And the work of William Bloye (1890-1975)
In the Gaskin daughters’ book on the history of the School, ‘Moseley into the Millenium’, the authors briefly refer to the ‘remarkable’ plasterwork in the ‘Modern Symbolic style’ on the ceiling of the 1920's assembly hall. Although their account makes reference to one or two anecdotes regarding the figures they do not tell us the identity of the artist or anything of the meaning of the symbolism employed.
For this piece, on the attribution and importance of the work, an introduction will be limited to a few illustrations together with a brief general description.
Ten separate panels are arranged in two parallel rows of four along the length of the hall with two further panels (or roundels) separating the two rows at the furthest point, creating the perimeter of a rectangular shape (4 x 3).
The four ‘corners’ of this rectangle are occupied by panels that are further subdivided into four small roundels. Each group of four is made up of symbols for three signs of the zodiac and the season associated with these signs, depicted through the yearly cycle of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum).
In Panels One and Two, Panel One depicts Libra (scales), Scorpio (scorpion) and Sagittarius (archer), with autumn illustrated by the tree (complete with ‘conkers’). Panel Two, consists of Aries (ram), Taurus (bull) and Gemini (twins) together with the early leaf of the chestnut in spring.
The remaining six panels consist of depictions of the academic disciplines or broad subject areas that might be said to comprise the elements of a liberal education. Those illustrated are, Panel Three, the visual arts and, Panel Four, drama. The other disciplines (not shown) are, music, athletics, science and mathematics and literature/knowledge. Although the general meaning of each panel is not difficult to discern,- each roundel is made up of a number of objects and stylistic features that are amenable to further symbolic ‘decoding’.
In search of the artist’s name I was fortunate, a few years ago, to have a conversation with a Moseleian, Mr A. Sandilands, the beadle of St. Paul’s church in the jewellery quarter. He was the first to mention the name of Bloye and at his suggestion, I eventually sought the advice of the acknowledged expert on Birmingham’s civic sculpture, George Noszlopy, Emeritus Professor of Art History, Birmingham City University.
Unaware of the work before my contact with him, Professor Noszlopy has now visited the school and confirmed that it was typical of the symbolic style associated with Bloye in the late 1920s and early 1930s. On the basis of the visual evidence he was confident that it could be ‘safely regarded as Bloye’ even if confirmation would have to await his inspection of ledgers from the sculptor’s studio.
More recently still, I have found further confirmation of the Bloye attribution from a listing entitled ‘Allegories of Athletics, Music, Drama, and Painting, with Signs of the Zodiac at Spring Hill College’ on the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association website (but with little additional detail and no photographs).
But what is known of William James Bloye and what, if any, significance is attached to an attribution of his name?
Born in Cornwall in 1890, Bloye was a student at the Birmingham School of Art between 1904 and 1909. From early in 1914 until the outbreak of the First World War he studied sculpture at the Royal Academy. In 1917 he became a part-time teacher of modelling at Vittoria Street and City Road Schools - two branch schools of the Birmingham School of Art. In 1919 he was appointed as the new full-time teacher of modelling at the Central School in Margaret Street. He accepted the post with the proviso that he be allowed time and facilities to continue his own training which had been interrupted by the war. As part of that arrangement he spent two four-week periods as a pupil of Eric Gill at Ditchling in Sussex in 1921 and 1922, paid for by the Birmingham School of Art. Here he trained in stone carving and letter cutting, both areas in which the School was seen to be deficient by a Board of Education Report of 1921. This acquaintance with Gill proved to be significant for Bloye’s output. ‘Gill’s influence is clearly seen in his early work, emphasising linear patterns in low relief, as in the panels in the Hall of Memory (1925)’ (see image).
By about 1925 Bloye had a thriving studio, located in Golden Hillock Road, Small Heath. He was increasingly engaged on many public commissions, particularly for architectural carving, and was employing no less than seven assistants, all of whom had trained under him at the School of Art. In 1925 Bloye became a member of Birmingham’s Civic Society and from this period established himself as the city’s unofficial civic sculptor receiving virtually all commissions of an official nature, including work for libraries, hospitals, clinics and the University.
Bloye retired from the School of Art in 1956 and moved to Solihull, continuing to execute commissions, mainly fountains and portrait busts, up until his death in Arezzo, Italy, in 1975.
This brief account is by no means exhaustive with respect to his output for he ‘was the most prolific sculptor of 20th century Birmingham, producing work of a consistent and remarkably high standard.’ (ibid) Hopefully however, it gives a sense of how important Bloye was, and still is, to his adopted city.
Many thousands of school students will have seen an important example of his work on the ceiling of their assembly hall, perhaps as they searched aimlessly for inspiration while sitting examinations, when momentarily distracted by the ‘words of wisdom’ uttered by a teacher in morning assembly, or when lying prone following some unfortunate collision with a fellow student while playing indoor cricket or volleyball. Few, if any, would have known the artist’s name or the part he played in the architectural and public sculpture of their native city. This article is a modest attempt to give him greater recognition within the Moseley School community.
1.Birmingham; Pevsner Architectural Guides. Andy Foster, Yale University Press, 2005
Birmingham; Public Sculpture Trails. George Noszlopy and Fiona Waterhouse, Liverpool University Press 2007
Public Sculpture of Birmingham. George Noszlopy, Liverpool University Press, 1998
All black and white photos courtesy of PMSA National Recording Project, Western Central Counties Regional Archive Centre