Mr Chamberlain's Orchids Matt Westbrook


‘Mr Chamberlain’s Orchids’ is a project that has aimed to use the life of Joseph Chamberlain and his love of orchids, to raise awareness of current cultural, heritage and global conservation issues.

Through workshops, talks and exhibitions, the project has connected heritage and cultural organisations, bringing contemporary art and scientific research to the attention of new audiences.

Joseph Chamberlain. Image from The English Magazine, 1892-1893

Joseph Chamberlain was a prominent 19th Century politician whose flamboyant dress and trademark orchid made him an instantly recognisable figure in print and in public. In his early political career, he was a hugely popular Mayor of Birmingham, widely praised for the ‘municipal socialism’ that helped transform the city in the late 1800’s.

Upon entering national politics, he became increasingly imperialist in his world view and his career is tainted by the shockingly cruel ‘scorched earth’ policy and treatment of conscripted Black Africans during the second Boer War, for which as Colonial Secretary he was accountable for.

Postcard of the Orchid House at Chamberlain's Birmingham residence, Highbury, (1906)

Chamberlain’s love of orchids can therefore be seen as a benign issue of his legacy, but the project aims to demonstrate how a participatory approach can help create an environment that is conducive to discussing the difficult topics connected with his career.

The display at the RHS International Orchid Fair, Malvern. Image courtesy of Marcin Sz

What follows is a personal account of the thought process that I have gone through in developing the project and a description of some of the outcomes and events that have been produced.

Display of ceramic outcomes at Highbury, March 2020

My interest in orchids and Joseph Chamberlain began with my time as an artist-in-residence in the Research and Cultural Collections at the University of Birmingham in 2015. The Research and Cultural Collections is essentially a ‘museum’ within the university’s buildings and departments, housing numerous archives and artefacts that have been bequeathed or accrued over its lifetime.

The Green Heart banner on the soon to be demolished main library building.

I applied because of an interest in what I considered to be the ‘simulated’ space of university campuses. The university was undergoing a major redevelopment with the introduction of an area of parkland to the centre of the campus named the ‘Green Heart’. I interpreted this transformation as being symbolic; the archetypal ‘red brick’ university being altered to project a more natural aesthetic and this change inspired me to explore the history behind the original design.

Postcard of the University of Birmingham.

I became drawn to the University Heritage collection where I found many references to Chamberlain’s founding role in creating what was the United Kingdom’s first civic university. The campus’s defining feature, the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, or ‘Old Joe’ quickly became the focus of my research.

A view of Old Joe from University square.

Designed by Aston Webb and Ingres Bell, the 100-metre high tower opened in 1908, six years before Chamberlain’s death. Despite its impressive height it is often incorrectly considered to be the world’s tallest freestanding clocktower. It is actually 3 metres shorter than the Campanile di Mortegliano in Italy (though in my opinion Old Joe is much more aesthetically appealing).

Campanile di Mortegliano, Italy. image: Creative Commons

In another dent to its authority ‘Old Joe’ is closely modelled on another Italian clock tower, the Torre del Mangia in Siena.

Postcard of the Torre del Mangia in Siena

The continued miscommunication about the height of the tower and the Siena connection fascinated me. What did it mean if the clock tower, dominant in university marketing and a key city landmark, wasn’t really the world’s tallest and was actually a close replica of somewhere else?

A view of Old Joe from Chancellor's court on campus. Emerging from this passageway creates a feeling akin to arriving at the Torre del Mangia from the narrow 'vialettos' of Siena.

Alongside this I wanted to explore the emotive effect that the Venetian gothic architecture created, creating what I perceived to be the uncanny feeling of being ‘here, but elsewhere’.

Postcard of Highbury (c.1895)

Chamberlain had explored this idea with the design of his Birmingham residence, Highbury. By placing his house on the edge of the grounds it allowed for long bucolic views to be created, devoid of man-made features despite being a stone’s throw from the densely populated Kings Heath.

The view towards the university of Birmingham from the grounds of Highbury, now called Highbury Park. Can you just make out Old Joe on the horizon?

This technique is referred to as ‘Rus in Urbe’, meaning to create the illusion of the countryside in an urban environment, something that was also perhaps happening with the green heart transformation.

Westbrook leading a guided 'Pareidolia walk' around the campus

To discuss these ideas, I developed a guided walk that attempted to locate the animals and natural motifs associated with the 17 ‘contrade’ districts of Siena, that I proposed were ‘hidden in plain sight’ on the campus.

A map of Siena showing the 17 different contrades.

To much bemusement, I led groups of staff and students around the university, pointing at flaking bits of paint or entire buildings and declaring that we were now in ‘Owl’ or ‘Giraffe’ district.

Can you see a porcupine, a unicorn, and owl and a giraffe?

Pareidolia is the term for the brain’s tendency to detect forms and faces in nature where none exist. Spotting shapes in clouds is perhaps its most commonly known adaptation and it has become an important part in my creative process.

I feel we live in a polysemic world, we see what we know or understand and objects, places, landscapes can have multiple meanings. A mechanic for example may sit on a bus and scan the environment for bolts, screws and rivets; mentally deconstructing how the vehicle was made, whilst a film maker may be listening to conversations, mentally sketching storyboards, overhearing dialogue...

Can you see the back of a dustbin lorry or two silverback guerilla's staring at you?

As an artist I believe my role is to observe the world, ask questions and connect people to larger narratives. Pareidolia has developed my ability to do this and I have become increasingly motivated to make work that shares this insight with others.

