Turning to See

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Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery currently have a free exhibition called ‘Turning to See‘. It’s a novel premise, but it’s well worth exploring. Curated by John Stezaker, its centrepiece is Van Dyck’s splendid last self-portrait, which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery with the Art Fund. It’s now touring the country so that everyone has a chance to see it – and I do suggest you take the opportunity, if you can. As it travels, the portrait will be part of a number of different exhibitions, many of which will relate to portraiture, I imagine. BMAG’s exhibition is creative and unusual in its approach: ‘the display will create a spectacle of turning in the gallery and will mirror the way the viewer moves around the space’, and one does feel watched, moving around and looking at the pictures, many of which look back at you. This effect is heightened when you visit at a quiet time: it’s just you and lots of people looking back.

‘Turning to See’ is a deliberately ambiguous title. The exhibition notes suggest both turning as pose, and turning as metamorphosis. The transformational effects of pose are apparent here, as the subjects turn towards or away from the viewer. I was fascinated by how this raised my awareness of pose in portraiture: not all of these are natural poses, though some are casually glancing at their audience, while  James Jefferys, in this self-portrait, below, appears to be looking up with annoyance at whoever has come to disturb him. A turn to see, of course, is always a pause, a disruption of previous activities, the opportunity to see something new or rethink things. Art should be like that.


Me interrupting James Jefferys at the opening of the exhibition

Van Dyck himself, in this very immediate and powerful self-portrait, is posed formally, his posture slightly uncomfortable, but looking very much the man in charge of the exhibition, while others seem to be turning to deliberately avoid looking directly at the viewer. Burne-Jones’s Phyllis and Demophoon demonstrates a much more physical turning (without clothes on) while Rossetti’s Proserpine is mournfully turning her eyes away. image1

There are quite a lot of Pre-Raphaelite works here, including this wonderful portrait of Jane Morris, awkwardly turning, looking somehow both completely natural and also splendidly posed. (My picture here isn’t great, but I quite like the post-modern juxtaposition of Jane Morris with the reflection of me holding up my iPad!) There’s also a sketch for Rossetti’s Found, in which the ‘turning’ both indicates the metamorphosis of a respectable woman into a fallen one, and a turning away in remorse and anguish. Rossetti’s sketch for Orpheus and Eurydice also appears, as does Arthur Hughes’s beautiful ‘Study of a Girl’s Head’, the picture of innocence, unlike Rossetti’s disdainful ‘Portrait of Ada Vernon’, whose turning posture suggests she is looking rather snootily at you.

John Stezaker also has a few of his own works here, which are photo-collages and indicate both the physical turn and also metamorphosis: merging film portraits, the works indicate a blurring of boundaries of gender and space. Man Ray’s striking portrait of Lee Miller almost obliterates her, focusing on a length of exposed neck as she turns away. The exhibition space is surveyed rather grandly by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s imposing bronze Alfred Wolmark, who is turning to have a closer look at Van Dyck. Posture, I think, brings out character and narrative, speaking without words to tell the viewer what is really going on. This effect s intensified here, though, because these portraits are encouraged, by their positioning and juxtapositions, to interact with us and with each other, across the centuries, across countries. There is much to be considered here: it has made me think about portraiture more carefully, but it is also a playful exhibition which challenges our notions about portraits, people and the gaze.

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Hidden treasures in the archive

Recently I seem to have had a lot of sneak previews of things I find exciting. Last week, I visited the Art & Design archives at Birmingham City University (where I work). The contents include the Birmingham School of Art archives, and the archivist had contacted me to say:

We have some 60+ historical studies, a large number of which are of medieval scenes with a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence. However, we also have examples of stained glass designs, designs for metalwork and jewellery, illustrated books, calligraphy and greetings card designs that show just how influential the Arts and Crafts tradition was at the School of Art in the late nineteenth century.

