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Thursday, 19 May 2016

"The Vanguard of the Age" - the wall paintings of Edward Armitage at Dr Williams's Library

Preparatory sketch of James Martineau
There are many hidden treasures at Dr Williams's Library in London's Gordon Square but the most notable must be the wall paintings of Edward Armitage RA. The mural was painted in what was then the dining hall of University Hall (now the lecture hall of Dr Williams's Library) in memory of Henry Crabb Robinson. It was commissioned by his friends and completed by an advisory committee. 

Edward Armitage RA was a prominent figure in the Victorian art world and a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy.

It shows Crabb Robinson surrounded by his most distinguished literary and artistic friends. These include Wordsworth, Coleridge, Mary and Charles Lamb and Blake. Crabb Robinson had travelled in Germany and this accounts for the portraits of Goethe, Tieck, von Schiller and Herder. In total there were 47 portraits. At the end Armitage added a self-portrait with palette and brushes in hand.

The entire mural was covered over in the mid-1950s under whitewash and wallpaper and is known from engravings. It was fascinating to see some of Armitage's preparatory sketches and two of the engravings in the exhibition expertly curated by Jane Giscombe, a conservator at Dr Williams's Library. Tom Sawyer's evening lecture gave an insight into the murals and was, of course, delivered in the Hall in which we were acutely aware they remain "hidden" surrounding us! Descendants of both Armitage and Crabb Robinson were in the audience.

Lady Byron talks to Rev F W Robertson
As a prominent Unitarian Crabb Robinson had many friends from the Unitarian community and these feature strongly illustrating their contribution to literary, cultural and political life. Mrs Barbauld and Lady Anne Byron are two Unitarian women included; both influential in the development of education. Other Unitarians are Gilbert Wakefield; scholar and "political fanatic", Mark Philips MP, Thomas Thornley MP, Edwin Field; lawyer and law reformer; and three Unitarian ministers; Revs James Martineau, Lant Carpenter and John James Tayler.

The exhibition at Dr Williams's Library can be viewed by appointment by telephoning 020 7387 3727.    

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