A cow's head or a plastic bag?

The process of being able to turn the mundane into the magical is also I feel connected to the decision making process I go through when I manipulate any medium or material into an artwork. There is always a sense of having to visualise what the marks will become on the page, or the how the clay on the table will form together and it was this process, rather than any final art outcome, that I had become what most interested in.

'Approachable Joe' Walk, Image courtesy of Paul Stringer

I would later create another walk called ‘Approachable Joe’ where I led an increasingly weary group of urban explorers in a 3 hour circumnavigation of the UoB campus, walking between incongruous locations where Old Joe could be spotted on the horizon, in between trees or looming above retail parks competing for attention in south Birmingham’s suburban sprawl.

Approachable Joe Walk, (2019). Image courtesy of Paul Stringer
'Approachable Joe' walk, (2019). Image courtesy of Paul Stringer

These walks were clearly a light-hearted exercise, but I was driven by how, if you altered your interaction with an environment you could, psychologically at least, be transported somewhere else. Similar to how a walk through a wood can be heightened by being receptive to birdsong, changes of light, colours of plants and trees, so too can any walk be elevated by having a more enquiring mindset.

Old Joe amidst the terraced streets of Selly Oak

In discussing this approach with friends and academics at the university, it became clear that there were numerous related examples of simulation in nature. I took a particular interest in orchids and their ability to mimic scents or appear as insects to attract a pollinator. They became a central part of my thinking after this point.

Ophrys apifera commonly known as the Bee Orchid. Image Joseph Vary
Orchis dracula 'The monkey orchid'.

As my residency came to an end, I continued to research these ideas of simulation and simulated spaces, but I realised I was also intrigued to find out more about Chamberlain than the tower named after him or the campus he created.

Chamberlain’s name is routinely connected with streets, memorials, buildings and organisations in Birmingham but despite living in the city for 25 years I knew relatively little about him.

Chamberlain depicted in a gondola with St Marks tower behind him, Punch cartoon (1904)

I spent time researching his archive in the Cadbury Research Library and a key moment was when I discovered that it was Chamberlain himself who had requested the Venetian Gothic styling for the clocktower, rejecting an earlier design. Later on, I would realise that this intervention would neatly illustrate his bellicose nature quite accurately.

Postcard of Chamberlain as Colonial Secretary

As I delved deeper into his archive and life story, which is intimidatingly vast, I found it hard to reconcile the local Mayor who had paternally almost improved the health, education and wellbeing of Birmingham citizens with the colonial secretary who oversaw the burning of Boer homes and farmhouses.

I am indebted to artist Albert Smith, who I would later invite to be part of the project, for enlightening me on the true horror of the era with me. Albert is from South Africa and his descendants were directly affected by the Boer War. His personal perspective also gave me an insight to how the conflict continued to affect contemporary issues.

Chamberlain approved the creation of the world’s first concentration camps during the second Boer War and the statistics are truly horrific. 20,000 Black Africans and 26,000 Boer women and children needlessly died in these camps from malnutrition and poor sanitary conditions.

A Boer Farmhouse on fire (1899 - 1902) Unknown author / Public domain

Chamberlain shockingly, was aware of the trauma the camps were causing but continued to authorise the policy of land clearance. Welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse had visited the women and children’s camps and made very public her letters to government detailing the inhumane conditions she had witnessed. She too however does not emerge faultless, as she declined to visit the Black internment camps, seemingly disregarding their plight.

Emily Hobhouse
Photograph of Lizzie van Zyl taken in the Bloemfontein British concentration camp, shortly before her death. (1901) Reprinted here by kind permission of the War Museum, Bloemfontein
Concentration Camp in Krugersdorp. Image: Creative Commons

The conditions in the 66 Black internment camps were even harsher than the Boer camps, with more meagre food rations and basic necessities such as tents or shelter often not provided.

‘These camps were set up to get black people off the land so that the Boers couldn’t get supplies from them. In addition, forcing black farmers off their land also enabled the British to use black men as labourers on gold mines.’ Fransjohan Pretorius, 2019
This Photograph was titled ‘We are Orphans and Fatherless, our Mothers are as Widows’, and is taken from Emily Hobhouse’s book on the war - 'The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell' (1902)

The story of the Black conscripted worker’s suffering would later be suppressed by the South African National Party who at the same time mythologised the plight of the Boer woman and children, perpetuating a vision of white martyrdom that would underpin Afrikaner identity and provide, for them, a justification for apartheid.

‘Nearly 28,000 Afrikaners succumbed to starvation, disease and exposure in the camps as the British army razed thousands of farm houses to deny the Boer commandos support in the bush. The immense suffering they caused helped drive the National Party to victory in 1948 and provided a justification for apartheid.’ Chris McGreal

It is a chilling example of the knock-on effects that conflicts initiated by the British Empire could continue to have on society and it is hard not to conclude that Chamberlain, and indeed Hobhouse’s views were based upon a racist underpinning. This is one of the key reasons why Chamberlain remains a difficult figure in contemporary Birmingham.

The war memorial to the fallen of Birmingham in the Boer War, in Canon Hill Park. Designed by Albert Toft and completed in 1906.

I may have initially become interested in Chamberlain’s personality because of an interest in campus design, but to continue to make work about his connection with orchids and not raise awareness of these issues seemed gratuitous. I felt that I had a responsibility to address the troubling side of his legacy in any work I chose to make.