This was enough for me to be very keen, but the contents are broader than this:

Our largest collection is the School of Art’s own archive, which contains a significant number of student artworks in a wide variety of genres, including metalwork, jewellery and stained glass designs, mind and memory drawings, exercises in creating patterns, illustrated books, calligraphy, work produced by students of the School of Printing under the direction of Leonard Jay, fashion designs and botanical illustrations as well as examples of fine art – portraits, life drawings, historical studies featuring medieval legends, etc. The collection is strongest for the Arts and Crafts period, i.e. 1880-1920. We also have a large collection of London Transport posters which have already attracted the attention of colleagues from Visual Communication.

I was really struck by the amazing breadth of works by Florence Camm. Clearly a great deal of her work was preserved for some reason, and there were numerous sketches and cartoons for stained glass (for which she is most famous). A true daughter of the city, living in Smethwick throughout her long life (1874-1960), she was born into a family of stained-glass makers, and despite being a woman was encouraged to study, work and exhibit, which she did prolifically. The Birmingham Municipal School of Art, as it was then, was receptive to female students and permitted her more or less the same opportunities as the male students. The works of hers in the archives demonstrate her growing skills at draughtsmanship – you can see how she struggles with certain aspects of her drawings, for examples, and how over time she improves. Camm’s wonderful stained glass can be seen at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (see below: the Dante and Beatrice windows) as well as in churches across the West Midlands.

The strong Pre-Raphaelite influence on her work can be seen here, as in her other works, though some seem to be gesturing towards a more Modernist approach.

There are some wonderful calligraphic pieces by unknown students, with illuminated letters (annoyingly I don’t have images to share); many of the quotations are from Ruskin, Shelley and Tennyson, and the ornate borders, gold leaf overlaid for a 3-dimensional effect, are startling to see, their colours still strikingly bright. I’m also interested to know that there are photographs of student life in the early 20th century, including a wonderful common room (sketches of designs for the walls are also in the archive, and they are beautiful period pieces).

More information about the archives, including how to book a visit, can be found here. Do go and see them if you’re interested; there is so much scope for new research to be done here. There is also a brilliant blog about the different ways the archive has been used in teaching and research.


Florence Camm, Preliminary drawing and colour scheme for stained glass design featuring the story of the Prodigal Son, 1901.

E R Hughes: Painting Poetry

Night with her Train of Stars

Night with her Train of Stars

I mentioned in my previous post on the ‘Enchanted Dreams’ exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that Edward Hughes was inspired by a number of poems. I’m really interested in the interactions between art and literature, and how poetry and painting are often entwined. For the Pre-Raphaelites, many of whom were known to Hughes, poetry and painting were ‘sister arts’, mutually inspirational, and their painting is often very literary – sometimes narrative, usually symbolic, often very detailed so that it can be ‘read’. Many of their paintings were directly inspired by poetry, and of course several Pre-Raphaelites wrote poetry too, most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose poems and paintings go hand in hand.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hughes was inspired by contemporary poets in his work. He tends, however, to take a much less narrative approach than many of the Pre-Raphaelite-affiliated painters, and instead produces something which captures a feeling or a mood, inspired by an image from the painting, perhaps. He is, however, still interested in symbolism, in drawing on a wider web of intertextual references, whilst offering an image that is also very concerned with aesthetics. I find this fascinating: when we read, we ‘see’ in our mind’s eye. When a painting is inspired by a poem, are we seeing the artist’s mind’s eye? How does this affect our reading of the literary work – do we then ‘see’ it differently?

Oh what's that in the Hollow...?

Oh what’s that in the Hollow…?

Although I’m very familiar with Christina Rossetti’s work, the ways in which I ‘see’ her poem ‘Amor Mundi’ is very influenced by Hughes’s Oh What’s that in the Hollow…? ‘Amor Mundi’ is inspired by the traditional Rossettian theme that life is a struggle but we should embrace that struggle or risk damnation. The poem is written in a rapidly moving irregular metre, describing a couple following a downhill path which, metaphorically, leads to Hell. Signs appear along the way to warn them – ‘a meteor … dumb, portentous’, ‘a scaled and hooded worm’, and, finally, ‘in the hollow’, ‘a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.’ It is this last omen which Hughes paints; the painting was unpopular when first exhibited, considered macabre and lacking in explanation, but read in conjunction with Rossetti’s poem it is literally a symbol of the fate which awaits us – a memento mori. The couple see the signs, but determinedly ignore them to the last, even when one of them realises the destination of the path. Hughes’s depiction of the body, pale and emaciated, the eyes half closed in death, surrounded by thorny briar roses which ironically echo Burne-Jones’s Sleeping Beauty, is an imaginative recreation of Rossetti’s image, adding a vicious-looking raven to add to the discomfiting picture. Yet the image also suggests that the body is reclaimed by nature, seeming almost to sink into the earth as the leaves grow over it. The painting is very much in keeping with the poem, which is rich in visual description despite its metaphorical nature.

