Picture Galleries outside London: The Barber Institute, Birmingham

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Picture Galleries outside London: The Barber Institute, Birmingham


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


Edgbaston is a seemly suburb of Birmingham, almost out of sight of the tower-blocks and smoke-stacks, the gas-holders and Victorian spires, which share the sky-line of the red-brick and concrete inner city. The Barber Institute lies there, tawny and crouching as an heraldic lion. Although designed in the 1930s, the building is comely and modestly classical on the outside. Inside, it is as ample and spacious as the University campus on the edge of which it stands, and its long corridors and bays are loaded with treasure. A statue of a mounted grandee (King George I, in fact) dominates the entrance, but no grandee founded the Barber Institute. It is the memorial Lady Barber raised to honour her husband, Sir Henry Barber, a local solicitor and entrepreneur who could hardly have been more magnificently commemorated. The pictures were not collected by the Barbers themselves but bought, for many years on the advice of Thomas Bodkin, from Lady Barber's bequest.

For the sake of coherence, the pictures will be mentioned for the most part according to school and period, although they are hung, sometimes ingeniously, sometimes surprisingly, with a disregard of history. One juxtaposition in particular is well-calculated. Giovanni Bellini's portrait, exquisite in its spare geometry, of a young boy with softly hazel eyes and hair gains from the contrast with its neighbour, Christopher Amberger's stem old burgher, hard-surfaced as the gemstones on his griping fingers. The Barber Institute is not rich in paintings of the Northern Renaissance, and this minor work is its only German picture of the period. The Institute is more liberal now than at its inception, when it was open only on weekdays and visitors not members of the University, or their friends, had to apply at the door for admission, so one hopes that the National Art Collections Fund will help fill a gap or two.

Among the earliest paintings in the gallery is Simone Martini's half-length St John the Evangelist. The distraught face of the evangelist suggests that the panel is part of a small triptych of which a Man of Sorrows formed the centre. The grief-laden picture is trimly drawn and lacks Martini's usual clutter of ornament, although the Byzantine tradition persists in the narrow eyes and thin hooked nose. That tradition, present even in the frescoes of Giotto, and broken only by Sassetta among the early Sienese painters, is perpetuated, although in the age of the Bellinis, by another Sienese, Matteo di Giovanni, in his Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist. The Baptist here is not represented in the usual way as his cousin Jesus's playfellow but, presagefully, as the haggard prophet executed by Herod.

Cosimo Rosselli is a painter little known or esteemed in this country, although he painted frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. His work is exemplified in the Barber Institute by his Adoration of the Infant Jesus, in which he exploits the arresting effect, learnt from his master Gozzoli, of figures arranged in circles around the object of their, and therefore our, attention. The Magi and a bystanding shepherd are joined (with the significant anachronism which led Matteo di Giovanni to portray the infant Jesus with an adult St John) by Ss. Jerome, Francis and Benedict. Everyone, including each magus, has a halo. Above them God descends in a rosette of red-winged cherubim, presumably derived from Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi, painted about forty years earlier, in the Uffizi gallery. The whole is more theatrical than dramatic. Rosselli's pupil, Piero di Cosimo, painted less meticulously but with greater force. In Rosselli himself, technique is a surrogate for inspiration.

The fussy intertwining and twisted ribbons of The Madonna and Child with St John (replicated in reverse in the Pitti Palace in Florence) from Botticelli's Studio have affinities with those in the studio versions in the Glasgow Civic Museum and the Christ Church Gallery in Oxford, which may be by Botticelli's pupil Sellaio, but if the Barber Madonna is by Sellaio, the lurid colours suggest that it is one of his juvenile works. …

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