A Trip to the Barber

Recently I visited the Barber Institute at Birmingham University. Easy to get to – train to University and keep walking. I went to see an exhibition entitled Rhythm of Light, a celebration of the so called Scottish Colorists. These are a group of turn of the (20th) century Scottish artists who discovered light and colour in Paris and the South of France. I enjoyed the exhibition but to be honest having enjoyed the works of S J Peploe and J D Ferguson for years I found the curation somewhat tame. Some of the work of these two artists in Edinburgh and Perth is simply stunning so while the exhibition was good and has been well received it wasn’t for me this time. 

It was ironic that probably the best Fergusson in the building was His 1902 Portrait of Jean Maconochie in the permanent collection. Well I suppose it’s a matter of taste. 


J D Fergusson,  Jean Maconochie, 1902, The Barber Institute, Birmingham.

However I did spend a little time in front of one picture in the permanent collection which made me ponder on a few things. There is a painting of The Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist. The title notes attributes the picture to Sandro Botticelli, around 1480. My first thoughts was how wonderful it was that this painting was still here hanging in Birmingham over 500 years after it was created. I pondered further on the events around Birmingham and Florence all those years ago. Both experiencing royal civil wars, both about to see great dynastic changes which would eventually challenge the heart of religious doctrine of the day. 


Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist, 1480, The Barber Instiute, Birmingham

But then I thought – Botticelli – that’s interesting – How strong is the attribution? Is it an autograph work? Is it with collaboration? Is it a factory work? Well the notes accepts that Botticelli had a very successful studio but claims the very fine work makes it the master. So what does my “complete Works” at home tell me. Well it becomes very interesting. It turns out that Botticelli painted this scene several times and my oracle claims the original of this painting is in the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzio Pitti in Florence and is attributed by all the experts. A reverse copy exists in Paris and is partially attributed. The Birmingham painting is a second reverse copy with the same dimensions as the Paris version and the same partial attribution. So I now know how busy these studios were back in the fourteen hundreds – step back Andy Warhol!


Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist, 1480, Galleria Palatina, Palazzio Pitti, Florence. (Note the reverse to the Birmingham version)

But then I thought – The Bible makes no mention of this meeting. Did the infant Baptist meet the Christ Child? There are numerous Renaissance and Baroque paintings devoted to this event. It arises from some of the apocryphal accounts of the Life of Christ abundant in the Middle Ages and refers to Jesus meeting his cousin on the holy family’s return from Egypt. These must have echoes of Luke recounting the unborn John recognising Christ in the womb (Luke 1:41).

But so to the painting – it is gorgeous. I hope my photograph does justice to the colours. It is difficult for me to judge on the level of restoration but the colours in egg tempera are just wonderful. And just look at the gold on The Madonna’s shawl. But most of all look at the faces. I am not sure if Italians have ever looked like Botticelli’s Madonna’s or Venus’s – but wow anyway. Most of all look at the Christ Child’s eyes. From a distance they look closed but get closer and you see just what a great artist Botticelli was – just open and clearly focussed on John. 


Madonna and Child and Infant St John the Baptist (Birmingham) – detail.

It is worth taking time with a painting and certainly worth it with a truly great painter like Botticelli to see how really good The Old Masters were.

The Rhythm of Light is on until 13th May and is seriously worth it but do take a few minutes with Botticelli. You will not regret it.

Royal Brighton

Looking at the Royal Pavilion tells you much about the philosophy of pleasure as enjoyed by George IV and Victoria. George saw Brighton as a a place to enjoy and had this sumptuous building, converted from the original Marine Pavilion by John Nash between 1815 – 1822, to lavish enjoyment on his court. The architecture and the decoration reflect an expression of extrovert pleasure. Close to the centre of Brighton and with the growing interest in the sea, Nash created this Indo-Saracenic Palace for the King’s delight displaying the increasing Eastern spiritual flavour with its domes and minarets.


The Garden Front of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton

The two main interior spaces are the Banqueting Room and the Music Room. The walls of the Banqueting Room are adorned with bold oriental illustrations by the designer, Robert Jones and the highlight is the chandelier held in the claws of a silver dragon weighing in at just over one ton. The highlights of the Music Room are the decorations by Frederick Crace, the Rock Clock (c1735) and the (restored) Axminster carpet. Unfortunately the Royal Saloon, with its sumptuous Egyptian couch, with crocodile feet, was closed for refurbishment for our visit but there is much to be seen in the state rooms, corridors and the upstairs rooms. Although mainly restored the flavour of excess is visible throughout; do look out for the bright yellow hand painted wall papers in Queen Victoria’s apartments.