One of Hughes’s most famous paintings, Night with her Train of Stars, above right, is influenced by a much less famous poem, William Ernest Henley’s ‘Margaritae Sorori‘ (To my Sister Margaret). Henley is now mostly remembered as the poet of ‘Invictus’, but was a prolific and influential writer, critic and editor in his time. Once again this is a visually rich poem, glowing with colours ‘luminous and serene’. It is descriptive of a time and place, opening with birdsong watching the sun fade: the poem begins by drawing on the senses to appreciate the scene, but it becomes clear by the end of the poem that the senses are  fading: this is a poem about death, and the narrator’s desire for a peaceful end which is reminiscent of Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’. The painting, so often reproduced that it can be seen as sentimental or chocolate-box (unfairly, in my view), depicts ‘Night with her train of stars/And her great gift of sleep’ – this is, in essence, the Angel of Death, gently folding an infant in her arms, her finger to her lips as she hushes the cherubim who throng round her. The colours of the painting are as beautiful as those of the poem, indicating a monochromatic scale of blues with the pinpoints of light which Hughes painted so beautifully, and capturing the essence of a peaceful night. Night scatters poppies, symbolising sleep, and it is eternal sleep which she brings.

Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi

A very different literary engagement can be found in Hughes’s remarkable portrait, ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, inspired by Browning’s poem of the same name. Hughes’s red chalk portrait is minutely detailed, appearing photographic at first sight, which offers a pleasing parallel with the nuanced and equally descriptive poem. ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ is one of Browning’s wonderful dramatic monologues, in which we learn a great deal about the speaker, through his garrulous explanation of himself and his actions. Brother Lippo is a reluctant monk, who took his vows through necessity rather than conviction, and remains there for a place to live. His character shines through in the poem as he describes his exploits to attempt to excuse himself after being stopped by the police outside a brothel – his amorous adventures and also his painting are explained; and his character is equally present in Hughes’s work. The combination of poem and painting here provides a great back-and-forth of ideas in art and literature. Browning’s monk says that he ‘made a string of pictures of the world/Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,’ when describing his painting, indicating these twin arts of word and paint, art and poetry. He says that he must ‘Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!’ And it is the soul, perhaps, of a vivacious, energetic monk trying to escape the bondage of the monastery, that Hughes has painted: his Fra Lippo doesn’t look at the viewer, but just past us, as though already moving on to the next thing. Though the young man in the drawing looks in repose, there is a life to his face that suggest he may at any moment begin to regale passers-by.In the poem, he argues his case for realism, for attempting to paint people as they are, for looking closely in order to paint the very essence of life (which reflects the fast-paced realism of Browning’s verse, too), and this is just what Hughes has done, too; he has produced a portrait that the fictional Fra Lippo would have been proud of.


Exhibition Review: Enchanted Dreams

1915 P100The new exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E. R. Hughes’ is the first ever exhibition entirely focused on Hughes’s work. Though some of his paintings, especially ‘Night with her Train of Stars’ (1912), are reasonably well-known, his work tends to be overlooked. BMAG own quite a few, but many more have been assembled here from far and wide, and the exhibition draws out aspects of his work which are not always obvious from the few one usually sees. Not to be confused with Arthur Hughes (his uncle), Edward Robert Hughes was also associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, having been brought up among his uncle’s Pre-Raphaelite friends, and these associations have clear implications for his work which are evident in the exhibition. There is a good effort at providing some of this Pre-Raphaelite context in some of the other works included in the exhibition, by Arthur Hughes (‘The Long Engagement’) and Simeon Solomon (‘Bacchus’), for example. Hughes is perhaps most famous for his ‘tCanzianiwilight’ paintings, of which more later, but his earliest known work, ‘Evensong’, already indicates his interest in the effect of twinkling lights in painting, and the shadows cast by light. Though this domestic scene is perhaps a little sentimental, even immature, it is still beautiful, and shows the promise of his work.

