24 January 2015

The East Prospect of 1732


It seems apt that the first post for the new look should be about the East Prospect of Birmingham which has been used for the top image of the blog. It was made by William Westley in 1732, who also produced the 1731 map of Birmingham, so the two relate to each other nicely.

The prospect shows a thoroughly modern town, filled with brick (and they would have been red brick) buildings; a brand new church in the fashionable Baroque style (St. Philip's) on the highest point; and neat, uniformed streets in the 'new' town right of the church, including the new 'Square' built for the wealthy, and a modern innovation in early Georgian urban planning. It was Westley that produced this image as it was a view that his family's fingerprints were all over. His father, William Westley Senior, had worked on St. Philip's (the architect was Thomas Archer) and had built some of the surrounding streets (one was called Westley's Row); he was probably the man behind the 'Square' too. The Westley's had designed refinement and modernity into the fabric of the town, and were now promoting it in the beautiful East Prospect, and the map produced the previous year.


In a central engraving Westley dedicates the prospect to his 'Worthy Patrons' Thomas Archer and Henry Archer, Thomas of course being the architect of St. Philip's. The engraved stone is flanked by symbols of Birmingham's industry and refinement; a palette and mechanical devices on the left, and musical instruments on the right. The town is also described:
“BIRMINGHAM, a Market Town in the County of WARWICK, which by the art and industry of its Inhabitants has for some years past been render’d famous all over the World, for the rare choice and invention of all sorts of Wares and Curiositys [sic] in Iron, Steel, Brass &c. admir’d as well for their cheapness, as their peculiar beauty of Workmanship [...]”
The description of Birmingham's wares as 'curiosities' was the spark of my PhD thesis at the University of Birmingham and BCU,* and is referring to Birmingham 'toys' (small metal items NOT children's toys) and trinkets that were highly desirable commodities of the time. The poet William Shenstone, who lived at Leasowes in Handsworth near Birmingham, was a great lover of these toys, and noted 'I have often viewed my watch, standish (inkstand), snuff-box, with this kind of tender regard; allotting them a degree of friendship, which there are some men, that do not deserve'. Birmingham was already renowned for these items, and became even more so over the next century, becoming known as the 'Toy-shop of Europe'. Birmingham was supplying everything modern and fashionable, and Westley is showing the actual space of the town as the same.


A CLOSER LOOK AT THE PROSPECT

Below you can see Digbeth, a street that shot out south-east from Birmingham, and led to the neighbouring village of Aston, over the River Rea. To the left is St. John's chapel which served the community that huddled along the river, using the waters for tanning leather and powering mills and forges. St. Martin's is the church with the tall spire, still standing today, but rebuilt completely. To the left of St. Martin's is the moated manor house, which was the seat of the old 'de Birmingham' family, a remnant of the town's mediaeval history. The old Birmingham estate can be seen rolling towards the horizon, with Edgbaston Church a dot in the distance (far left).

Digbeth 300 years ago. 1732 Prospect & 1731 Map of Birmingham, by William Westley

Below St. Philip's can be seen on the hill, and the area around was being slowly filled with brand new houses for the Birmingham elite, whose wealth was growing rapidly as the town's trade in luxury wares expanded. One of these was Westley's Row which was near the Square (see pointing finger), which was frequented by Samuel Johnson, among other notable persons of the time. In the foreground is a stretch of the River Rea not on the map, and it is nice to see a party fishing on its banks, especially as the Rea here today flows morosely under the streets along brick culverts.

St. Philip's and the Square. 1732 Prospect & 1731 Map of Birmingham, by William Westley


NOTES
* PhD thesis title is 'A Cabinet of Curiosities: The Production, Promotion and Consumption of Birmingham's Luxury Wares, 1730 to 1830'.

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