14 August 2012

Urban Space as Work of Art: Framing I

The theatre, later the Theatre Royal on New Street. Image possibly from
about 1800.





















To see a 1902 photograph of the original theatre in the process of demolition, but still framed by Bennett's Hill click here.

Leading into the Georgian era the make-up of provincial towns, both architecturally and socially, was altering. The towns had traditionally been gathering points; markets being a primary draw, as well as permanent trade opportunities and, in Birmingham, the manufacturing that the town had been known for since the 1500s. Peter Borsay describes an ‘architectural renaissance’ from the late 1600s/early 1700s, with provincial towns beginning ‘to appear visually more attractive and sophisticated’.[1] This occurred along with a transition in social activities as leisure became more in demand in the towns.[2] It is likely that wealthier residents with more free time motivated an increasing number of spaces within towns to be used for pleasure and entertainment, and these sites became focal points of the town. In Birmingham these included St. Philip’s with its elegant promenades and later the music festival, the theatre on New Street, the assembly rooms and later, in the early 1830s, the Town Hall.

M. Christine Boyer explores the city as a work of art with its ‘ceremonial embellishment and public picture making ’especially with spaces for leisure and play.[3] The theatre on Birmingham’s New Street (see image above) was thought a highly elegant and architecturally beautiful building[4] which had been described by one as ‘one of the handsomest theatre's anywhere’.[5] The idea of the city as a work of art centre’s around the use of architectural structures as monuments within the urban space, as ‘isolated ornaments’.[6] During the Georgian period reliable and permanent recreational facilities enhanced the image of a town and would help to attract visitors.[7] These buildings were focal points within the landscape and architectural framing only asserted their importance.

Framing tells us where to look. It takes a section of something like the landscape and singles it out for particular contemplation, and this is particularly evident in the case of the theatre on New Street. One commentator regretted in 1830 that the theatre had not been built further back from the other buildings on the street to enhance its prospect, but he cheerfully noted that it could be seen with full effect from the road called Bennett’s Hill which faced it.[8] The position of Bennett’s Hill was no accident; the road had been cut through open land in the early 1820s (see the post A Blank Canvas), and its position perfectly opposite the theatre enhanced the idea of these monumental encounters whilst moving around the town. The same effect was planned for the Town Hall almost as soon as it was built in 1832, but I will add a separate post for this building shortly.  
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[1], [2] & [7] Peter Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance
[3] & [6] M. Christine Boyer, The City of Collective Memory
[*] Other and full references on request.
The image in this post is part of the collection at Birmingham Archive.

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