Hughes’s early career as a portrait painter is explored, demonstrating how his works are considerably more than pot-boilers: the double portraits of the Gray Hills, for example, are rich in every sense, depicting a well-fed, middle-aged wealthy couple, and yet in their debts to earlier styles of work, the richness of colour used and the evident complexity of the relationship between the couple, the painter and the viewer, these suggest a psychological intensity which a jobbing painter doesn’t usually manage. Similarly, those of children, such as ‘Dolly Francis’, are unsentimentalised, managing to both respect the conventions of Victorian portraiture of children whilst permitting the child her individuality, staring unsmiling at the viewer. Hughes’s influence on Estella Canziani is mentioned, with the portrait of a woman in mourning costume (right) on display: her portraits of figures in folk dress made on her European travels are a fascinating example of the art of an intrepid woman of the period.

Hughes_OhWhatsThatintheHollow_highresHughes’s engagement with literature also interests me. ‘Study for a Picture: Fra Lippo Lippi’ is a wonderful, red chalk portrait with a remarkable life to it, inspired by Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’. The realistic style advocated in the poem is echoed in the portrait, and the idiosyncratic and dramatic character of Browning’s monk shines through the eyes of Hughes’s work. Similarly, ‘Oh What’s that in the Hollow’ (left) is based on Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Amor Mundi’, reminding the reader/viewer of the transience of life, and that to neglect the spiritual aspects of life is to risk eternal damnation. The painting is peculiarly macabre, the figure clearly corpse-like, and overgrown with brambles and briar roses, indicating the continuation of the world in the face of human mortality.

“Oh what is that glides quickly where velvet flowers grow thickly,
   Their scent comes rich and sickly?”—“A scaled and hooded worm.”
“Oh what’s that in the hollow, so pale I quake to follow?”
   “Oh that’s a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.”ERHughes_MidsummersEve_lores

For many the highlight of the exhibition will be the ‘Blue Room’ of late watercolours, containing not only ‘Night with her Train of Stars’ but also ‘Midsummer’s Eve’ (right). Here, the majority of the paintings are in beautiful blue tones, with Hughes’s signature spots of light giving a dreamy, twilight feel to the whole room. Mostly painted in the early days of the twentieth century, the aesthetic approach of the paintings suggests, nostalgically, a  lost innocence in the years before the First World War. Though a few are ‘fairy pictures’, the exhibition as a whole indicates that Hughes is much more than a painter of sentimental fairies; his technical and emotional as well as aesthetic accomplishment is manifest in this exhibition which, finally, does him credit as an artist.

Incidentally, I attended the exhibition this week with a large number of students (I’ll blog about this another time!) who were equally drawn to Hughes’s work, in very different ways; they are writing creative responses to some of the paintings, which I’ll share on here in a few weeks’ time. There is also a fun ‘Fairy Glen’ for children visiting the exhibition!

Wonderland in Birmingham

IMG_2161Usually when I visit Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) I go straight to the Pre-Raphaelite collection and stay there, occasionally popping to see the Staffordshire Hoard. So it made a nice change for me to visit and have a guided tour of some exhibits which opened in 2015. BMAG contains an outstanding international collection of artworks, but it is also very much a Birmingham institution which has been at the heart of Birmingham cultural life since it opened in 1885. It is host not only to an enormous range of works displayed in over forty galleries, it is also housed in a remarkable and beautiful building which is testament to the redbrick expansion of Victorian Birmingham – and a lot goes on there, including a wide range of events, for families, for artists, for anyone interested in looking at art, learning more about the city, or just exploring. The revamped Edwardian tearooms also do delicious cream teas! Here are some of the highlights.

