Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Johnson's Reading Circle: Trip to Birmingham

When asked why the people of Lichfield seemed to lack industry, Johnson replied that the people of Lichfield were philosophers who ‘work with our heads and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.’ The Dr Johnson Reading Circle decided to visit the city and discover just how wrong he was.

Bundling twelve-strong onto a Marylebone train, the lively group were a challenge to the quiet zone until given a quiz which kept us out of mischief for most of the journey. Once again taking ourselves into the Midlands (after previous trips to Lichfield and Oxford) we took taxis from Moor Street to the centrepiece of our trip, Soho House.






Once set in a sculptured parkland with constructed lakes, Soho house the home of Matthew Boulton and his family, the visitor reception for an thriving tourist business and the administrative centre of one of the first factories of the industrial revolution. Today it’s a strange sight, a smart, solid eighteenth-century house tucked among a row of post-war terraces. 



We were welcomed at the house and were offered a large lunch of sandwiches, tea and fruit. We did what we do best; ate, drank and chatted about interesting places to visit. As we did this, we examined a model of the house and factory complex. It had been a truly huge place, consisting of a factory that specialised in what were called Birmingham Toys; buttons, buckles, snuff-boxes, candlesticks and other useful (and decorative) household items. The factory, originally water powered also included a building to build Watt’s steam engines and a mint where Boulton created commemorative medallions and eventually improved, tamperproof currency. 

Soho House was more than just an industrial centre though, it was also one of the main meeting places of the Lunar Society. They were a group of industrialists and polymaths who, between them, can claim a staggering range of world-changing discoveries, accomplishments and inventions. Boulton and Soho House were a key part of this society, there was a telescope on the roof, a separate astronomy and a well stocked fossilry. 


Our guide for the trip was Jack, a member of the modern day Lunar Society. He took us into the hallway, a bright, spacious place with pillars of Derbyshire alabaster and an ormolu table. Ormolu was a word we were going to hear a lot in the following few reception rooms. It’s a gold-mercury gild that retains its shine but was deadly to those who worked it. Boulton later dropped the process.

The home is particularly designed for comfort, with painted canvas in the hallways serving as something like modern linoleum, fully fitted carpets and underfloor heating, the first recorded in Britain since the Roman hypocaust. 


My favourite object was in the music room, it was a Sidereal Clock, another ormolu covered object that could not only show the sign but also the position of the sun and stars. Catherine the Great had it on free trial at the Hermitage - she kept it for ten years before sending it back because it didn’t chime the times.




We also went into the Lunar Room, a large, cosy dining room with the table that the various members of the society would meet, drink, laugh and exchange theories and ideas. There’s a wonderfully playful aspect to the Lunar Society, once they made paper balloons and floated them off Soho House, much to the confusion of Birmingham residents.



Upstairs to the private rooms, these were less ostentatious with far less ormolu. Each of the rooms are of a human scale with an emphasis of comfort. Not only did it evoke the feeling of an unostentatious family life, it also made me think how useful it was to have a factory producing top-quality homeware a short way down the road.

Following our tour, we took taxis back into Birmingham where we split up. Some chose to relax by the canal and others went to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Entering the museum, I ran like a whippet to the Staffordshire Hoard. It’s a large collection of dumped decorative elements, many of them torn from sword decorations. Many of the items use a technique of garnet cloisonné, an infinitely fiddly and difficult looking technique of making intricate shapes with gold foil and placing tiny pieces of glass and precious stones (including garnet) into them. Having ran off by myself, I lost contact with the rest of the group and rushed to see Dippy the Diplodocus before being asked to leave as it was time to shut the museum.


Members of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


Trips with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle are always a delight, it feels like the people we meet are always pleased to see an engaged group and always treated right. Next year’s sessions start on the 9th of October with a look at A Journey to the Western Isles and The Tour to the Hebrides. We shall also be looking at Mr Foote’s Other Leg with author Ian Kelly as well as Humphrey Clinker and Robinson Crusoe. I look forward to it immensely. 


Also, there was an ornamental hermitage at Soho House, I tried to argue for the position but they were using it to store garden games and furniture.





(All photos thanks to Jane Darcey)











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