I chose to continue the discursive approach that I had adopted on my walks and was encouraged to do this by the ground-breaking exhibition installed at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. ‘The Past is Now’ was an exhibition initiated by Sara Wajid and co-curated by Aliyah Hasinah, Sumaya Kassim, Mariam Khan, Abeera Kamran, Shaheen Kasmani and Sara Myers that directly criticised Chamberlain and in particular his handling of the Boer War.

A display panel on Chamberlain from 'The Past is Now' exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The exhibition avoided a tone of neutrality in both the selection of objects and the telling of the story of Empire. Notably the display panels took aim at Chamberlain’s racist imperial policies during the Boer war, with other exhibits discussing the study of eugenics and human consequences of the slave trade. The exhibition confirmed to me that there was a real need for more exhibitions that questioned the structural inequalities left by Empire.

Now of course, the issues of Britain’s colonial past have become foremost in the UK’s psyche, as a result of the current global Black Lives Matter protests. I am glad that these discussions are finally happening more widely.

Postcard of the portrait of Chamberlain by Frank Holl in the National Portrait Gallery.

Chamberlain’s image was an important part of his rise to power and I felt a study of how it facilitated his journey through the institutions and establishments of British society could contribute to this debate. Why go to such efforts to maintain this image?

Portrait of Joseph Chamberlain, shot by Sir Benjamin Stone in 1905. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham.

The symbolism of a politician’s dress seems bound in the aged old class identities but is also affected by what we consider to be the contemporary phenomena of virtue signalling.

My mind thought of the moment that David Cameron ordered Jeremy Corbyn to ‘buy a better suit’ or the comedic moment when an aide hastily removed a single use disposable cup from Boris Johnsons’ hand as he walked between venues at the Conservative party conference. Why does it all matter so much?

Jeremy Corbyn putting a tie on.
Postcard of Highbury (c.1895)

Chamberlain was able to indulge his passion for orchids and enter politics full time at the age of 40 because of the huge fortune he had acquired from selling his stake in the screw making firm ‘Nettlefolds’.

An elaborate cover for a Nettlefold trade catalogue (1927)
A Nettlefold Screw Display at the Black Country Museum. The trade displays were often made by apprentices as a means to familiarise themselves with the wide range of stock.

He had helped make Nettlefolds the dominant player in a global marketplace and his wealth provided him with the means to build a commanding Birmingham residence, Highbury.

Designed by John Henry Chamberlain (no relation) Highbury is another classic example of Venetian Gothic architecture. Named after the London suburb Joseph Chamberlain had grown up in, the house itself is a great resource, with a rich variety of interiors and architectural details that connected with my broader themes of simulation.

Interior view of the drawing room at Highbury. The door in the middle would have originally led to Chamberlain's extensive network of Glasshouses. Image: David Rowan
The Drawing Room as it was in 1888. Image Courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham Ref: C_9_20
Marquetry detail from the main hall at Highbury. Image: David Rowan
A gardener in the Glasshouse at Highbury. Image Courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham Ref:C_9_58
A marquetry panelled ceiling from the drawing room at Highbury. Image: David Rowan

It was at Highbury that Chamberlain built an extensive network of glasshouses in which he grew a wide variety of botanical material. Many glasshouses were dedicated solely to growing orchids, in what was an industrial level of home growing. Such was the public interest in his collection popular postcards were produced.

Postcard image of Highbury's orchid house.
Orchids in the glasshouse at Highbury. Image Courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham Ref:C_9_24
The approach to Highbury. Image Courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham Ref:C_9_20
The Glasshouse corridor at Highbury. Image Courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham Ref:C_9_58
A plan of Chamberlain's Orchid houses. As many as 2,000 - 3,000 Odontoglossums and 1,000 Laeila Anceps are reported to have been kept there.

The Chamberlain Highbury Trust is in the process of applying for funding to restore the house and surrounding grounds but sadly the glasshouses are no longer there.

They had a fascinating story beyond Chamberlain’s time in Highbury, being used as an auxiliary hospital during the Frist World War, but were eventually dismantled in 1941 with a new brick building ‘Chamberlain House’ being built in their place.

In the absence of the glasshouses being present I was made aware of a fruit tree pergola, which was sited in what was formerly Highbury’s kitchen garden and was now the last remaining original garden structure from Chamberlain’s era.

This led to a collaboration with architects Intervention Architecture to create a touring display structure for the project and allowed me to connect with Rob Tilling, an apple tree specialist.

The Pergola has 22 archways and would have had pear and apple trees planted along it. It was being held up by the symbiotic relationship developed between the trees and Wrought iron structure.
A rather crude repair demonstrated that the structure had not been properly assessed for some time.
Volunteers working in a workshop led by Rob Tilling to prune the fruit trees and collect scion wood to grow new fruit stock.
Some of the heritage apple varieties found to be growing on the pergola included Ribston pippin, Gascoigne scarlet and Emperor Alexander.
Rob leading a grafting workshop.

We became involved in trying to conserve the original apple and pear tree varieties that grow on the pergola and help determine the best course of action to preserve or restore the now symbiotically warped pergola structure.

The Pergola would inspire the design for the modular display structure I designed in collaboration with Architects, Intervention Architecture.
Of course, what do we find growing in the middle of the Pergola? A Dactylorhiza praetermissa (Southern Marsh) orchid!

