model mine under the campus itself (see "A Proud History"). In such ways, Bell has vividly "illustrated" the highly practical skills that the "Goddess Learning" would deliver at this new university, so different from the classical curriculum of Oxbridge colleges. He has also succeeded in endowing men and machinery alike with an aura of power and achievement.
Although ceramic friezes on buildings were less common than sculptural ones, they would return to fashion later: "Architectural ceramics in the form of terracotta and faience have once again become a prized addition to the architectural landscape of Britain, as part of restored buildings and new architectural schemes" (Lemmen 39).
Photographs, text and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. Click on the images for larger pictures. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]
Foster, Andy (some of this section has been contributed by Ian Dungawell). Birmingham. Pevsner Architectural Guides. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.
Ives, Eric William, et al. Birmingham: The First Civic University: An Introductory History. Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, 2000. Print.
Lemmen, Hans van. Architectural Ceramics. Princes Risborough: Shire, 2002. Print.
"A Proud History." University of Birmingham. Web. 23 February 2013.
Rose, Peter. "Bell, Robert Anning (1863-1933)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 23 February 2013.
Last modified 23 February 2013