Thursday, May 7th 2015
Our trip to Birmingham today is motivated by an exhibition being held in Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery, about which more anon.
To go to Birmingham, we prefer to take the train from Marylebone (you can also go from Euston) and alight at Moore Street or Snow Hill, depending on our ultimate destination. Marylebone is a pretty station (it opened in 1899) and tends to be less crowded and less frenetic than Euston.
We disembarked at Snow Hill Station, whose best known resident is probably the silver painted aluminium sculpture by John McKenna entitled The Commuter. Wearing a bowler hat and carrying brolly and briefcase, he is obviously intended to represent the more traditional members of the business community. He is now firmly associated with this station but I have heard that he was originally intended for Canley Station in Coventry. Canley, though, is not in a business area whereas Snow Hill certainly is, so perhaps our Commuter moved here to rub shoulders with his own kind.
We discovered a temporary resident, this handsome seafaring gent who was collecting for the RNLI. In return for a modest contribution, he graciously consented to be photographed. The irony was not lost on him that Birmingham is often quoted as the place in England that is farthest from the sea!
We left by Snow Hill’s somewhat discreet entrance and found ourselves in the heart of the city. The next thing we saw was an art gallery and were tempted to go in. It was a commercial art gallery, that is, a gallery that exists to sell works of art, not to exhibit them for the pleasure and interest of the public. However, we were met and welcomed and encouraged to look around. There were paintings and sculptures, many of them very fine and I enjoyed my tour very much. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed.
As well as seeing some beautiful works is art, I also learnt something that I had not realized before. I had assumed that the works on display in commercial galleries were all unique and original works, hence the high prices. I now realized that while this might be true in some cases, increasingly often it is not. It is very easy these days to make high quality prints of paintings and even copies of sculptures. I think all the works we saw were copies. I am not criticising the sale of copies (provided, of course, that the customer is informed that they are copies, not originals) and from an aesthetic point of view, I suppose the copy is ‘as good as’ the original. Rightly or wrongly, though, I don’t feel the same awe and admiration in looking at a copy as I feel in looking at the original.
Birmingham is a city where there are so many picturesque and beautiful buildings that I could spend all my time photographing them and never get to my destination. Here is just one fine example, built in 1881-5 and now home to the Birmingham City University’s School of Art. As you might guess, it is Grade I listed.
I was intrigued by this pair of buildings that have become completely surrounded by modern ‘fish-tank’ design blocks but have, so far, survived. The Arts and Crafts one on the left dates from 1897 and its Venetian Gothic companion from 1880. Both are Grade II listed.
We made our way to the museum. In a light well hangs this large work of art. The top view shows it sideways on from the upper floor. The others show it at various angles from below. It is a collaborative work by two artists, Keiko Mukaide and Ronnie Watt.
It turned out that the exhibition we had come to see was not in the main building but across an open space in another building. In the picture you can see what look like tram rails and I am guessing that this area, now a large yard, was once a street.
The exhibition is entitled Love is Enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol. I must admit that I had misgivings about this exhibition. William Morris and his group were true artists but Warhol? Having seen the exhibition and been enchanted by one half of it, I have to say that my misgivings were fully justified. In my opinion, it is almost an insult to William Morris to put him together with Warhol. Photography was not allowed in the exhibition and I therefore have no pictures with which to justify or at least support my judgements, so I had better say no more except that I enjoyed one part of the exhibition very much.
After viewing the exhibition, we toured the rest of the art gallery. Here follow a few of the items we saw, saw of which I have shown you in previous posts. Above is a winged figure by sculptor Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003). Wikipedia’s Lynn Chadwick describes his work as ‘semi-abstract’ which, I suppose, is a fair evaluation. I can relate to some of his sculptures better than others but usually find his work intriguing and attractive. The label on the above work speaks of Chadwick’s period of service with the Fleet Arm Arm and concludes that ‘Chadwick’s work reflects the emotional aftershock of World War Two and the growing fear of nuclear conflict’.