Of course, it also meant that I was now talking about orchids and orchards and perhaps this was when I decided to embrace the chaos and let the project become shaped the many connections I was making. In my mind there remains a screw display-esque ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (a total work of art) to be made about the whole project, which I’ll discuss later.

An image from the 2017 orchid festival at Kew Gardens.

Chamberlain’s use of orchids became a hook for my research. I began visiting orchid shows and botanical gardens and soon realised that there were also many connections with my original thinking on simulated spaces.

Interior of the Palm house at Kew Gardens
Interior of the Princess of Wales conservatory at Kew Gardens

Glasshouses are perhaps the ultimate simulated environment where you can show thousands of the world’s plant species in a variety of different climates, under one transparent roof. There’s an inherent falseness to it all but they remain evocative spaces to lose yourself in.

Exterior of the Palm house at Kew Gardens.
An atmospheric image from the 2017 orchid festival at Kew Gardens.

Orchid shows are more prosaic affairs, but local orchid societies go to great effort to create micro dioramas of tropical plants, either arranged conventionally against a stark black backdrop or in elaborate sculptural installations.

I’m not green fingered at all but the passion from the growers I met was undeniable. The conventions of display and awarding criteria was all baffling to me, but the rosettes awarded to winning displays seemed another obvious connection to the traditions of political electioneering. A rosette also being essentially a simulacrum of a flower.

The Hinkley and District Orchid display at the Orchid fair in Perton 2017
A heavily awarded display from the Orchid fair in Perton 2017 makes for a rather visually confusing overall spectacle.
The impressive diorama display by the Central Orchid Society at The International Orchid Fair, Malvern 2019
The hitherto unknown (to me) craft of flower sculpting at Kew Garden's Orchid Festival (2017)
At the The RHS International Orchid Fair, Malvern 2017 with a trial version of the display we won a Silver Gilt award in the educational display category

It was at an orchid show that I met the well-known orchid enthusiast and author Philip Seaton. Since that day I have learnt so much from speaking with him and the collaboration we have pursued since has enlightened my art practice.

Matt and Philip in Philip's Glasshouse.

I showed him a photo of Chamberlain and learnt from him that it wasn’t any orchid that he wore, but what was considered at the time to be the world’s most beautiful orchid, the Odontoglossum crispum . Wearing such a rare, tropical orchid on a daily basis was a clear projection of Chamberlain’s wealth, exceptionalness and scientific expertise designed to impress.

Postcard of the Odontoglossum crispum orchid house at Highbury

Chamberlain famously would have two fresh orchids sent daily from Highbury to his Westminster by train. But whilst this may have projected an appearance of self-sufficiency, in order to maintain this, he must have imported many thousands of orchids to fill his glasshouses.

Image of Odontoglossum crispum from the gardeners chronicle

Found mainly in Colombia the Odontoglossum crispum was prized for its white colouring and large, delicately frilled petals. It is an epiphyte, growing high up in the tree canopies, making collecting specimens an incredibly wasteful process as entire trees had to be felled for the sake of 3-5 plants.

Odontoglossum crispum in the wild image from 'The Travels and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter, Albert Millican (1891)
A drawing of a Wardian case. Image Creative Commons

Prior to the invention of the Wardian case, the vast majority of imported orchids would often die in transit across the Atlantic. When they did reach Europe Victorians would pay high prices for them but often end up killing them in attempts to simulate tropical rainforest conditions in over-heated Glasshouses.

Oncidium alexandrae (2019) Image courtesy of Joyce Seaton.

Now officially termed Oncidium alexandrae, the numbers of Odontoglossum crispum still growing in the wild remains unclear. Varieties that have been cross-bred and hybridised by European growers have changed considerably in appearance from the native species.

Oncidium alexandrae (2019) Image courtesy of Joyce Seaton.

Today nursery bred Oncidium alexandrae are often smaller and more ‘star shaped’ than those worn by Chamberlain and the characteristic brown spots have been bred out of some varieties. For me this process of hybridization connects with my thoughts on how a public figure’s legacy can be manicured and maintained. The undesired aspects of a career being bred out.

Two cigarette cards showing a young and old Chamberlain wearing an orchid.

Perhaps Chamberlain felt the need to make such an effort because of the class system in Britain. With his manufacturing background he was ‘new money’, which could be looked down upon in the corridors of Westminster, where many members of Parliament were still hereditary peers and from upper-class establishment.

Chamberlain also perhaps wore the orchid to signify that he possessed the scientific know-how to grow the world’s most beautiful orchid in vast quantities. Of course though it was actually Chamberlain’s gardeners, such as H.A. Burberry, who’s expertise he was masquerading under.

H.A. Burberry one of Chamberlain's head gardeners who specialised in orchids. Image from The English Magazine, 1892-1893
The front cover of H.A. Burberry's book 'The amateur Orchid Cultivators Guide Book (1895). Burberry had for 5 years written the seasonal growing notes in the Orchid review and had used his time at Highbury to pioneer new propagation techniques.

Perhaps we all do this when we purchase any packaged flower as a gift, it communicates more thought perhaps than a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine as it has to be consumed in the mind.

It all made me curious as to why he chose to develop such an aristocratic look. His clean-shaven dandyish appearance cut through contemporary male dress and it was almost as if he was harking back to an earlier era of chivalry.

