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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.25 Henry Pegram statue, Birmingham

Among the many posthumous commemorations of Darwin as one of the ‘great men of history’, there is a striking statue of him on the façade of the University of Birmingham. When the former Mason Science College developed into a university in 1900, a very grand building was constructed on an open site at Edgbaston, under the patronage and direction of Joseph Chamberlain (the new institution’s Chancellor), and other benefactors; it was officially opened in 1909. The architects were Aston Webb and Edward Ingress Bell, who had designed the Victoria Law Courts in Birmingham, the main façade of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and many other prestigious public buildings and monuments. Chamberlain wanted the new university to be a dignified and imposing structure, in which architectural effect seemingly had greater priority than utilitarian considerations. The ornate semi-circular frontage announces the central position of the ‘Great Hall’ beyond, while smaller domed pavilions set into the curved wings on either side articulate the fronts of the radial blocks that accommodated the various university departments.  

Immediately above the three doors of the central entrance is a series of nine statues in niches, carved by Henry Pegram, a sculptor who specialised in architectural decorations. They were evidently finished and in place by the summer of 1907, when they were mentioned in an architectural account of ‘Birmingham University’ in The Builder. At first sight, the Building Committee’s choice of ‘the great men of all time’ seems almost haphazard, but in fact it attempted to express the scope of the new institution, as it grew and diversified in the range of its degree courses. Arts subjects were now to be introduced alongside science and technology, which nevertheless remained dominant in the early years. Chamberlain also envisaged that the new University would become a regional centre of learning, and he solicited contributions to the construction costs from many Midlands counties. In response to these diverse and sometimes contested agendas, it was agreed that the statues should represent not only the great scientists of the past and of recent days, but also outstanding figures in various fields of European philosophy and the arts; and, at the same time, there must preferably be an emphasis on men who had been born in the Midlands. After much discussion and disagreement, the choice was settled. In the centre is Shakespeare, as an acknowledged genius who came from the local region. To the viewer’s left are representatives of the noblest arts, stemming from the ancient world: Beethoven, Virgil, Michelangelo and Plato. To the right are Newton, Watt, Faraday and Darwin – a quartet of scientists with some Midlands connections, but, more importantly, representing a claim to British primacy in scientific research. However, it is interesting to learn that the University Principal, Oliver Lodge, feared that Darwin might be considered a contentious choice, and had reserve choices in readiness. Pegram’s statue represents Darwin as a venerable bearded figure, dressed in a heavy coat as well as his familiar cape, and holding a book, as he looks down benignly at the approaching visitor. 

  • physical location University of Birmingham 

  • accession or collection number not applicable 

  • copyright holder University of Birmingham 

  • originator of image Henry Alfred Pegram 

  • date of creation c.1901–1907 

  • computer-readable date c.1901-01-01 to 1907-07-01 

  • medium and material stone sculpture 

  • references and bibliography ‘Illustrations. Birmingham University’, The Builder, 93: 3362 (13 July 1907), pp. 54–55. A. Hughes, The University of Birmingham: A Short History (Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, 1950). Eric William Ives, Diane Drummond and Leonard Schwartz, The First Civic University: Birmingham 1880–1980: An Introductory History (Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, 2000); Ives, ‘A new campus’ pp. 111–120. Andy Foster, Birmingham (Pevsner Architectural Guides), (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 240–243. 


 

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