View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
This prospect of Birmingham shows the classical west front and spire of the early nineteenth-century Christ Church, New Street, from the south-west, with the Baroque St Philip’s Church (later Birmingham Cathedral) beyond; the Birmingham and Worcester Canal is in the foreground, in the vicinity of what is now Gas Street. Christ Church, demolished in 1899,1 stood on the site of Victoria Square, latterly west of the Town Hall and south of the Art Gallery. Later developments preclude any comparable view today. The drawing continues on folio 4 recto opposite (D41540) with some rather nondescript buildings in the middle distance.
Unusually, Finberg seems to have made an unforced error in suggesting that this view shows ‘Oxford from near Osney’, presumably prompted by Turner’s ‘Worcester’ inscription, which he thought ‘probably Worcester College’ was intended;2 the distant cluster of industrial chimneys on the left should perhaps have given him pause for thought. Before he died in 1939, he changed his mind, in line with the opinion of the watercolour and Turner scholar C.F. Bell (died 1966), in their similarly worded undated manuscript notes in copies of the Turner Bequest Inventory; they read the drawing as two panoramas, one above the other, the upper being Birmingham.3
Turner had produced a watercolour of Birmingham from the east in about 1794 (untraced),4 which was engraved in 1795 for the Copper-Plate Magazine (Tate impressions: T05890, T05891); although there is no evidence in his sketches that he visited the town at that time, Birmingham is mentioned among other Midlands subjects in notes at the beginning of the Matlock sketchbook, used in the summer of 1794 (Tate D00208; Turner Bequest XIX 2). James Hamilton has suggested that Turner’s 1830 visit might be connected with his works being exhibited there the previous year (see the introduction to the tour). Maps of the time show the urban centre as covering about a square mile. Hamilton notes that Birmingham had a population of 144,000 at this time, but in comparison with Manchester with its factories and Leeds with its mills, ‘Birmingham has always been perceived as a city of workshops rather than factories’, and ‘Turner characterized his views of Birmingham by sketching the towers of St Philip’s, St Martin’s-in-the-Bullring, and St Paul’s, Hockley’.5
See William Dargue, ‘Christ Church, New Street’, A History of Birmingham Churches ... from A to Y, accessed 11 June 2013, http://ahistoryofbirminghamchurches
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Finberg 1909, I, p.729.
A.J. Finberg, undated MS notes in a copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, vol.II, p.729; C.F. Bell, undated MS notes in another copy at the same location, vol.II, p.729.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.311 no.92.
James Hamilton, Turner’s Britain, exhibition catalogue, Gas Hall, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery 2003, p.15.
Wilton 1979, p.400 no.858, pl.195.