The Banqueting Room, Brighton, with silver gilt, pedestal lamps and chandelier.

Which brings us to Victoria. Her pleasure was much more introspective preferring the company of her family, and finding Brighton far to brash and close to the people. Having decided on the more remote Osborne House on the Isle of Wight she stripped the palace bare, to furnish Windsor and Buckingham Palace, before selling to the Corporation of Brighton in 1850. She and others have returned much of the property over the years and a long term loan from the current Queen Elizabeth II has allowed the original feeling of excess to return. Amongst the accoutrements look out especially for the eight pedestal lights and the Regency silver gilt in the Banqueting Room and the various eighteenth and nineteenth century pianos, reflecting the Prince Regent’s love of music. The list of items to note is almost endless.

We finished our trip with a look around the Art Gallery which is a quaint provincial affair resembling an emporium in part. Highlight for me was the permanent exhibition of Glyn Philpot Paintings. The family gift to Brighton shows Philpot as a highly understated twentieth century figurative painter, perhaps not fully embracing Modernism. We also love seeing the British Abstractist, William Gear, wherever we go and exhibited here are Caged Yellow 1971 and Ascending Orange 1969. Also worth seeing is the exhibits of fashion and the tastefully curated rooms looking at  transology and exhibitionism.


Ascending Yellow, William Gear, 1971, Brighton Art Gallery.

Brighton is a great place to visit for its different approach to the world of pleasure (we were here for the Marathon) and neither the Pavilion, the museum or, indeed, the City will let the visitor down.

Congratulations, Dave for completing with a PB time of 4 hrs 27 mins

New Art Gallery, Walsall

I have been to The New Art Gallery in Walsall before and regard it as an oasis. The strength of the gallery is the Garman Ryan collection which covers two floors. Kathleen Garman was the wife of the great twentieth century sculptor Jacob Epstein. After his death in 1959 Garman started collecting art with her friend Sally Ryan, daughter of American entrepreneur Thomas Fortune Ryan. Together the two women collected over 400 pieces from Albrecht Drurer, through to nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary works. The collection was donated to the People of Walsall in 1973 and has the been part of the permanent collection in the gallery since 2000. Go to the Black Country and see Constables, Renoir, Cezanne, Modigliani  alongside Jacob Epstein sculptures, prints and paintings. With such a prestigious collection it is not surprising that Walsall has attracted exhibitions from some of the finest contemporary artists including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin.

Amadeus Modigliani, Caryatid, 1913

As part of the Artists Rooms Tour (sponsored by The National Galleries of Scotland and The Tate) the gallery is showing works by Vija Clemons. The American Latvian artist includes drawings and prints of the natural world, such as the stars, the surface of the oceans and expanses of deserts. Her display is part of a wider  Wilderness exhibition showing extremes of the natural world. The exhibition is also showing Esther Johnson’s short film about a community living on the disappearing Yorkshire coast at Holderness.


Vija Clemons, December 1984

My reason for going on this occasion was to see Lionheart by Mike Nelson. Obviously not everyone’s cup of tea the installation consists of found objects depicting a drifters hut. The objects were all found along the old human trade routes of Eastern Europe which had been closed during the Soviet regime but are reopening with migrating peoples again. The work was first installed in Bremen in 1999, and was selected to represent Great Britain in the Venice Biennale of 2011.


Mike Nelson, Lionheart, 1997-2018

On the Ground floor is The National Gallery’s Masterpiece Tour 2018 centred on Hans Holbein the Youngers’s 1526 painting of Lady Anne Lovell, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.


There are five floors of great paintings and sculpture to see at Walsall but I also like the architecture of Caruso St John’s new building opened in 2000. Praised by RIBA as almost flawless and vilified by Theodore Dalrymple as a “giant sauna on the inside and grain silo on the outside”. You can be the judge but must go there to see it. Like all centres of areas of urban regeneration, time will be the judge but for now we must thank Kathleen Garman and Sally Ryan for making their collection so accessible.


View from second floor to Town Canal Basin

The National Gallery Masterpiece Tour ends on 22nd April

Wilderness and Artists Rooms ends on 6th May

Lionheart ends on 3rd June





Tate Britain

Went to the Tate Britain last Saturday with the Diploma group from Oxford and had a great study day. For information for those that think the Tate is a long way from the transport network try Pimlico on the Victoria Line and a short walk to the new entrance. We spent the day looking at British Art between the Wars including paintings by David Bomberg, Stanley Spencer, Adrian Wallis, Francis Bacon, Ben Nicholson and others and sculpture by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein. There was too much to report on for this post but one picture took everyone’s eye.

Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods 1940 by Graham Sutherland OM 1903-1980

Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods (1940) by Graham Sutherland was inspired by a tree fallen across a grassy bank with its roots exposed. The resulting surreal part figurative part abstract was mesmerising for the spectator in front of it. Is it a sea monster? is it a distorted humanoid figure? The stuff of nightmares. Writing about his process, Sutherland stated, ‘The prototype in nature has got to be seen through the terms of art. A metamorphosis has got to take place.’ There were more Graham Sutherland paintings to be seen at the Tate and all over the UK. He painted surreal landscapes, underground mining views and some very special war paintings, as well as famously the 80th Birthday portrait of Winston Churchill.

Not many feet away from the Sutherland is Pelagos (1946) which I could not resist reporting on , being a ‘new’ fan of Barbara Hepworth.

Pelagos 1946 by Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

This single piece of work encapsulates all that represents Hepworth; the carved natural material, the interior space, the taut strings. Although clearly abstract the work is inspired by the two sides of St Ives Bay and the tension between Hepworth and the sea.

Cannot wait to go to Tate Britain again

Hannah Ryggen – Woven Histories


Tapestry must be one of the most intimate of all art forms and Hannah Ryggen, one of its most intimate of exponents. Born in Malmo in 1894 she settled into subsistence farming in Norway with her painter husband, Hans. Although trained as a painter in oils she turned to tapestry becoming closer to the rural farming class. From these earthly roots and reading of Dagbladet , the culturally radical journal, she produced works to represent some of the most profound events of the twentieth century.


6th October 1942 (1943), Hannah Rhyggen

Her works are currently on display at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art.* The show opens with a triptych narrative of her farming life, We and our Animals (1934), appearing three times feeding their hens, cattle and in a domestic setting. The pace quickens with the brilliant anti-fascist Ethiopia (1937) shown at the same World Fair alongside Picasso’s Guernica in 1937; her depiction of, the speared, Mussolini was censored out. The exhibition has two highly critical tapestries of Norway’s Second World War position and objections to its role in nuclear armament and NATO, the anti Nazi  6th October 1942 (1943) and Jul Kvale (1956). There are more powerful statements on nuclear war and a very clever attack on the USA’s involvement in Vietnam depicting Lyndon Johnson’s casual cruelty to his pet dog.


Ethiopia (1937), Hannah Rhyggen

Interspersed with her political comment are some beautiful works of a more personal flavour. She appears in A Free One (1948), a statement of the eniquity of wealth and poverty, and one of her late works, Fishing in a sea of debt (1956). Her themes of personal love are coloured with rich reds, where in her words ‘she lets loose with explosive effect’.


Mothers World (1947) Hanna Rhyggen

What gives Ryggen’s tapestry’s such intimate power is her involvement with the whole process from spinning the yarn from local wool, dyeing with colour from the immediate countryside and manufacture on a hand made loom in her farmhouse kitchen. The exhibition is completed with a very personal 30 minute film with Ryggen explaining her philosophy and describing various tapestries.

*Unfortunately the exhibition closes at Oxford on Sunday.

Leeds Art Gallery

The recently refurbished Gallery in the centre of Leeds made a very enjoyable visit last week. It is the home of the best public collection of twentieth century art in the UK outside London, recognised as a collection of National Importance. It was a pity that the Ziff Gallery, home of the nineteenth century work was closed which meant that I missed one of my favourite pre Raphaelite artist, Evelyn De Morgan’s Valley of the Shadows. The twentieth century collection is very well presented however with a number of Jacob Kramer paintings including The Day of Atonement and The Rite of Spring (see painting of the day) and Praxitella by Percy Wyndham Lewis (1921). There is, as expected sculpture from Henry Moore, Mother and Child, Barbara Hepworth, Hieroglyph, and Anthony Gormley, The Leeds Brick Man (1986). Among the temporary displays are a polycarbonate and cast polyurethane rubber sculpture, Arena,(2000) by Alison Wilding and as part of the national “Artist Rooms” project an exhibition devoted to Joseph Beuys. Highlight for me is the portrait wall with work by many of the iconic twentieth century portraitists including Gwen John and Francis Bacon. Adjoing the gallery are the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Library with a terrific section devoted to art History.

As regards the day out the gallery is easy to access in the City centre, surrounded by great cafes and restaurants and the gallery’s own ‘Tiled Wall Café’ is itself a delight; a spot where the original neo-classical architecture is allowed freedom. Leeds is of course well served by motorways but I went by train where the station, with trains from all over the country is virtually in the city centre.