Birmingham is Britain’s terra-cotta city.
The material was extremely popular in late-Victorian British towns and cities, because it was theoretically washable, though the rain was rendered sulphurous by coal-fired homes, factories and trains.
Of all Birmingham’s terra-cotta buildings, there can be few more exciting than Birmingham’s Victoria Law Courts (1886).
Building this ambitious structure was in fact part of the deal by which Birmingham gained its own Assizes.
The design-competition was assessed by Alfred Waterhouse, designer of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington and house-architect to the Prudential Assurance Company, who loved the material so much that his colleagues nicknamed his style “slaughterhouse Gothic”.
What Waterhouse loved about terra-cotta was that it rendered rich detail crisp and plastic, so that sensuous curves flow across and die into the structural forms of wall surfaces and apertures.
The competition was won by Aston Webb (1849-1930) and Ingress Bell (1887-91), an ambitious pair who astutely chose as the pseudonym on their competition-entry, ‘Terra-cotta’.
The exterior is built of Ruabon brick and terracotta, but the interior is entirely in buff clay by Gibbs & Canning of Tamworth, Staffordshire.
The design is stuffed with Arts and Crafts statues and reliefs, by William Aumonier, William Silver Frith with Walter Crane, and Harry Bates. The ornamental stained glass was designed by Walter Lonsdale, and the furnishings – many of which survive – were supplied by Chamberlain, King & Jones.
Mottos moulded into the decoration include “Truth is the highest thing that man may keep” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”. The clear intention was to inspire wonder in visitors and awe in clients.
The Grade I listed Victoria Law Courts has become increasingly impractical for dispensing justice efficiently. Like the terra-cotta Methodist Central Hall (Ewan Harper & James A Harper 1903-4) across the road, it will present a problem to tax both planners and conservationists.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.