When I am dispatched to different parts of Britain, I try if possible to see some art while I am there. Earlier this week I was in Birmingham, my meeting finished early so I had 40 minutes to dash round the Birmingham Museum. Not long enough but enough to whet my appetite.
The entrance can be found around the side of the impressive City hall which perches on one side of the equally impressive Victoria Square. Birmingham has benefited greatly from regeneration and is nicer every time I go there.
The entrance sweeps you up a marble staircase into a rotunda, with domed glassed ceiling , central angel statue and swathes of art on the wall. A grand, neigh august space and it gives you a taste of what is to come. There is a whole upstairs with Egyptian and other historical artifacts which I didn't have time to go round. Likewise the faith room attracted little of my attention.
The first room I came to was a selection of modern pottery which I have illustrated with this exceptionally poor photo (above left). Bear with me though they do get better.
Its a well set up museum with good sight lines (above right) and I was very pleasantly surprised particularly by the modern art collection they have. The first thing to pop out at me was this William Scott still life (below left). Very unlike the other work of his I have seen but a good strong colour composition. Sitting next to it was this very cooling, Ben Nicholson still life abstract (below right). Further on down the same wall are a fine pair of Lowrys, all stick figures and smoke (middle right) and at the end of the row a fine Pissaro, a delicate painting of a bridge in Ruen. I am glad I found this room. I spent large portion of my available 40 minutes in it.
Like all good museums among the pantheon of greats it introduces you to other artists whom you may not of heard of. Middle left below is a work by a guy called Ivon Hitchens called Tangled Pool No.9. I would like to see the other 8 (if indeed they exist). I like the red segment on the right and the stripe of white pops out of you. Below it is a strange alien creature by John Armstrong, called simply Lapping Waters. It is painted in egg tempura which is a novelty and particularly effective is the strongly textured sky.
Last November I went to see the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to come across a couple (top left and right) with his signature muted pallet and angular trees. His mic of abstraction and figurative painting greatly appeared although there was less of the outright weirdness that appears in his later paintings. The same mix, although in stronger colours appears in what turned out to be an early Braque still life (middle left). Completing the painting highlights of this spectacular room was a David Bomberg painting of Petra, quite unlike his usual style.
Not just paintings those there were sculptures like this enigmatic shiny Barbara Hepworth head (below right) and my first encounter with a live Grayson Perry in the form of an enormous earn with the ghastly heads painted on it and the metal plaque embossed on the side (below left).
Partly because it chimes with my tastes but mostly because it has some of the best stuff I enjoyed the first room most. I had to fairly scamper round the rest (although was arrested a few times).
I encountered what at first glance I thought was a Canelleto but turned out to be by a Michele Morleschi, it was hiding behind and to the left this rather fabulous ornate clock. Then, bottom right there was a restful superior landscape called the Skylark by a David someone (sorry I cannot read my notes of who). It is the sky I think, the burnished cloudscape, that most appeals. Then (below right) is a Pellegrinni one of the many great masters who also sounds like a cocktail, with Caeser before Alexandria. I like the flowing movement everything has.
The prize of the collection, as far as the museum is concerned is their collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Did you know there was a Birmingham School of Art that specialised in such things? So Rossetti and Millais all make an appearance. I was more interested in some of the other people.
Before you enter the Pre-Raphaelite section proper you are hit between the eyes by the sensational Silver and Gold (below, top left) by William Russel Flint. The picture top right is called Musica by Kate Brunce, nicely giving the lie to the word Brotherhood in Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The instrument is the star of the show in this piece. Then there is the winsome almost constipated people in the Long Engagement by Arthur Hughes. I particularly like the moss on the trees. Then there is the glowering portrait of Rossetti, who pleasingly looks exactly like you would imagine him to do, by William Hunt.
On the way back to the rotunda you pass a room dedicated to more contemporary art. There is an attractive central column called the Land of Milk and Honey II by Donald Rodney. Made of wood, congealed milk and cooper coins. The colour changes as you descend the column. It rewards circling it a few times.
Back to the Rotunda and the other passage way (below right) takes you into the gift shop and beyond that the Industrial Art section, where you have things like glass and pottery. I would have particularly liked to spend more time here but sadly the minutes had nearly all drained away.
My favourite painting in the National Portrait Gallery is of William de Morgan (you can see a small version of it below) by his wife Evelyn. I was left feeling surprisingly bereft when on a recent visit I found it was not on display. Subsequent inquiries revealed it was about to go on tour. So it was with a surprising amount of joy that I found a large collection of his pottery on display in the Birmingham Museum. Fine stuff it is to. I particularly like the red and white pottery and the iridescent turquoise stuff. Chance encounters like this are one of the particularly rewarding aspects of going to a museum. I hope the portrait stops off in Birmingham on its tour.
One of the impressive new additions to Birmingham is the new library (below right). I was immediately reminded of it when I encountered this painting (below right) called the Wall by Anwar Shemza. It is in any event a good painting, the coppery background setting off the metallic scroll work in front.
Currently, as you exit the museum you can see, over a construction site, the library. It is a sight line I hope they preserve. I do wonder if the designers were in any way influenced by the painting. I could find out but I prefer the mystery.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.