Pieces of a puzzle | The Kardomah Café, Birmingham Surrealists & a mosaic mural

Birmingham Surrealists Kardomah cafe

A beautiful mosaic mural has recently been uncovered in Birmingham, dating back to the days of the Kardomah Café and Birmingham Surrealists. But we don’t know much more than this, and are left with lots of questions. Who made the mosaic? When was it designed? What are the stories surrounding it?

Can you help us piece together this puzzle about Birmingham’s history?

A mosaic wall uncovered

Earlier this week Saima Razzq (a filmmaker and Surrealist connoisseur) and I were invited to visit Charles Tyrwhitt on Birmingham New Street. We weren’t shopping for men’s shirts or suede shoes. We were there, as Surrealist art detectives (yes, that is a proper job), to take a look at their mosaic wall.

The store’s owners had accidentally uncovered the mosaic on their first floor, after taking over the shop last year. Previous owners had covered it up, but during renovations they accidentally made a hole in the plaster, and spied a colourful mosaic artwork.

Uncovering it, they have now made it a centrepiece to the store upstairs – why not go and have a look?

With hundreds of tiny pieces, the mosaic makes up a colourful and intricate artwork. The patterns swirl around pink and red roses, green leaves and stems in an extravagant art nouveau manner.

Birmingham Surrealists Kardomah cafe
Do you have memories of this beautiful mosaic artwork in the Kardomah Cafe?

The Kardomah Cafés

What we do know is that this store where the mosaic is located used to be one of the Kardomah Cafes. You can still see on the outside of the building where the sign for the Kardomah Café used to be placed.

This Kardomah café was one of 2 in Birmingham. The Costa Coffee of their time, they were a chain of coffee shops in England, Wales, and a few in Paris, popular from the early 1900s until the 1960s. They attracted artists and writers and were where many people of the time would go courting and socialising with friends. There is still one Kardomah café open in Swansea.

What we don’t know is when this Kardomah Café opened.

The Birmingham Surrealists

We know that the Birmingham Surrealists would meet in the Kardomah Café in New Street.

From the 1930s to the 1950s Birmingham had an informal grouping of artists and intellectuals associated with Surrealism. Leading artists in the group included Conroy Maddox (1912 -2005), John Melville (1902 – 1986), Emmy Bridgwater (1906 – 1999), Oscar Mellor (1921 – 2005) and Desmond Morris (b.1928). They were also joined by Robert Melville (1905 – 1986) who was an English art critic and journalist. Brother of the artist John Melville, he was also an early biographer of Picasso, and art correspondent of the New Statesman and the Architectural Review.

These artists believed themselves more true to the movement’s Parisian origins that their London counterparts. They built links directly with André Breton (who founded Surrealism), as well as artists in Paris including Max Ernst and Salvador Dali.

You can read more about why the Birmingham Surrealists thought they were better than the London lot here. 

Birmingham Surrealists Kardomah cafe
Today the mosaic is framed by store mannequins. The scene is quite surreal!

What do you know?

Did you, or your friends/family visit this café? Have you visited other Kardomah Cafes? What do you know? Do you have any photos of the mosaic wall and café?

Can you help us to piece together this surreal puzzle?

If so, please email me:

Millington.rka@gmail.com

Ruth x

All photos by Saima Razzaq. 

This research fits into a wider project which Saima and I are undertaking, exploring the Birmingham Surrealists, and which we have entitled ‘Surrealist Disclosures’. 

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