The Baroque galleries, which opened quite recently, contain all the drama and emotion of the period. Seventeenth-century Europe was religious, but also fascinated by narratives, by people, by aesthetics – and consequently many of the Southern European paintings present the human face of religious
drama. The colour and emotion of the pictures here is fascinating, though I must admit it’s not my favourite period; however, the combination of saintly figures given a human aspect (such as Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus, watched by a donkey) with the dramatic tableau structure, is impressive. The Dutch interiors, by way of complete contrast, are domestic, dark, quiet and peaceful: religious paintings were considered blasphemous in the Protestant Netherlands so their restrained focus was on everyday scenes around them. I love the structure of the church, below right, with its cool dim recesses and flawless, incorruptible pillars.

Gentileschi, 'Rest on the Flight into Egypt', 1621

Gentileschi, ‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’, 1621

Nickelen, 'Interior of St Bavo', c1660

Nickelen, ‘Interior of St Bavo’, c1660

The Birmingham People gallery offers a very different experience. Here, there are many people, moving in streams through video installations, or depicted in photographs or portraits. The focus is on real Birmingham people rather than dignitaries, hence the marvellous 1929 portrait of the ratcatcher, in a formal, IMG_2181posed portrait with rats. Another aspect of the city is depicted in Donald Rodney’s ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, with coins furring up in a tower: it indicates the soured hopes of many immigrants who found their new home not everything they had hoped – yet it’s both aesthetically beautiful andIMG_2179 intriguing. There is also a display on change in Birmingham, which includes a model of the Rotunda which projects photographs of the city as well as images of Spaghetti Junction and a painting of the Birmingham Grand Prix, which took place from 1986-90.

The Room of Dreams is a contemporary jewellery installation; BMAG has been acquiring significant modern jewellery since it opened, and is continuing this heritage, which is particularly important in light of the proximity of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. This work is considered Wendy Ramshaw’s masterpiece, and is inspired by her childhood, by fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, Kafka, Shakespeare, and by Gothic, and is wide open to interpretation. My small son was fascinated by the unsittable-on chair, and the jewels and strange but somehow beautiful pieces which hung from the walls or stood in cases. It’s a little exhibition in itself and yet as an installation it all coheres, strangely, in a topsy-turvy world which unexpectedly provides nonsensical links – just like Wonderland, in fact.

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The Vanity of Small Differences

PerryUntil May 11th, Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ is at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (as it’s touring the UK). I watched the TV programme ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’, and was fascinated by Perry’s irreverent (but also benign) take on the small, aesthetic markers of taste and class in Britain, and the underlying cultural assumptions which these little signs denote. The tapestries stand alone, of course, but it is particularly appealing to see the people and objects he encountered depicted in these large tapestries. The series (six in total) is modelled on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, in which the anti-hero goes from rich to poor by wasting his money, eventually dying poor and mad. Perry’s approach traces characters through class as well as life-stages, taking the opposite approach to Hogarth  (from ‘The Adoration of the Cage Fighters’ to ‘The Upper Class at hogarthBay’), and is highly intertextual and allusive, drawing on religious imagery, historic paintings, contemporary class markers (Willow Pattern wallpaper, anyone?) as well as the characters from the documentary.

The Art Fund website explains in Perry’s own words why he feels this is an important as well as interesting subject: ‘The tapestries tell the story of class mobility, for I think nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up. I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the history of popular design, but for this project I focus on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive. Class and taste run deep in our character – we care. This emotional charge is what draws me to a subject.’

In looking at taste, class and social mobility (among other things), Perry touches on some serious subjects. The tapestries ask us graysonperrythevanityofsmalldifferencesmugs (1)what we worship if we do not worship God; how we find our place in the world; and how we can connect with other people who are different from us. The tapestries conjure modern life in all its beauty and ugliness, with a veneer of credibility given by the presence of familiar logos, objects and clothes. These are the kind of works one can stand in front of for a long time (if you’re not being jostled by the crowds!) noticing different things, seeing connections and disconnections, and wondering what society, class and taste actually mean in the twenty-first century. They may also make you smile, perhaps at a little joke, such as these mugs, or perhaps a little sadly.