Few people can have left a more substantial mark - for the good, at any rate - on the face of Birmingham than John Henry Chamberlain.
The resident architect of the Liberal nonconformist elite which drove the city through its golden era of Victorian civic improvement, Chamberlain is still without serious rival for the title of Birminghams greatest architect.
The Civic Societys guide to Birmingham Heritage buildings, published this week, includes four buildings or structures designed by Chamberlain, plus two designed after his death by his firm, Martin & Chamberlain.
JH Chamberlain deserves to be much better known, both nationally and in his adopted city. But even Birmingham residents unfamiliar with his name are sure to know some of his buildings - particularly the Board Schools, which were acclaimed as setting national standards when first built. They still serve as Gothic landmarks dotted around the inner city, with their romantic outlines of towers and spires.
His surviving works include his masterpiece, the former School of Art (now Birmingham Institute of Art and Design) in Margaret Street, and the former Oozells Street School (now the Ikon Gallery) in Brindleyplace.
Confusingly, he was not related to Birminghams great civic leader Joseph Chamberlain, whose house in Moseley, Highbury, he designed. He also designed the Chamberlain Memorial fountain outside the Museum & Art Gallery, which commemorates Joseph Chamberlains services to improving the towns water supply.
JH Chamberlain, however, was not merely a jobbing designer but a fully paid-up member of the ruling intellectual elite. His theories about art and design, heavily influenced by the critic and polemicist John Ruskin, were closely integrated into the broader social views, dubbed the Civic Gospel, of the Birmingham Liberals.
These views were shaped by a small group of influential nonconformist ministers, among whom George Dawson, HW Crosskey, Charles Vince and RW Dale were particularly important.
In complete contrast to a Dickensian view of urban degradation, they saw the city in an elevated, aspirational light. This was summarised in Dawsons ringing declaration: A town is a solemn organism through which shall flow, in which shall be shaped, all the highest, loftiest and truest ends of mans moral nature.
It was said of Crosskey that he would excite his audience by dwelling on the glories of Florence and of the cities of Italy in the Middle Ages, and suggest that Birmingham too might become the home of a noble literature and art.
JH Chamberlain, a member of Dawsons congregation and of Crosskeys after Dawsons death, translated this vision into brick, stone and terracotta.
Born in Leicester on June 26, 1831, Chamberlain was articled to a local architect and to judge from conflicting accounts may or may not have spent some time working in London. Then came the decisive influence of his life - his discovery of the major works of Ruskin - Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps and The Stones of Venice, the latter prompting him to make his own architectural tour of Italy.
Ruskin was pro-Gothic and medieval craftsmanship, and against Classicism and the effects of modern industrialisation. His theories of architecture - which were really theories of decoration, since he had no interest in buildings per se - were based on an ideal of truth to nature.
The School of Art, with its many examples of nature-inspired decoration inside and out, including the spectacular carved roundel on the left gable facing Margaret Street, is a particularly comprehensive demonstration of Chamber-lains indebtedness to Ruskin.
Appropriately so, since Ruskinian principles would underpin the teaching which went on inside the building.
However, Chamberlain was not so slavish a disciple that he did not seek to strike a balance between Ruskinian decoration and functional design principles. The example most often quoted is the towers of his board schools, which as well as being strong, picturesque landmarks served the necessary function of ventilating the buildings.
Chamberlain arrived in Birmingham in 1856, attracted by the presence of a wealthy relative, who was a partner in the firm of Eld & Chamberlain. His first building in the city was a house for Mr Eld in Edgbaston, which still survives, his second new business premises for Eld & Chamberlain in Union Street has since been demolished.
After these two buildings Chamberlain struggled to establish himself, although as well as buildings in Leicester he completed an engine house and other buildings at the Monument Road station of the Birmingham Waterworks Company and the Wesleyan Chapel in Essington Street.
When Lord Lyttelton approached him in 1864 to design a cathedral for Christchurch, New Zealand, Chamberlain was on the point of emigrating. What changed his mind was the establishment of a partnership with William Martin (1828-1900), a somewhat shadowy figure but already an established architect with strong links to the Corporation.
Martin took care of the business and technical side of the partnership while Chamberlain retained control of design. They now embarked on a hugely productive career of designing mainly public buildings, including no fewer than 41 Board Schools following the introduction of the Education Act of 1870, which introduced free education for all.
They also designed police and fire stations, hospital buildings and buildings for the waterworks, some of which, like the engine houses at Selly Oak and Whitacre, still survive.
Through connections to the Liberal elite they built private houses for leading citizens like Joseph Chamberlain, his brother-in-law William Kenrick and JT Bunce, editor of The Birmingham Post.