Two giant lions outside of the HSBC UK headquarters building in Centenary Square have literally taken ‘pride of place’ in a major new book.
Birmingham’s Public Art, by Jonathan Berg – a tour guide and founder of Positively Birmingham – will be published on 1 November.
It will include several works from within the Westside BID area as part of the main theme of the book which looks at works across the city by genre and age. You can watch our video of the Westside works here:
Even the front cover – a photograph of the eye of Ozzy the Bull – has a major Westside link. Although the bull is now housed in Grand Central above New Street Station, it was the star attraction of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, and attracted thousands of visitors every day when it first went on display in Centenary Square.
Jonathan is a retired honorary medical professor who was pathology director of Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust. He’s also a renowned photographer and author, and is often seen in Centenary Square welcoming tourists to the Positively Birmingham Walking Tours, which raise funds for the SIFA Fireside homeless charity.
Jonathan says: “The HSBC lions [on page 145] date back to 1935 when the original pair were sculpted by W. W. Wagstaff. They represent the two very different general managers of the Shanghai branch of the bank in the 1920s. They are such fun to have.”
Jonathan particularly loves the Paul de Monchaux artworks in Oozells Square facing Ikon Gallery, as featured on page 69: “They are a great demonstration on how public art can be integrated into the built environment to the benefit of both.
“This 1998 work integrates with the whole square with multiple pieces in granite, including a pergola, benches and a water-filled channel in contrasting black granite.
“It is a really good example of how architects and an artist have worked together. Very few people know the name of the artist but he is an internationally acclaimed Canadian artist.”
At the heart of Brindleyplace is Aqueduct & Gates by Miles Davies (1995) in bronze, featured on page 69. Jonathan said: “Both of these works were inspired by the heritage of the canals which border the Brindleyplace development. The arches of Aqueduct are in Central Square and Gates is at the roundabout on the entrance, almost hidden by undergrowth and trees in the summer months.”
Other featured Westside works include two pages devoted to William Mitchell including Quayside Tower’s 19 pre-formed concrete relief panels, which were retained when John Madin’s 1965 office block was refurbished in 2003.
There’s also a reference on page 150 to Inner Spirit, a blue glass and Welsh heather slate work in Regency Wharf off Broad Street by the late Amanda Brisbane, which was commissioned by Richardson Cordwell Properties.
The artist sadly died on a trip to Dubai in 2016, but Jonathan says: “Amanda’s glass art was very popular in the USA. I love this piece, but I don’t think many people know that it’s there.”
There’s also, of course, the Black Sabbath Bench – unveiled in June 2019 and arguably now the most photographed work in Westside. But not, to Jonathan’s eyes at least, without controversy.
“I’ve mentioned the bench a few times in the book,” says Jonathan. “But I do comment that although it has its own website the surface finish of this piece would benefit from some attention as it is currently more of a ‘rusty brown’ Sabbath.
“I think the seat needs properly stripping down and then galvanising before having a decent black powder coating. It is a great concept but just not finished to the same standard as the idea. Exactly the same problem is seen with ‘Forward Together’ by Luke Perry – but of course that was never intended for permanent installation.”
Centenary Square merits a whole chapter where other works besides the HSBC lions include the King Edward VII statue – once of Highgate Park but after restoration moved there in November 2010 close to artist Albert Toft’s other works outside of the Hall of Memory.
The Golden Boys, a statue by William Bloye of industrialists Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch, was returned to Broad Street after an absence of five years on April 29, 2022 following Centenary Square’s £15 million redevelopment.
In the centre of the square facing away from the entrance to the Library of Birmingham is A Real Birmingham Family statue, featuring two children with two mums, one pregnant. This £150,000 work was commissioned by Ikon Gallery, created by Gillian Wearing, a Turner Prize winner, and unveiled in 2014.
Solihull-based Jonathan adds: “Regarding new art – my view is that to have public art that we respect we need to use the tried and tested independent commissioners, competition stages and not be afraid to choose stuff that is seemingly controversial.
“We would never have had Iron: Man, The River or Forward if we had left everything to populism. Chapter 11 – the final one makes some clear statements.”
Birmingham’s Public Art, which costs £20, has 330 photographs across 180 pages. It will be sold in city bookshops and online, and via its own website here, where the cover price includes a £2 donation to SIFA Fireside.
The book is just the latest from Jonathan Berg and follows Positively Birmingham (1994), Discovering Birmingham (1995), and Invention & Design; Elkington of Birmingham, a lavishly-illustrated study of entrepreneurship in the Jewellery Quarter, (2021).
All photographs in this article are © Jonathan Berg.