Architects that Shaped Birmingham – Issue 2: John Henry Chamberlain

Screenshot 2021-01-12 at 17.52.38John Henry Chamberlain, no relation but a contemporary of Joseph Chamberlain, played a major role in Birmingham’s civic life. He was born in Leicester on 21st June, 1831 and received his architectural training with a local practice. He gained further experience in London and undertook a period of travelling in Italy before moving to Birmingham in 1853.

Chamberlain was known for his Victorian Gothic style and was one of the earliest practical exponents of the ideas of architectural theorist, John Ruskin. He was increasingly influenced by the early Arts and Crafts movement in his later works. Many of Chamberlain’s Birmingham projects were designed in partnership with William Martin, who was established as the city’s public works architect. Chamberlain tended to take the lead in design matters while Martin saw to the more practical side of running an architectural practice.

He served from 1865 until his death as Honorary Secretary and on the Council of the Birmingham and Midland Institute. Among his notable and surviving creations are Highbury Hall and the Chamberlain Memorial fountain.  Shortly before his death he completed the designs for the Birmingham School of Art.


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Birmingham School of Art External View 

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Birmingham School of Art Studio Exposed Iron Arches 

The Grade I listed Birmingham School of Art was opened in 1885 to become the United Kingdom’s first municipal college of art. At that time, Birmingham was a rapidly growing industrial city, and recognised the importance of art education for the city’s young designers. In 1971, the School was absorbed by Birmingham Polytechnic and today is part of Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Arts, Design and Media.

Chamberlain was the leading architect for the design of the School and it is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Chamberlain’s untimely death in 1883 however, meant the project was taken over and completed by his partner William Martin and son, Frederick Chamberlain.

The red brick Victorian Gothic style architecture employs a Venetian ornamentation thought to be influenced by John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice*. A continuous plinth band of Doultons tilework containing lozenges, lilies and sunflowers on blue backgrounds runs around the building reflectingnaturalistic elements and its many workshops are further testament to its Arts and Crafts principles.

* Stones of Venice was a three volume collection of essays on Venetian art and architecture published in 1851

Chamberlain was known for his bold use of exposed iron work exemplified by the high vaulted ceiling studios constructed with large decorative iron arches. Prominent features of the building – often mistaken as chimneys, are the tall brick and stone topped ventilation stacks. These drive the natural ventilation system that was integral to the design of the building, drawing fresh air into the interiors and pulling stale air up and out through the stack.

Associated Architect’s sympathetic refurbishment scheme in 1995 saw the introduction of floating mezzanine levels, glass lifts and spiral staircases whilst retaining the original structures and decorative elements. The School has one of the best preserved Victorian interiors in the city and still offers an extraordinary and inspirational educational environment today.