Published on 14/02/18


Colmore BID’s Place Marketing Working Group recently approved a grant to support a research and development project into the life and legacy of the Birmingham pioneer photographer George Shaw (1818-1904). The project is led by Pete James, the independent photographic historian who researched and curated the THRESHOLDS exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery last summer.

Working in collaboration with the University of Birmingham Cultural Collections Dept, and the Musée d’Orsay Paris amongst others, the project seeks to create an exhibition presenting a collection of previous unseen material that will enable his life, work and achievements to be recognised and celebrated in his home city. The location of Shaw’s offices in the city-centre, in the midst of manufacturers showrooms and the C19th business district, will also be used to undertake place-based research around the emergence of the CBD. The project will also explore how a study of the history of enterprise and the people who catalysed the networks of enterprise in Birmingham can be used to promote and support the future development of the CBD.

Shaw was a professor of chemistry at Queens College, a patent agent and an amateur watercolourist, was a highly respected member of Birmingham’s scientific, artistic, manufacturing and educational communities. He was a pivotal figure in the chain of productive relationships between technologists, artisans, manufactures and entrepreneurs which fuelled the economic development of Birmingham during the Victorian era and the first person to make a photograph in the city.

Born the son of a Black Country glass manufacturer, he was apprenticed to Luke Hebert, probably the first patent agent in Birmingham, taking over the practice in Temple Row West in 1842. Over the next sixty years a wide range of inventors, entrepreneurs and financiers in and beyond Birmingham drew upon Shaw’s encyclopaedic knowledge of new inventions, the latest scientific and technical advances in art and industry, and the administration of the patent laws.

Shaw’s epitaph records that ‘During a long and useful life he devoted an acute intellect to the acquisition of a wide and accurate knowledge of science, art and literature’. Elsewhere he was remembered as ‘a brilliant conversationalist . . . always willing to impart information to others, and he possessed the marvellous faculty of being able to render abstruse subjects clear to the understanding of uninstructed persons’. Shaw developed a specialist knowledge of local manufactures, particularly those of the metal-ware and electro-plate industries and this led to him serving as Joint Secretary of the Arts and Industrial Exhibition held in Birmingham in 1849 and as a juror for both the 1851 Great Exhibition and the 1862 International Exhibition.

It was once reported that ‘after seeing Mr. Shaw and talking with him’ Michael Faraday told Dr John Percy; “In many things, I am to him a child” and in 1904 noted Birmingham inventor and manufacturer W. H. James wrote ‘it would be most fitting that some kind of tribute should be raised to one whose life for so long a period should have been connected with the inventive and certainly advancing portion of the Birmingham manufacturing and educational community’.

This research and exhibition project seeks to raise that tribute.