With this in mind I asked Victoria Mills, from the Centre of Nineteeth-Century Studies at Birkbeck, University of London to discuss his appearance further. In her text 'Orchid Mania, Masculinity and Late Victorian Literature' she outlines the context of such an eccentric appearance and how a public figure adopting this look may have been perceived.

A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1890). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.
A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1902). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

I had been interested in satire for some time and was therefore drawn to the many illustrations of him in satirical journals. Chamberlain’s monocle, top hat and trademark orchid made him easily satirised, but I believe he knew that the ability to be visually identifiable in print was becoming just as important as a politician’s oratory skills. It appeared to me that Chamberlain’s career straddled this paradigm shift in politics.

A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Owl' (1884). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.
A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1894). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

The cultivation of his public image therefore became a key line of enquiry for me and I spent much time pouring over copies of ‘The Dart’ and ‘The Owl’, regional satirical journals of which the only remaining copies are held immaculately at the Birmingham Midland Institute.

A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1894). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.
A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain 'The Dart' (1898). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

Illustrators such as G.H Bernasconi, E.J. Mountford and W.G. Baxter were extremely influential in manipulating and creating the public image of political figures such as Chamberlain.

An E.J. Mountford satirical cartoon from 'The Dart' featuring Chamberlain and his son Austen, who followed him in to Politics (1889). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

Despite it clearly aggravating him at times, (he was rumoured at one time to buy 'The Dart', presumably to control the weekly invective he was submitted to) Chamberlain tolerated being portrayed in print. The cartoons could be cruelly mocking but they none-the-less allowed Chamberlain to present a rememberable public image to a wide electorate.

The wonderfully type set front cover of 'The Dart' (1881). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.
Another elaborately printed front cover, this time for 'The Owl' (1902) . Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

The prominence of satirical cartoons in the regional titles such as 'The Owl' and 'The Dart' would begin to wane by the early 20th century as technical advancements made photographic reproductions more commercially viable. Fierce visual invective often being replaced with staged photographs of high society events.

A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1877). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

The cartoons of Chamberlain therefore provide a clear visual narrative of how he was presented to the public at the time. Combined with an unsympathetic editorial stance they were often critical of his achievements and delighted in mocking him but their role in Chamberlain's rise to political power should not be underestimated.

People knew who the man in the top hat, monocle and buttonhole orchid was and they voted for him, en masse.

I started to think of how other politicians have encouraged a particular public image or persona of themselves to be shared.

Donald Trump's sellotaped red tie. Image: Creative Commons

Trump’s red cap, Margaret Thatcher’s handbag and Teresa May’s shoes came to mind. These ‘props’ remain important in today’s politics and the devastating impact a single image can have on a career is palpable. Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich being the case in point.

It was clear from even a cursory glance through these archives that he did not always receive full public backing. For me this made the commonly held perception that I had prior to the residency that he was a force for good, all the more troubling.

A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1879). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

It may have been the myopia of my own research, but it appeared to me that there were many parallels with Chamberlain’s career and the debates that were beginning to dominate current affairs; The Irish border, international trade tariffs, the factional splitting of political parties, discussions around Empire, Imperialism, decolonisation and climate change were all receiving heavy news attention pre and post Brexit referendum.

A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1880). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

I decided to use the cartoons as a means to discuss Chamberlain’s career in workshops with my learners and other school and university groups. Even if the original context was elusive the composition provided a means of interpreting a scenario that could prompt discussions of contemporary issues and further research.

A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1883). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.
A satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain from 'The Dart' (1888). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

By pointing out that many of these issues had precedents from over 120 years ago, I was trying to provide some historical perspective to an increasingly heated and chaotic public debate.

David Cameron at the base of Old Joe on the last day of campaigning for the Remain party during in the Brexit referendum 2016
Cameron was accompanied by Gordon Brown and Tim Farron. Farron joined in with the 'sleeves up, tie off' posturing.

From the small amount of home growing I'd done I had observed how some orchids could appear to be on the verge of death, but still miraculously grow a new flower spike if placed in the right conditions. Likewise, the Brexit referendum had provided the environment for many political issues, left largely undiscussed for years by an English audience - but crucial for the rest of the United Kingdom, to come out of dormancy.

My ideas developed into making orchid growing vessels inspired by the objects or props that appeared in the cartoons of Chamberlain. For me this 'extracted' these objects from Chamberlain’s career and placed them in a new context.

A ceramic orchid vessel made by Louise Tell from Dudley College

The other parallel to be made was how Chamberlain removed many thousands of tropical orchids from their natural habitats and placed them in a new environments (his glasshouses and his buttonhole) to acquire new meaning. Like a replica Sienese tower seen outside of its original context, what discussions could 3D versions of these objects inspire today?

Dudley College learners making the ceramic orchid vessels in the workshop. Learner's were assisted in creating their ceramics by technician Claire Lucksted.
A student's work in progress from the plaster mould making workshops which were led by Birmingham City University technician Gay Place.
The plaster room during a mould making workshop at Birmingham City University.

We were due to show these vessels with orchids growing from them on the university campus, on windowsills, on desks, in laboratories in a discrete sculptural trail. The idea being that the issues affecting Chamberlain's career continued to grow today. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic this has been adapted to become the 'Silent Orchid Summer School' an online school that encourages people to grow and display orchids at home.

