Black Country Poems: The Art of Edwin Butler Bayliss (1874 – 1950)

In 1862 Elihu Burritt, American Consul to Birmingham, famously described the Black Country as “black by day and red by night”. The same furnaces that clouded the sky with smoke during daylight hours burned bright as darkness fell. Such words evoke a landscape forged and fashioned by industry; a world of smoke and fire. It was this world that Edwin Butler Bayliss, the artist immortalised as the “Poet Painter of the Black Country”, set out to capture.

In 1918, the Birmingham Gazette famously described Edwin Butler Bayliss as the “poet-painter” of the Black Country; in response to his work’s expressive, atmospheric qualities. Much of his artistic career was devoted to capturing scenes of the region’s industrial life.
In the Black Country Oil on board c. 1900 – 36

Edwin Butler Bayliss was born in Tettenhall, Wolverhampton, in 1874. The eldest son of Samuel Bayliss, joint Managing Director of the Bayliss Jones and Bayliss iron foundry, he would have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he chose an alternative career. The 1901 census describes Butler Bayliss as an artist-sculptor, with the income he took from the family business giving him the freedom to pursue his vocation. Largely self-taught, it is thought his techniques also developed through friendships with fellow artists. He exhibited regularly at The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and Wolverhampton Society of Artists, and his pictures also featured at the Royal Academy, Glasgow Institute and Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Although he also painted rural views and costal scenes, Butler Bayliss’s main subject was the local industrial landscape and its hulking architecture of blast furnaces and coal mines; an unconventional choice at the time. Manufacturing was the source of his family’s wealth, yet Butler Bayliss did not attempt to soften the harsh realities faced by those who lived and worked in such environments. In his pictures, the Black Country is portrayed as a scarred, ravaged land; inspiration, perhaps, for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mordor. His scenes are haunted by grey, ghost-like figures, often hunched under heavy loads or struggling against wind and rain. In this sense, observers have noted a strong thread of social realism running through his art.

For all their gritty melancholy, however, Butler Bayliss’ pictures possess an undeniable lyrical quality. The smoke that swirls through his images combines with his loose, expressive brush and pencil work; creating an atmosphere that recalls French Impressionism. In the words of one reviewer, this approach allowed Butler Bayliss to find and capture the beauty of the Black Country.

Today, the artist’s work enjoys great popularity, and Butler Bayliss is widely regarded as one of the foremost painters of the Black Country’s industrial heritage. This online exhibition presents a comprehensive selection of his art; showcasing oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints, some of which have not been on public display since Wolverhampton Art Gallery’s 2013 exhibition: “Edwin Butler Bayliss: Poet Painter of the Black Country”. Preparatory sketches are included alongside finished pictures, allowing an exclusive insight into the methods and practices of one of the Black Country’s favourite artists.

At a time when we are in lockdown once more, Butler Bayliss reminds us that the seeds of great art can be found in our immediate surroundings.

Click through the images below to see our exhibition or listen to Carol Thompson, Senior Curator for Wolverhampton Arts and Culture who depicts Butler Bayliss artwork ‘Black Country Skyline’.