24 September 2012

Architectural Change: Whose Redd'ning Fields Rise

Snippet of 1750 map of Birmingham by Samuel Bradford.

Part of John Dyer's 1757 poem The Fleece.

Thus all is here in motion, all is life:
The creaking wain brings copious store of corn;
The grazier's sleeky kine obstruct the roads,
The neat-dress'd housewives, for the festal board
Crown'd with full baskets in the field-way paths
Come tripping on; th'echoing hills repeat
The stroke of axe and hammer, scaffolds rise,
And growing edifices; heaps of stone,
Beneath the chissel, beauteous shapes assume
Of frieze and column. Some, with even line,
New streets are marking in the neighb'ring fields,
And sacred domes of worship. Industry,
Which dignifies the artist, lifts the swain,
And the straw cottage to a palace turns,
Over the work presides. Such was the scene
Of hurrying Carthage, when the Trojan chief
First view'd her growing turrets. So appear
Th'increasing walls of busy Manchester,
Sheffield and Birmingham, whose redd'ning fields
Rise and enlarge their suburbs.

This part of Dyer's poem begins in the countryside and then slips almost seamlessly from that rural landscape into the urban; there is continuity rather than two worlds opposed. This contradicts the sharp division that is often drawn between the two, and what we might presume to have always been drawn. Dyer compares the rise of these towns to those of ancient Greece; for him the town is a pleasure to behold mainly due to the sophistication of the architecture. This was before the dirt, overcrowding and supposed moral decline that came with the growth of town and industry spurred distaste of urban life. The Birmingham that was rising at the time of Dyer was relatively green; there were still large gardens attached to many of the houses, orchards along what is now New Street as well as trees, there were fields both within the bounds of the town and surrounding it, and most likely wild flowers too. This Birmingham almost melted into the surrounding countryside from which the red brick buildings rose; and the brick as well as the classical ornamentation symbolised learning, taste and civility.

William Hutton in his first visit to Birmingham in 1741 thought the inhabitants of the town ‘marked with the modes of civil life’, and towns were often characterised for their civilising influence. The ‘boorish country squire’ on the other hand was often lampooned in literature,* and those that did sing the praises of the countryside could be those who had been unsuccessful in town ‘celebrating the virtue of contented obscurity’.* For many the country was still boring, intellectually stale and devoid of elegant pleasures. Matthew Boulton noted in 1777 that ‘bull-baitings, cock-fightings, boxing matches, and abominable drunkeness’ were the recreations of Birmingham in the previous century, but that by that year ‘people [were] more polite and civilised’ and that there was ‘considerable progress in some of the liberal arts’. Towns were moving further apart from county life, and were wishing to promote this. A method for promoting a town like Birmingham as a civilised and polite place was often through the architecture; Dyer’s ‘frieze and column’.

Classical styles signified a symbolic memory of ‘the height of civilisation’ which were the Greece and Rome of antiquity. The proportions of elegance and delicate ornamentation of these architectural styles were studied and copied more and more precisely from the late 1500s and permeated slowly into architectural design. The often mathematical styles or orders of classical architecture denoted learning, intellectualism and refinement and by the 1700s classical style was becoming more widespread in the provincial towns as they strived to advertise themselves as refined and cultivated. Through architecture, or so it was believed, the ideas and ideals of the classical age could be transmitted to the citizens of towns. And the town definitely could draw people in, people flocked to towns like Birmingham for work, financial opportunities, refined pleasures, its intellectual culture and its vivacity.

William Cowper was not the first to sing the praises of the countryside when in 1785 he stated ‘God made the country, and man made the town’, asserting that country living was ‘ethically superior’ to living in the town.* Still using classical imagery, the country was being seen as an arcadia, or the realm closer to God, as industrial change began to sharpen the contrast between town and country. Certain aspects of country life were perhaps idealised as country hovels were often no better than the overcrowded areas of towns, and vices were found in the countryside, but the wealth in town’s meant that vice was more marketable. But the smoke, dirt and pollution (including noise pollution) produced through industrial processes cultivated widened aversion to the town’s appearance, and rural retreat became more and more fashionable. The suburbs became what the Birmingham of the 1750s had been (the one praised by Dyer), a place where both the pleasures of the town and of the country could be experienced.

* References available on request.
Peter Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance
Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World
M. Christine Boyer, The City of Collective Memory

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