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A Life In The Year Of The Chinchillas

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Piccadilly Arcade is one of Birmingham’s most historic retail destinations, housing over a dozen of the best independent retailers England’s second city has to offer. Despite being a beloved retail destination, it’s easy to understand why many local residents and commuters decide to take the scenic route through the Arcade that connects New Street and Stephenson Street.

But when was the last time you looked up during your journey through Piccadilly Arcade?

Did you know you were being watched? No, not by any piece of modern technology, but by a series of painted ceiling murals, titled ‘A Life In The Year Of The Chinchillas’. The piece of artwork was created by artist Paul Maxfield in 1989 when Piccadilly Arcade was refurbished by Douglas Hitchman.

Over 100 years ago cinema goers would flock to the ‘The Picture House, New Street’ in order to escape their daily lives and become engrossed in a silent film and the story unfolding on the big screen. Despite the cinema closing its doors in 1925 and then transforming into Piccadilly Arcade, the famous building enriched in history still can’t help to tell a story.

On the ceiling throughout the walkway in Piccadilly Arcade are six panels, each of which illustrates part of a story told by Paul Maxfield in his artwork, ‘A Life In The Year Of The Chinchillas’. The paintings depict the four seasons of the year and are also symbolic of the life cycle.

Each mural has its own setting and series of events unfolding within the frame. One season showcases a man parachuting down from the sky, and with the painting also doubling up as an illusion, it looks as though he is about to land in Piccadilly Arcade. One of the other reasons as to why this mural doubles up as an illusion is also due to the positioning of the characters inside the painting.

Each mural features a series of characters that are looking down upon you. This illusion breaks the fourth wall, with the people inside the mural acting as though they are aware of your presence. The people inside the pictures are spread around the edge of the paintings, hugging the bronze frame, almost as though they are trying not to fall out of the painting onto Piccadilly Arcade’s walkway.

Paul Maxfield’s ceiling murals is a gem that rushing shoppers and commuters often miss. Remember, the next time you walk through Piccadilly Arcade, look up. The old cinema venue still can’t help to put on a show.

Early History

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Piccadilly Arcade was built in 1910 as ‘The Picture House, New Street’. The application for permission to build ‘Cinematograph halls and Lounge’ was submitted to the local authority in February 1910 by the architects Nicol and Nicol and is numbered 12673. The building was opened by Lady Noreen Bass on 20th October 1910.

The entrance lounge was grand and is the sort that would only have been seen in the best hotels. Leading from it were the cloak room, managers office, lavatories and staircase to the circle.

The auditorium comprised six hundred seats in the stalls and one hundred and fifty in the circle. The proscenium arch was surmounted by two sculptured cupids with the screen recessed and surrounded by black velvet. The screen was treated with a special preparation of aluminium which had the effect of making the picture show up ‘bright and clear’.

In the operating room were two projectors and music to accompany the silent films was provided by a first rate orchestra of eight musicians.

In June 1912 a new fan room was added at the far end, at high level. This was also designed by Nicol and Nicol.

Originally there was a single storey building on the left and The Theatre Royal  on the right.

In 1925 Provincial Cinematograph Theathres Ltd. opened ‘The West End’ in Suffolk Street and in the following year they closed ‘The Picture House’.

An arcade of shops was then constructed through the auditorium to link New Street to Stephenson Street. This necessitated the removal of the masonry at ground floor level on the street frontages, the upper parts of the facades remaining virtually as before.

The main facade to New Street is a very handsome one, having a central arch flanked by slightly projecting pavilions terminating in open towers with convex sides. It is faced with white faience.

The conversion to an arcade was well planned and of high quality materials. The surrounds to the shops on both frontages are of bronze with honeysuckle decoration at the corners and the shopfronts throughout were uniform in appearance and also of bronze. Most of these still survive. It is interesting to note that as both shops and arcade are within the shell of the former auditorium there are no major structural supports between the shops.

The floor of the arcade has an attractive black and white marble border and the ceiling, which is flat, is divided into panels by foliated and  moulded frames.