Saturday, August 08, 2009

Anthony Symondson on "Hardman of Birmingham"

The following review of Hardman of Birmingham: Goldsmith and Glasspainter was written by Fr. Anthony Symondson, SJ, and published in The Catholic Herald earlier this year.


by Anthony Symondson, SJ

Hardman of Birmingham: Goldsmith and Glasspainter, by Michael Fisher, Landmark Publishing, £25.

Long connected with metal manufacturing, Birmingham was mocked in the nineteenth-century for its association with brass. Brassy is not a polite adjective and in ecclesiastical circles in the twentieth century Brummagem brass came to be seen as the worst expression of commercial bad taste. That was largely due to the purveyor of most of it, Hardman’s Medieval Manufactures. Their work was ubiquitous in cathedrals, churches, monasteries and convents and crate-loads were later discarded, leaving crate-loads remaining in situ. To this day sacristies are full of it and much continues in regular use.

The joke did Hardman’s a serious disservice because, at best, this long-established firm produced some of the finest church plate, iron and metalwork, stained glass, textiles and embroidery of the Gothic Revival. Through their association with A. W. N. Pugin, they pioneered the evolution of church architecture, workmanship and worship achieved during the frenetic years of his short life and laid the foundations for the flowering of craft and technique that came to embody the movement’s finest artistic achievements.

John Hardman was a Birmingham Catholic button manufacturer and maker of costume jewellery. Pugin thought Birmingham ‘that most detestable of places’ but it was there that the first Catholic cathedral, St Chad’s, was built since the Reformation and the first seminary founded at Oscott. Hardman was a benefactor to both and it was in this connection that he met Pugin. Pugin’s vision of a church was a building that was also a unified work of art in which the architect was responsible for the entire contents. In 1837 he dined with Hardman in Harborne and both determined that Birmingham should have a Gothic Catholic church. Pugin described the existing classical chapel as a ‘filthy hole’. He sent him some drawings and also a ‘pure and good’ medieval chalice and ciborium that provided models for altar-plate and the revival of ‘the Real Thing’.

In the following year Hardman’s family business expanded to include church metalwork under the name of the Medieval Art Manufactory. Until Pugin the craft of hand-raising silver, the techniques of medieval embroidery and stained glass, were almost lost arts and it was due to his experiments with Hardman that they were revived. This was done in conjunction with the decorator, John Crace, the ceramist, Herbert Minton, and the stonemason, George Myers, who executed Pugin’s painted decoration, furniture, china and tiles, and built his churches. But nobody worked more comprehensively with Pugin than Hardman and so began the creation of the Victorian church interior.

Hardman’s was, in the broadest sense, a family enterprise. Lucy Powell, his sister, supervised the making of vestments. Lucy’s son, John Hardman Powell, married Pugin’s daughter, Anne. Powell was trained by Pugin, became an outstanding designer and worked for Hardman’s until his death in 1897, and his sons continued to work for the firm until 1949. After Pugin’s death in 1852 other Victorian architects used Hardman’s, notably William Burges, and accomplished artists like members of the Pippet family joined but it was an entirely Catholic enterprise and for many years only employed Catholics, despite an increasing Anglican [market].

Public buildings, country houses, villas, schools and colleges also benefited from their work. Foremost was the New Palace of Westminster which demanded gasoliers and door furniture, inkstands, stoves, bell-pulls, clocks, fire irons and grilles to Pugin’s design. Sir Charles Barry believed that Hardman’s workshop was ‘the only one in the kingdom where such work is properly executed’ yet none of this would have been achieved without Pugin’s exacting training. Stained glass became a renowned feature of their work and Hardman’s manufactures were sent all over the world. This enterprise reached a climax in the Gothic Court of the Great Exhibition of 1851 where the fruits of Pugin’s endeavour, achieved in a mere fourteen years, made a lasting impression.

Michael Fisher meticulously traces Hardman’s history and achievement to the present day. Errors are minor; misprints occasionally spoil an excellent, well-researched, and well-illustrated text, though a badly needed index is omitted. In 1974 Hardman’s was bought by the Phillips family and they have achieved a recrudescence. But if anything spoils this book it is a continual reference to the present which diminishes its historical objectivity and savours too insistently of a commercial promotion.

Source: The Catholic Herald

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