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.
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.
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).
In another dent to its authority ‘Old Joe’ is closely modelled on another Italian clock tower, 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?
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.