The architect of Highbury, John Henry Chamberlain (1831-1883), was renowned for his gothic style of architecture inspired by The Stones of Venice, the seminal work of John Ruskin on Italian medieval architecture.
Chamberlain, in partnership with William Martin (1828-1900) from 1864, designed a wide range of buildings in Birmingham in Ruskinian Gothic style including pumping stations, libraries, schools, shops, churches and chapels as well as a number of private houses.
J H Chamberlain was born and educated in Leicester where he was articled to Henry Goddard but he decided that Birmingham offered better prospects and set up in practice there, designing a shop in Union Street for his cousin who was in partnership with John Eld in a carpet and furnishing business. Chamberlain’s design for a villa for John Eld’s father in Ampton Road in 1856 did not find favour, the villa’s polychromatic brickwork and gothic style being in marked contrast to the usual stuccoed Italianate houses in Edgbaston.
In 1873 Martin and Chamberlain designed the first of what was to become a succession of schools for the Birmingham School Board. Bloomsbury Board School in Lingard Street was succeeded by another twenty eight, and after Chamberlain’s death William Martin designed a further eighteen schools. Their schools were characterised by their prominent ventilation towers as can be seen on their Oozells Street School, now the Ikon Gallery. Other projects included extensions to the Birmingham and Midland Institute and the rebuilding of the Free Library which opened in 1882. The Library was demolished in 1974 but the Shakespeare Memorial Library with its oak bookcases and naturalistic ornamentation in glass, marquetry and plaster, designed by John Henry Chamberlain, is now housed in the Library of Birmingham.
The high point of the Martin and Chamberlain partnership was the Municipal School of Art in Margaret Street. Again naturalistic decorations prevail with the main façade having a huge roundel of buff terracotta of lilies trailing across a trellis.
The commission for Highbury had been preceded by work for Joseph Chamberlain’s extended family. In 1875 J H Chamberlain undertook a substantial remodelling of The Grove, Harborne, for William Kenrick, who was married to Joseph’s sister, Mary. The house was demolished in 1963 but the octagonal anti-room or boudoir, with inlaid panels on the floor, walls and ceiling executed by William Barfield of Leicester, is now in the V and A Museum. J H Chamberlain later designed the offices for the Kenrick family’s hollow ware factory in West Bromwich. In January 1878 J A kenrick, brother of Harriet Kenrick, Joseph Chamberlain’s first wife, commissioned a remodelling of Berrow Court, Edgbaston. The commission for Highbury followed in June 1878. Two of Joseph Chamberlain’s brothers also commissioned domestic buildings. For Richard Chamberlain he added a lodge to Oakmount in Westbourne Road Edgbaston and for Walter Chamberlain he remodelling Harborne Hall. Sir George Kenrick, the brother of Joseph’s wife Florence, lived for many years at Whetstone, Somerset Road Edgbaston, the house J H Chamberlain had designed for himself, now demolished.
The large houses have design features in common. The interiors have a top lit double storey central hall and a profusion of decorative detailing based on naturalistic subjects executed in wood, stone, tile, plaster and glass. The exteriors have prominent gables with contrasting treatments, and terracotta mouldings and carved stonework with plant motifs.
Highbury is notable for the quality of its woodwork, including inlaid and marquetry ceilings and floors. In the hall the wall hung cupboards have rich detailing and the library fittings in Chamberlain’s study and the bookcases on the upper landing are notable for their bird finials. All of this was executed by William Barfield of Leicester to J H Chamberlain’s designs. The firm of John Hardman and Company of Birmingham was responsible for the elaborate brass light fittings and the window glass.
Although much of John Henry Chamberlain’s work did not survive Birmingham’s distaste for Victorian gothic architecture in the second half of the 20th century the Chamberlain Memorial of 1880 in Chamberlain Square still stands and commemorates Joseph Chamberlain’s election as a Birmingham MP and his previous work as Mayor in the municipalisation of water and gas.