Making the modern world - Boulton exhibition to city father who changed the world

2009 marks the bicentenary of the death of one of Birmingham's founding fathers who was to help shape the modern world -Matthew Boulton. As part of the bicentenary events Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is hosting an exhibition to Boulton including works from the Royal Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum and private collections together with the museum's own collections including Soho House - Boulton's home.

After Matthew Boulton’s death in 1809, JamesWatt wrote: ‘had Mr B. done nothing more in the world than what he has done in improving the coinage, his fame would have deserved to be immortalized.’

Boulton's achievements including his work with Watt on the steam engine contributed to the creation of Britain's 19th century wealth and literally changed the world. He pioneered schemes which were to evolve into the protection afforded to workers today with his insurance scheme from the 1770s providing assistance for workers in times of sickness and his lobbying work saw the establishment of Birmingham Assay office in 1773 which today is the world's busiest with Birmingham the main centre of gold jewellery production in Britain and the Assay office continuing to test and hallmark millions of precious metal items every year - handling 40% of all jewellery in the UK. His Smethwick engine with Watt, the world's oldest working steam engine is at Thinktank, the Birmingham science museum.

Matthew Boulton – Selling What all the World Desires

The exhibition titled,Matthew Boulton – Selling What all the World Desires, includes memoirs, letters and artefacts hand produced by Matthew Boulton and was opened by Bank of England Governor Mervyn King,

The exhibition's title comes from a letter Boulton wrote to James Boswell in 1776 from which he declared “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER!”.

While Mervyn King was opening the exhibition he announced that Matthew Boulton and James Watt new faces of £50 note with the two industrialists portraits being the face of the newly designed £50 note due to be produced in around eighteen months time.

"Just as the Bank of England plays an essential role in the economy as the United Kingdom's central bank, so too did Boulton and Watt's steam engines and their many other innovations as essential factors in the nation's Industrial Revolution,"

The unique and rare opportunity that the Bank has through its banknotes to acknowledge and promote awareness of our nation's heritage of artistic, social and scientific endeavour is an honour for us. The Bank's choice of Boulton and Watt, a reminder of the invaluable contribution from engineering and the entrepreneurial spirit to the advancement of society, I think, well reflects this."

An image of the workings of the design is reproduced from The Telegraph article below.

Matthew Boulton and the Art of Making Money

The link to money is an important one for Boulton's innovation and entreprenurial drive led to the production of identical coins with a high quality of design in high quantities; some 257 million British copper coins were minted in Birmingham between 1797 and 1808 for example.

This mass production of identitical coins from Soho in Birmingham can lay claim to be the world's first identical mass-produced objects and coins from their production are among coins on display at another exhibition at the University of Birmingham's Barber Institute. Housed in the Barber's coin gallery, Matthew Boulton and the Art of Making Money is a small exhibition but it's story is world-embracing in it's geographical range and historical significance of it's exhibits.

One extraordinary survival from the Assay Office is the steel collar of 1788 which firmly gripped the blank metal disc to prevent it spreading when it was stamped, and at the same time put an inscription on to the rim. It meant that perfectly round coins could be produced for the first time.

Both exhibitions and their images of the Soho Manufactory produced in the 1790s show the continued fight Birmingham has had against it's image problem. Dr Clay suggests that the images showing it almost as a stately home in a parkland setting were part of a charm offensive by Boulton in pursuit of the government contract it won to make coins.

Although the image problem has remained Birmingham's cosmopolitanism has also continued from Boulton's time and his employment of skilled artisans and designers from across Europe. The city continued to attract immigrants who flocked to be employed in the developing skilled base in Birmingham.

“In 1700 the population was probably about 7,000, which became 70,000 by 1800.
"What’s happening? It’s a city built by immigrants. I always wonder how culturally different the rest of Britain was, which didn’t have this kind of migration. “People came in and built teams. It’s always been like this – it’s what made the city great.”

The exhibition at the Barber Institute runs until May 16 2010 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; admission free).

More information on the year long Matthew Boulton programme can be found at:


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