For the Silent Orchid Summer School I have had hanging baskets made from the offcuts of the touring display. The colours of blue, yellow and green reference the colours of Nettlefold's screws branding.
The Ziggurat design is meant to evoke Birmingham's old Central Library which used to look over the Chamberlain Memorial fountain in Chamberlain square
A postcard of Chamberlain Square showing the Memorial fountain and Central library. (c.1970)

Before the COVID-19 lockdown we did though manage to show the vessels at Highbury as part of an open day. The students were lined up to deliver a ceramic workshop to the general public at Highbury the following month but that too had to be cancelled.

An installation shot of Dudley College student's orchid vessels from the Highbury Open Day 2020.
An installation shot of Dudley College student's orchid vessels from the Highbury Open Day 2020.
Dudley College Students proudly pose in front of their ceramic orchid vessels in Chamberlain's study at Highbury.

The ceramics studio is one of the most ‘social’ workshops in the college and I think this environment of shared enterprise is a healthy place to discuss contemporary issues. There was much casual discussion of Chamberlain’s career amongst the learners, especially amongst their peers from other groups. Why indeed are you making a box with ‘Pills for Earthquakes’ written on it? Well...

An installation shot the Highbury Heritage Open Day 2019 of bread baked by Albert Smith in a ceramic bowl and accompanying satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain in the kitchen from 'The Dart' 1888. Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

The ‘learn through doing’ approach was I think really effective as when you engage people in an activity it creates a focus to a conversation and can have a democratising effect.

Chamberlain used two loaves of bread, one made with British Empire ingredients and one with non Empire ingredients to illustrate his that his proposed tariff reforms would not affect the size and quality of people's daily loaf.
A prescient satirical cartoon featuring Chamberlain holding a loaf of bread from 'The Dart' 1895. Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

On a previous open day I had organised drop in workshops and demonstrations from Rob Tilling, leather designer maker Deborette Clark (leather work being a reference to Chamberlain’s initial career as a cordwainer) and artist baker Albert Smith who made Chamberlain inspired free trade loaves.

Rob Tilling discussing apple tree growing on the display stand, with grafting tool display behind. Image courtesy of Marcin Sz.
Deborette Clarke running a drop in leather plant holder workshop. Image courtesy of Marcin Sz.
Albert Smith demonstrating and discussing making bread. Image courtesy of Marcin Sz.

The sense of achievement you get from making an artwork is akin to the feeling you get when you successfully manage to make your own bread, grow your own fruit, construct your own plant hanger or nurture an orchid to flower. Combine this with the shared sense of achievement of making something in a group and it can have a powerful effect on your mental wellbeing.

Teresa May (2017) Image: Creative Commons

In 2016, in what now seems a lifetime ago, Teresa May launched her Conservative party leadership campaign from Birmingham, citing Chamberlain’s ability to engender huge public support and ‘break up power’.

'From Robert Peel to Lady Thatcher, from Joseph Chamberlain to Winston Churchill, throughout history it has been the Conservative Party’s role to rise to the occasion and to take on the vested interests before us, to break up power when it is concentrated among the few, to lead on behalf of the people.' Teresa May 2016

Chamberlain was subsequently described as May’s ‘Lodestar’ in newspaper articles and it became common to hear the term ‘Chamberlainomics’ on television debates. There was a moment when it seemed that Chamberlain was being referenced by both leave and remain parties to justify their case.

The project has also coincided with a new regional Mayoral campaign. A position that Chamberlain used to move towards national politics.

The debate has clearly moved on but throughout the project I began to view the University campus renovation metaphorically. As the physical environment changed around ‘Old Joe’ was public opinion also changing around Chamberlain?

I considered how the reputation of a public figure like Chamberlain could be controlled and manicured over time. The casual application of his name seems complicit in this process with the frequency of the usage reinforcing an ‘accepted’ view of his career. I am reminded of a quote from George Orwell’s dystopian novel '1984'.

‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ George Orwell
A Chamberlain train name plate sits in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Stores

Chamberlain the brand, in Birmingham at least, denotes civic pride and in my opinion if trams, award ceremonies, or new buildings are continuing to be named after him, then there also needs to be more public debate about his legacy.

Chamberlain as statue. Image from 'The Owl' (1884). Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

There is no public statue of Chamberlain in Birmingham . Perhaps if there was one we would now be seeing a campaign to remove it. There are certainly questions to answer about his move towards an aggressive Imperialist foreign policy, what prompted it and the consequences it had; but the city is undoubtedly indebted to his contribution and his reputation still commands fierce loyalty.

The debates around historical figures are though in my opinion, extremely necessary, as I feel that many people, like me, will be unaware of the full extent of the impact that the British Empire had under politicians like Chamberlain. Many figures from the past will have had views that we now may find abhorrent and I believe there should be an adult conversation about these issues.

The Black Lives Matter protests have hopefully now created the critical space for organisations to tell the whole story of these figures. Rather than avoiding difficult questions I feel that organisations with connections to colonial history need to set the agenda, or they will quickly lose public trust.

The Chamberlain Memorial clock.

Perhaps Chamberlain foresaw that he would become a problematic character for future generations as he had quite a line in pre-memorialising his legacy. The Chamberlain Memorial clock that stands in the Jewellery Quarter was unveiled in 1903 and commemorates Chamberlain’s tour of South Africa at the conclusion to the Boer war. It has at its base an inscription from a speech by Chamberlain.

‘We have shown that we can be strong and resolute in war; it is equally important to show that we can be strong and resolute in peace’

Like ‘Old Joe’ the Chamberlain Memorial clock is a well photographed Birmingham landmark, but I wonder how many people know of its full story.

