THE ART GALLERY IN BIRMINGHAMCategory: Architecture + Painting
I entered the Corporation Art Gallery and Museum, of which I had heard a good deal. The Director of the Gallery assured me that Birmingham had always had its craftsmen too and proved it by showing me case after case of local silver ware, some of it of tasteless design but all of it admirably executed. He also showed me some drawings done by young students —- one of them only a boy of fifteen — at the local school of art; and these were surprisingly good. He assured me too that Birmingham could be very generous towards its Gallery and Museum.
There were two .cases of exquisite Chinese porcelain, and he told me that the necessary sum — I think it was between two and three thousand pounds to buy these objects of art, which are quite useless and will never declare a dividend, had been raised in a few days. Oddly enough two other cases of Chinese porcelain, equally exquisite, had been left to the Museum by a famous comedian, whose jests about Birmingham’s prudery I still remember. The picture Gallery is famous for its wealth of examples from two English schools, the old water-colourists and the Pre-Raphaelites. I did not spend much time with the Pre-Raphaelite collection, which is particularly rich in drawings, because I get very little pleasure these days from the work of Burne-Jones and his friends.
I was fascinated, as I always am, by Ford Madox Brown, who was not really a Pre-Raphaelite, and whose best work always seems to me to have an odd magical quality of its own. Perhaps the secret lies in its queer mixture of realism and the fantastic. You stare at his emigrants and workmen until it all goes eerie and you begin to feel that somebody, probably Ford Madox Brown himself, is looking at you through the canvas. Actually, if he were, he would be better of than you in this gallery, which is spaciously contrived and well built but badly lit, with more honest daylight falling on the floor than ever reaches the walls.
It is probably good and proper that Birmingham should accumulate Pre-Raphaelite works of art, which is so entirely different from itself that their very presence together is sufficient to prove the rich breadth of this world. But for my part, I like life and art to be neither Birmingham nor Burne-Jones, but to travel on the honest roads that march between the deacons in counting houses, on the one side, and the drooping maidens in hot-houses on the other. In fact I like life and art to have much more in common with that other school of painting so well represented here, that of the good old English water-colourists, who, whatever their private lives may have been, always impress me as being about the happiest set of men who ever lived in this country. They wandered about while the countryside was still unspoiled, they saw everything worth seeing; and what they saw they turned into enchanting bits of drawing and watercolour painting. They are the equivalent in visual art of our lyric poets. God created them while there was yet time, to catch the lovely old England in line and wash, to open some little windows on to it for ever. Their very names, Turner, Girtin, Gotman, Cox, Varley Bonington, are like the names of villages and apples.
They have more of Cox’s water-colours here in Birmingham than you can find anywhere else; they are not all good, for nearly all these industrious fellows were very unequal; but the best of them would make a man shout for pleasure if he were not in a picture gallery, which I take to be a place where we never raise our voices. It is the great weakness of visual art that it must be largely sought for in these inhuman institutions, where you can’t lounge and smoke and argue, and where you unconsciously begin to tiptoe until very soon your feet and legs ache. I had the luck, however, to get into a part of the gallery temporarily closed to the general public, and there a friendly curator fished out some lovely specimens of Girtin and Cotman and De Wint. They have there a little Harvest Scene by De Wint — a tiny wagon or two, then a glorious melting distance of rolling country and sky — that I should dearly like somebody to steal for me. It lit up my morning. All the years between Peter De Wint and myself were annihilated in a flash. He pointed and I saw, he spoke and I heard; and his mood, felt on that autumn day long ago, was mine. Whatever cloud of gloom covers Birmingham in my memory, I have only to recollect that corner of its gallery, to recall that stipple and wash of paint on a bit of board, and my memory is touched with colour, warmth, vivid life. How many people have already felt that about one little picture there, and how many people have still to have the experience? And how many pounds were paid for that water-colour?
There is a nice little sum waiting to be worked out by some ingenious person. The result, I think, would prove that Birmingham,— or any other city with a decent art gallery — can disburse enchantment at less than a penny a head. At the entrance to this art gallery and museum, they put up daily the returns of visitors. The recent average was about eight hundred a day on weekdays, with a sudden leap into thousands on Sundays: This is not, I was told, because Birmingham has a passion for art on Sunday afternoon, but because then all the young people promenade up and down the galleries, not looking at the pictures but at one another. Apollo has to serve Venus. But what of it? The boys and girls have to begin mating somewhere, and they could obviously begin their acquaintance in much worse places. And you never know. A picture will occasionally catch an eye, then hold it; and so the old leaven of art will start working. There may be new masterpieces presented to this gallery in twenty years time because a boy and girl were promenading and “clicking” there last Sunday afternoon.
(From English Journey J. B. Priestley)