Tour of Lost Birmingham Nᵒ.9: Repository for the Arts - The Pantechnetheca (New Street)

Trade card for the Pantechnetheca, probably 1824.

The Pantechnetheca was one of the most unusual and original Regency buildings in Birmingham and was opened and run by Charles Jones, the building work beginning in 1823, and the architect being Thomas Stedman Whitwell.* The premises contained three showrooms displaying and selling a selection of manufactures and art, the articles being the best of Birmingham’s wares. Before the Pantechnetheca was built the site was occupied by a public house called the Old Crown or the Crown Tavern which you entered at the side through a large gateway which also led to the cherry orchard behind.

At the upper part of the facade Jones had the word PANTECHNETHECA written in Greek letters (see image above). When the shop first opened there was great discussion about the meaning of the word he had chosen; there was much ‘excitement [...] throughout Birmingham, and [a] large concourse of people assembled daily [...] in front of the building and in Union Passage, endeavouring to spell the word, and, after having done so, very few could pronounce it'.* It also excited a great number of local scholars to debate its meaning, but even Jones’s son did not seem to know why his father had chosen this particular word, or was unwilling to tell. The building design itself was part of the Greek Revival, and the Greek derivation of the word was possibly associated with that fashion.*

Even though Greek Revival was fashionable and other buildings in the New Street area also adopted the style, at the time of the Pantechnetheca’s erection the building did stand out from the others around it as being particularly ornate. The ground floor was decorated with a 'Grecian Doric colonnade, supporting [another] of the Ionic order', all this was 'surmounted by a handsome balustrade with projecting pedestals' and sitting on these were sculpted figures and urns.* The sculptures were of four muses used to illustrate the fine arts. There was much debate at the time as to whether the manufactures should be seen as arts, one detractor of the idea asserted critically of Birmingham in 1825 that ‘the arts are cultivated as ministering to the perfection of the manufactures; but the time has not yet arrived when they shall be encouraged for their own sakes, [i]nfected by the trading principle, our talented youth rush prematurely into the character of professional and profiting artists; "dealers and chapmen," in the intellectual line’. In 1829 the Monthly Magazine stated that ‘[a] "Brummagem article," has now become a thing admirable as a work of art', this had previously been a derogitory term, but these two opinions were part of wider dispute. The imagery that Jones used in the building, along with calling it the ‘depository for the arts’ as he did was all part of asserting Birmingham wares as belonging within the brackets of the arts.

The Pantechnetheca supplied all manner of valuable manufactured articles with a concentration of goods from the local area, these included the 'best Soho and Sheffield Plated Articles, with silver edges, fine Jewellery, Bronzery and Ormolu, in Lamps, Candlesticks, &c., Table and Fancy Cutlery, Papier Mache and Japan Trays and Waiters, fine Fowling Pieces, beautiful and rare specimens of Oriental China, elegant Cabinet and Tortoiseshell Work, in Dressing Cases, Writing Desks, Work Boxes, &c. and a great variety of other articles'.* Later the Pantechnetheca also acted as an art gallery as Jones also sold 'a succession of paintings by the most able ancient and modern masters'. This was a wide variety of wares when most traders only sold what they made, and Jones's shop would have been a kind of showcase within Birmingham of the best of the Midlands produce.
There was much thought placed, not just in the design of the building, but into the interior and auxiliary ornamentation. Richard Hicks Bridgens designed highly decorative candelabra which can be seen in the illustration at the top of this post adorning the opening to Union Passage. Jones also put thought into the interior including the lighting which is particularly mentioned, and depicts his conscious attempt to create an ambient shopping environment. You can see from the image of the interior (below) that it was light and airy with open spaces and much ornamentation, all to assert elegance and taste.

Inside the Pantechnetheca, New Street

The site Jones chose was for the shop was ideally situated, with 'spacious frontages to New-street, and on both sides of Union Passage'. The premises was divided into three equally sized showrooms (divided between two floors), each specialising in different aspects of the Jones’s products. You would approach the upstairs showrooms via 'a spacious and gracefully-turned staircase', which was fitted 'in a style of classical elegance, richness of decoration and tasteful attention to commodiousness'.* Many visitors to Birmingham would pay a visit to Jones's establishment which was part of a number of businesses that formed a tour of Birmingham’s 'curiosities'; the new and innovative wares.*

The original Pantechnetheca in a advert for Hyam.

It was an opulent project, and in the late 1830s Charles Jones went bankrupt and the property sold off in February 1839,* though it was already being used by another occupants; Samuel Hyam (a tailor), Joseph Allen Taylor (a hatter) and Messrs. Corah & Sons, who between them paid annual rent of £406 on this 'valuable property'.* According to Eliezer Edwards, Samuel Hyam had occupied the building since about 1837, and Hyam eventually took over the whole building. It is perhaps he who removed the statues from the exterior (left), as their artistic symbolism would not fit with his tailoring trade (or perhaps they were precariously balanced). Hyam had first opened his business in 1835 opposite the Pantechnetheca (number 116 at the time) and he became a very successful businessman taking down the original Pantechnetheca in August 1857 to build a much larger parade of shops, some of which he could rent out, though he retained Jones's name of the Pantechnetheca.

*References on request.
Other spellings. Panteknetheca, Pantenetheca, Pantenetheka, Pantechnatheca.
Images courtesy of Birmingham Library and Archive Services.
References available on request
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