Henry Moore’s reclining female figures are found in many galleries and sculpture parks. A male figure in the posture of a warrior was a somewhat new departure for the artist according to a letter that he wrote about the work in 1955. A relevant quotation from the letter, casting light on the genesis of the work and its meaning for the artist may be found of this page of the Henry Moore Foundation.
This is one of my favourites works in this gallery, Spring by Alan Bridgwater. The artist was born locally (1903) and spend most of his life (d.1962) in the area. According to the label, ‘The style suggests an influence from Cubism and new modes of representation by artists such as Georges Braque…’ That may be so, but there is a naturalness and elegance to the figure that is charming and that I do not see in Cubist representations.
We associate the name of Pierre Auguste Renoir first and foremost with painting and with the Impressionist movement. Here he ventures into sculpture and in a thoroughly realistic mode. Aline Victorine Charigot was born in 1859 and worked as a seamstress. With others she modelled for Renoir and, though 18 years his junior, married him in 1890, remaining his companion until she died in 1915. Renoir painted her on several occasions and this bust, done a year after her death, is his memorial to her. It differs from the usual memorial bust in its everyday naturalism that captures the real woman rather than an idealized symbol. It is a touching tribute.
The sculptor of this bust is not known but it belongs to the Florentine School and was made in the early 17th century. Unlike other more famous Roman emperors such as Augustus, Nero, Caligula and Claudius, Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus (AD 161-92) is relatively obscure. As his first two names suggest, he was the son of the philosophical Marcus Aurelius with whom he was co-emperor from 177 to his own accession in 180. Commodus ruled for only 12 years before being assassinated. See Wikipedia’s Commodus for more details. It is difficult to know how closely the bust resembles the real man but it certainly gives off an aura of power and hardness.
The Museum and Art Gallery possesses features of beauty and interest on its own account, not least the fine Round Room. This is a large chamber, hall or gallery, round as its name indicates, though much bigger than the word ‘room’ would seem to suggest. A notable feature is the ceiling dome that infuses the space with daylight. It is impossible to photograph this gallery with a single frame and I have captured part of it by stitching a number of images together. The dark patches in the bottom left corner could have been trimmed off but by doing so I would have lost parts of the picture that I preferred to keep.
The walls of the Round Room are lined with an impressive array of paintings but the focus of the room is unmistakeably the centre of the floor where stands Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of Lucifer. People entering the room are naturally drawn to it and walk around it. Inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the sculpture of the fallen angel exudes despair rather than wickedness. The figure is human but larger than life size and possesses a presence that compels. See also A library in Birmingham.
Leaving the art gallery, we made our way, slowly and with detours, as per usual, to the station. Along the way we encountered the magnificence Great Western Arcade whose grand entrance you see above.
The Arcade was built in 1775-6 as a place for elegant shopping. It has entrances at either end which is of course convenient for access but also tempts people to walk through on their way somewhere else and to be drawn in by shop window displays. One can imagine how animated it must have been in the days of stovepipe hats and long dresses. Somewhat quieter these days, it is, happily, a Grade II listed building and for now protected from the vandalism of greedy developers. Because damage in World War Two bombing necessitated rebuilding, the Colmore Row entrance and the roof were rebuilt in a form different from the original. It nonetheless remains a beautiful legacy from the Victorian era.
Near the cathedral, mounted on a column, is a drinking fountain with an unusual angel motif for decoration. The fountain, now Grade II listed, was originally attached to Christ Church and was installed some time in the later part of the 19th century. When the church was demolished in 1899, the fountain was moved here. A plaque beneath the bowl records this move and the fountain’s restoration in 1988. The metal cups are long gone and the fountain no longer provides water, a circumstance that renders slightly ironic the Biblical quotation being displayed by the angel: Whosever drinketh of this water shall thirst again but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give shall never thirst (John IV, 13 & 14). A fountain recorded in Bristol made to the same pattern seems to have been destroyed or lost.
My last photos were a few of Birmingham’s cathedral, dedicated to St Philip, as we passed through its grounds on our way to the station.
Although this was a short visit, it was a substantial one on which we had visited two galleries and renewed acquaintance with some old acquaintances. We shall no doubt have cause to return in the not too distance future as this city continues to have a lot to offer the visitor.