Special thanks to Birmingham arts writer Rosie Crabbe for this wonderful guest blog on Public Art in Birmingham
Public art in Birmingham is, like the city itself, diverse and varied. It ranges from statues of important people in Birmingham’s history to colourful pieces which tell unique stories. While some stand out straight away, there are others that you may not notice when passing by, especially if you’re in a hurry.
So, read on to find out more about some of our favourite pieces of public art in Birmingham, and where you can find them, many of which are just yards from our Rotunda ApartHotel:
‘A Life in the Year of the Chinchillas’ by Paul Maxfield, 1989
Location: Piccadilly Arcade
It’s easy to miss that Piccadilly Arcade’s ceiling is adorned with a series of paintings. The murals depict scenes from different seasons, and the lifelike characters inside them seem to be aware of the viewer’s presence. One shows a parachutist, whilst another depicts people holding hands. In short, the paintings are a colourful addition to one of Birmingham’s most charming corners.
‘A Real Birmingham Family’ by Gillian Wearing, 2014
Location: Centenary Square
The Library of Birmingham is a must-see for any visitor to the city, and so is this understated yet poignant bronze sculpture in front of it. ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ depicts single mothers and sisters Roma and Emma Jones, and their sons, Kyan and Shaye. In Gillian Wearing’s sculpture, Emma is pregnant with her second son, Isaac. The sculpture suggests that families come in many forms, and evokes the closeness of the sisters.
‘J.F. Kennedy Memorial’, originally by Kenneth Budd, 1968, recreated in 2012 and erected 2013
Location: Floodgate Street
This mosaic was commissioned by Birmingham’s Irish community and originally erected on St Chad’s Circus but was demolished due to redevelopment. Later, it was recreated with new materials and now features the first Irish Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Mike Nangle, alongside Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and other figures. It brings a hopeful mood to the heart of Digbeth where it is now situated.
‘Birmingham Man’ by Sioban Coppinger and Fiona Peever, 1993
Location: Chamberlain Square
This sculpture depicts Thomas Attwood, who was one of Birmingham’s first two MPs and a significant political reformer. It was presented to the city by Attwood’s great-great-granddaughter Priscilla Mitchell. Attwood’s positioning on the steps makes the piece understated and suggests that he was a man of the people. Similarly, the statue below also incorporates a soap box and sheaves of paper emblazoned with phrases including ‘Votes for All’ and ‘Demand for Change’.
‘Rhinestone Rhino’ by Emma Butler, Vikki Litton and Robbie Coleman, 2012
Location: Hurst Street and Bromsgrove Street in the Gay Village
The lifesize ‘Rhinestone Rhino’ was unveiled for Birmingham Pride in June 2012. This four-year project was made using 80 pieces of smashed mirror and several fake diamonds. The sculptors chose a rhino because it symbolised the US gay rights movement in the 1960s. Inside the statue lies a memory stick containing stories, photos, videos, and music from Birmingham’s LGBTQ+ community.
‘Hancock’ by Bruce Williams, 1996
Location: Old Square
This steel statue depicts Tony Hancock, who was one of the best-loved comedians of the 1950s and 60s. Hancock was born in the Birmingham suburb of Hall Green. It is based on a 1950 photograph of the comedian, in which his hand rests on a teacup and he wears a homburg hat and a comically grumpy expression.
Birmingham Pub Bombings Memorial by Anuradha Patel, 2018
Location: outside New Street Station
These three steel trees are hard to miss as you exit New Street Station towards the Bullring. Leaves bear the names of each of the 21 victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Created by local sculptor Anuradha Patel, the trees aim to memorialise the people who lost their lives and also inform younger generations about this tragic event in the city’s history.
‘Industry and Genius’, by David Patten, 1990
Location: Centenary Square
This sculpture is a tribute to printer John Baskerville, known for his eponymous typeface – it also acts as a homage to the printing process. The standing columns of Portland Stone spell the word ‘Virgil’ in reversed bronze letters, which was the first work Baskerville printed in 1757. ‘Industry and Genius’ takes their names from a poem dedicated to Baskerville.
One Giant Leap for Humankind, by Jacob Chandler, 2022, New Street Station
Location: 1000 Trades Square
The 2022 Commonwealth Games has inspired a flurry of public art cleaning or new installations across the city centre.
One Giant Leap for Humankind, a sculpture by Jacob Chandler, is a new installation that features an athlete full of power and dynamism. Chandler captures this with bold lines, beautifully juxtaposed with the fluidity of the athlete, all with Rotunda as backdrop! Chandler, whose relations worked in the West Midlands foundries, has described his pride to showpiece this work on his home turf.
The sculpture is linked to the Commonwealth with a toposcope denoting the direction and distance to each Commonwealth country. A QR code at the base of the installation takes viewers to digital platforms to find out more.
‘The Green Man’, by Toin Adams, 2002, The Custard Factory
Location: The Custard Factory
The imposing, god-like figure of ‘The Green Man’ stands at 12m high in this creative corner of Digbeth. It evokes trees with its rootlike hair and serves as an important reminder of nature as it brings some greenery to a post-industrial part of the city. This sculpture is one Birmingham’s largest, and symbolises growth and rebirth.
‘The River’, ‘Guardians’, ‘Youth’ and ‘Object (Variations)’ by Dhruva Mistry, 1994
Location: Victoria Square
Sculptor Dhruva Mistry won an international design competition for the central water feature in the square which is one of Birmingham’s best-known sculptures. ‘The River’, or as it’s known locally, the Floozie in the Jacuzzi, has been repaired in time for the Commonwealth Games in July and August 2022. Visitors can also see the ‘Guardians’, two Sphinx-like animals made from Darley Dale stone, all part of The River art.
‘IRON:MAN’ By Antony Gormley, 1993
Location: Victoria Square
This sculpture is one of Birmingham’s most famous. Gormley has said that it represents the skills developed in Birmingham and the Black Country during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A gift to the City from the Trustee Savings Bank, its rusty appearance was initially controversial, but Gormley explained that the type of iron he used encourages oxidation to protect the metal. Moved into storage in September 2017 to accommodate the extension of the West Midlands Metro, it returned to a new location in Victoria Square in February 2022.
‘Boulton, Watt and Murdoch’ By William Bloye, 1956, regilded 2006
This imposing Birmingham sculpture is in bronze with a bright gold finish. It is nicknamed ‘The Golden Boys’ or ‘The Carpet Salesmen’. Boulton, Watt, and Murdoch are depicted discussing engine plans. These men helped to pioneer the Industrial Revolution, but Watt’s family had links to the transatlantic slave trade – a plaque explaining this is due to appear next to the statue. Like Iron:Man, it was in storage for almost five years to facilitate redevelopment, returning in April 2022.
Location: Broad Street
We hope you enjoyed Rosie’s guide to Public Art in Birmingham. Special thanks to Stacey Barnfield and West Midlands Growth Company for the beautiful photography we’ve included. If you have your own Public Art in Birmingham favourites that you think deserves inclusion in our guide, get in touch with your recommendations, we’d love to hear from you.
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