The Boer War was essentially a battle between two white colonial powers over gold and silver deposits. It is therefore highly plausible that Chamberlain was partly motivated to pursue victory so aggressively because he wanted to secure the ownership rights of the raw materials that would give Birmingham Jewellery workers a global advantage.

It is perhaps an example of Chamberlain’s hard-edged business sense and his prioritising of Birmingham residents over wider humanitarian concerns.

The Statue Indignant. Image from 'The Dart'. Image courtesy of the Birmingham Library at the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

Another quote by Chamberlain made after the death of his second wife perhaps sums up his late career worldview better that the platitude on the clock.

‘No one has the right to be happy in this brutal world’ Joseph Chamberlain
I designed three plant stands to be made by Birmingham based fabricators Plane structure and MJM Bespoke. The ceramic pieces on the central Jewellery Quarter clock plant stand are: A book with 'Protectionist tracts' ( in the case) , A model house with 'Surrender house' written on the roof, A shipping package with 'British goods' stamps on the side, a pyramid with 'Artisans dwellings' written on it and a Medallion with the inscription 'King of Brum'.

How political figures are memorialised is important and many Birmingham residents are perhaps unaware of the connection Chamberlain has to the architecture within the city. The plant stands were intended to reconnect people with Chamberlain’s career and reconsider their relationship with them as they walk around the city.

Corporation Street will be familiar to many. Chamberlain was only able to build it due to the money the had generated from municipalising the city's gas and water supply. His loose application of the 1875 artisans dwelling act meant that he could compulsory purchase and knock down densely populated housing to replace to with the Corporation street's paved boulevard.

Conservation needs stories

The historic extraction of plant material from tropical areas such as South America is as much a political issue as an environmental one, closely linked with trade and diplomacy and therefore lives like Chamberlain’s should be used to raise awareness of the current conservation concerns.

The ‘Indiana Jones-esque’ adventures of early orchid hunters has contributed to a ‘Boy’s own’ mythology to be built up around the history of this trade. This is why Philip and I have been working with Colombian art historian and curator, Rodrigo Orrantia who specialises in 19th century photography.

Albert Millican image from 'The Travels and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter, Albert Millican (1891)

Philip has often recounted to me that he travels the world giving lectures, talks and workshops on the conservation of orchids, often to rooms full of scientists, the majority of whom wholeheartedly agree with everything he says. He recognises the echo chamber he can find himself in and knows that until the message reaches politicians, business leaders and the general public, nothing will change.

An article discussing what Chamberlain was growing in his glasshouses, note In the far right corner an orchid with the inscription 'An inhabitant of Colombia'. Image from The English Magazine, (1892-1893)

Hence he is also interested in narratives like Chamberlain’s as a means of engaging a wider public outside of the scientific community. Philip has often described orchids as being nature’s ‘canary in the coal mine’, implying that if orchids are alive and present in an environment then it’s a good indication that the habitat is healthy.

An image of Philip Seaton's orchid seed lab at King Charles 1st school, Kidderminster where he runs extra curricular workshops with students and local orchid groups.

The motivation to conserve orchid seeds is partly driven by the doomsday scenario of having to replace an extinct environment. As an artist this hypothetical scenario intrigued me, because wouldn't a reinstated rainforest effectively be a 'simulation' of a previous habitat?

Image of the Cattleya house at Highbury taken from H.A. Burberry's book 'The Amateur Orchid Cultivators Guide Book (1895)

Conversely, we now know how to grow tropical orchids in European conditions, thanks partly to the advancements in propagation techniques pioneered by people like Chamberlain’s head gardeners.

Seen in this light Chamberlain’s industrial approach to growing orchids has some redemption, although these plants are often now hybridised versions of the original native varieties and therefore warrant a discussion of their introduction to ‘original’ habitats.

The Orchid Show House at Highbury. Image taken from H.A. Burberry's book 'The Amateur Orchid Cultivators Guide Book (1895)

Perhaps imagination is in greater demand when trying to encourage systemic change and it has been revealing how similar the thought processes between an artist and scientist can be. Both art and science can inspire, but arts primary role I feel is to foster imagination.

Image of an imported Cattleya taken from H.A. Burberry's book 'The Amateur Orchid Cultivators Guide Book (1895)

The feeling of nurturing a plant to full flower though is not dissimilar to the feelings encountered when making an artwork. Despair, confusion and excitement are all shared with the creative process! Exploring the connecting threads between art and scientific enquiry has driven me to explore the orchid world further. I took the display of my research and ran workshops at orchid fairs and scientific conferences.

Discussions on the display stall at the RHS International Orchid Show in Malvern, (2019). Chamberlain as statue. Image courtesy of Marcin Sz.

The RHS International Orchid Show in Malvern is an annual event open to the public with displays from industry traders shown alongside amateur growers and societies. Plants and displays are judged using the Lindley criteria by the RHS national orchid committee, an institution and criteria that stems from the same era as Chamberlain.

RHS International Orchid Show in Malvern (2019). Image courtesy of Marcin Sz.

There is clearly something about orchid growing that attracts obsessive personalities but with cheap imports of mass-produced varieties the home breeder and specialist orchid nurseries are dying out. By meeting many different members of the orchid world I felt there was real interest in the story we were displaying. We did also win another silver award for our display!

