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Matthew Boulton. King of Bling

David Gregory | 12:46 UK time, Thursday, 17 September 2009

It's less museum and more video shoot. White vinyl curtains, creative lighting and 30 foot high silver initials. M and B. It's Birmingham celebrating the 200th anniversary of the death of Matthew Boulton. The city's King of Bling.

It rhymes but it's surely a rather trite assessment of such an important man? Well, to an extent. But let's not under estimate the hunger for ostentatious consumption during his lifetime. And it's all here. From massive masonic candlesticks to giant golden clocks.

You can find the details about the exhibition here.

But alongside all the bling, Boulton also improved things for the working man. On display here the copper coins he made for use by much poorer people. Boulton invented modern coinage as we know it.

Birmingham can be rightly proud of his efforts to make sure the working man and woman had access to trustworthy copper coinage. Although I'm not sure the city can be proud of its truly inventive ability to fake copper coins that necessitated Boulton's efforts in the first place.

boulton2final.jpgIn the meantime perhaps the best exhibit here is the one that's easiest to miss. Tucked in amongst the great paintings, the coins and the silverware is a small picture. On the table just as you leave the exhibition. It's Soho Works. Boulton's factory, indeed the world's first factory.

After his death Boulton's business wound down and eventually the Soho Works was abandoned. There was talk of turning it into a residential building. Making it the world's first yuppie loft conversion? But in the end it was demolished. I've seen it in paintings of course but this particular picture is a very, very early photograph.

Turns out there's an overlap in time. Between the demolishing of the factory and the invention of photography. Just a small overlap, but here is the result. A small, black and white image. An unexpected legacy in an exhibition that's full of them.

candelabrafinal.jpgBut this isn't a legacy that belongs to the past. These orange plastic candelabra are a modern take on something Boulton would recognise. Created at Aston University where they've been showing children how Boulton's ideas and techniques are still a vital part of engineering and manufacturing. Aston are running a schools competition asking what Boulton would invent today. Details are here. If you are a school that wants to take part there are still a few places and the deadline has been extended.


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