The display at the RHS International Orchid Fair, Malvern. (2019) Image courtesy of Marcin Sz.
The display at the International Orchid Conservation Congress, Kew Gardens (2019)

The International Orchid Conservation Congress is a triannual event previously held in Hong Kong, Florida and Costa Rica, so its iteration in London was an ideal opportunity for me to meet scientists connected with orchid related research.

Phil giving a presentation on Orchid seed storage at the International Orchid Conservation Congress at Kew Gardens, (2019). 
The opening night of the International Orchid Conservation Congress at Kew Gardens, (2019).

The conversations I had here were more intense than Malvern with a higher degree of detail demanded and perhaps more scepticism shown towards the project. For some scientists art’s role was clearly to illustrate scientific enquiry but many were interested in the historical perspective. My intentions for the project have always been impossible to explain in an ‘elevator pitch’ though.

The experience of meeting and discussing the project with scientists, orchid growers and the general public has been very rewarding. I would love for the project to become an advocate for an ongoing, long term programme of research and knowledge exchange between academic and cultural institutions in the UK and Colombia. It takes 4 to 5 years to grow a flowering orchid from seed and in that time the project could have engaged thousands of people

A science poster from the International Orchid Conservation Congress at Kew Gardens, (2019).

After a busy day of talks and coffee break-outs I noticed that the room next to my display was getting prepared for a drink’s reception. Brilliant I thought! As the afternoon session came to a close people starting marching in and unfurling posters from cardboard tubes, pinned them to temporary display panels. There was wine and music and the constant hubbub of multiple conversations taking place.

A science poster from the International Orchid Conservation Congress at Kew Gardens, (2019).

it was an environment strikingly familiar to me. Many a time I have stood in galleries nursing a warm glass of wine exchanging conversations with other artists. To all intents and purposes it was an exhibition private view, but like no other I had been to. I nodded politely to the scientific conversations, not really having a clue what anyone was going on about.

The Science Poster exhibition opening at the International Orchid Conservation Congress at Kew Gardens, (2019).
A science poster from the International Orchid Conservation Congress at Kew Gardens, (2019).

As I wandered around the room I became fascinated by the content and the overall appearance of the posters. Not being able to decipher much of the scientific language I got lost in their aesthetic. There seemed to be a vernacular way of arranging masses of information that for me connected with the Nettlefold's screw displays. I loved the simple idea of putting everything on one sheet, all at once, all at the same time and there is clearly a poster to be made of this project, such is the interconnecting strands of research!

The baffling ( to the non scientist) world of Science posters!

After the opening, as I walked back to my hotel I saw across the river from Kew a building I’d not seen before. There standing above the trees on the north bank of the Thames stood a familiar looking tower. I was temporarily halted in my tracks.

The Victorian Standpipe tower as seen from the south bank of the Thames. Image© Copyright Rod Allday and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Built in in 1867 the Grade I listed building 200 ft high Victorian Standpipe tower, of Italianate design, was constructed in brick to replace an earlier open metal lattice structure. It houses two systems of vertical pipes through which water was pumped before it entered the mains water supply and is now part of the London Museum of Water and Steam.

The Victorian Standpipe tower, now part of the London Museum of Water and Steam.

Chamberlain was a regular visitor to Kew and in close correspondence with several directors. He must have surely been aware of this tower and on seeing it I laughed. Perhaps it wasn’t Siena after all that he was wanting to emulate in Birmingham; maybe he was just trying to capture the municipal beauty of a power station in Kew.

My mind went back to imagining him in that meeting to decide the campus design, racking his brains, not liking the architects plans. I could him imagine him saying: ‘What about one of those?’ and then walking out.

This text was commissioned by New Art West Midlands as part of an Engine Micro Bursary.

Throughout the project I have received generous funding and support from The University of Birmingham, Bruntwood, The John Feeney Trust, Arts Council England, The Chamberlain Highbury Trust and New Art West Midlands.

I am indebted to the support and advice from all the project's supporters and collaborators.

About the Author

Matt Westbrook is an artist, educator and founding member of Grand Union Studios & Gallery. He is based in Birmingham and is the course leader for the Art Foundation course at Dudley College.

Westbrook’s practice is guided by an interest in simulated environments and the role of the amateur in society.

Work often begins by observing scientific, engineering or botanical illustrations and processes, breaking them down into components and then reassembling them into new print, sculptural or ceramic narratives. He discussed this approach at a conference at the Uni of Sheffield in 2017, organised by Theatrum Mundi, resulting in the publication Uncommon Building.

In 2015 he was artist in residence in the Research and Cultural Collections at University of Birmingham in 2015. During this time, he became interested in the history of the ‘Old Joe’ clock tower and subsequently Joseph Chamberlain himself. Since then he has been researching themes of simulacra and display, exploring connections between Chamberlain’s love of orchids and his business and political career.

Satire has always been of interest to Westbrook and was an important part of BAZ, the collaboration that he ran with Chris Poolman from 2009 – 2016. BAZ staged events, performances & wrote texts that used humour to fictionalise the idiosyncrasies of regional art scenes. Selected projects included a pop-up, artist-led Polytunnel Beer café, a 24-hour funding application writing workshop set in a nightclub, and an artist/curator blind dating show. By creating unconventional structures BAZ hoped to encourage non-art audiences to interact and shape the interpretation of the work.

Westbrook’s work is in the Deutschebank & Bruntwood collections.


Created with an image by Joseph Vary - "This stunning flower is a Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera). It is growing in the free draining chalk soils of the Surrey Hills."