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Art review: the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

05 June 2020

While galleries are shut, Nicholas Cranfield considers two of them

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Matthias Stom (c.1600-after 1652), Isaac Blessing Jacob, c.1635

Matthias Stom (c.1600-after 1652), Isaac Blessing Jacob, c.1635

THE story of art in Birmingham is the tale of two galleries of international standing: the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, in Edgbaston, and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, housing the country’s leading collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and much of the seventh-century Staffordshire Hoard, shared with The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

A recent trip to the Barber (Arts, 20/27 December 2019) reminded me of the breadth of the University’s collection. Here in Jacopo Bellini’s earliest signed work of St Jerome in the Wilderness (c.1450), the scholar catechises his pet lion, who sits obediently in front of him; his cupped paw from which Jerome had removed the thorn, Androcles-like, is held out in front of his tawny body like a supplicant at mass. A broad landscape opens out beyond the craggy shelter of Jerome’s cave-study and an improbable Jerusalem perches like a north Italian hill town in the far distance.

In stark contrast, in a darkened interior scene, lit only by an unseen single bedside candle, Mathias Stom offers a conspiratorial reading of Isaac Blessing Jacob (c.1635). Rebecca stands between the virtually blind, bed-ridden patriarch and his youngest son, who proffers a dish of game on a pewter platter. Dressed in his brother Esau’s finery, with a slashed silken doublet and feathered cap, the young brother betrays a hesitancy in his eyes as if he is dubious of his mother’s scheming on his behalf (Genesis 27.15).

Mattia Preti (1613-99) painted The Martyrdom of St Peter (c.1656) in Naples for a Flemish merchant trading there. In common with the taste of the Counter-Reformation for celebrating the triumph of faith in the face of death, Ferdinand van den Eynde (1584-1630) also commissioned his Beheading of St Paul (Houston) and The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew (Manchester, New Hampshire).

The inventory taken at his death, which lists works by Rubens (Herod’s Banquet, Edinburgh) and Paul Bril, allowed his collection and that of his brother to be shown in a remarkable exhibition last year (Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples).

Equally brutal, and eerie as it seems to take place outside time, is a later version of The Beheading of St John which Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1870. Within five years, such works would be ridiculed by the swath cut by the so-called Impressionists; but there is nothing rigid in the classicised forms of the three figures. The Baptist kneels in the centre of the canvas in front of a tree as the executioner takes aim, raising his scimitar over his left shoulder. At the palace side door stands the daughter of Herodias, holding a platter in one hand. Only she could countermand the order fired by her mother’s jealousy.

In the city centre in Chamberlain Square, it is the Pre-Raphaelites that dominate the art collection, which includes many widely reproduced works. The Long Engagement (originally called Orlando) by Arthur Hughes, in which a curate and his fiancée stand in a woodland grove (1854-59), and The Travelling Companions by Augustus Leopold Egg (1862) need little introduction.

AlamyThe Long Engagement by Arthur Hughes (1853-66), in the City Art Gallery, Birmingham

Both John Poynter (1836-1919), first Slade Professor of Art and later President of the Royal Academy, who had formed his academic style while living in Rome and Paris in the 1850s, and the secularist Ford Madox Brown (Moncure Conway gave the oration at his funeral in 1893) are also represented here.

Poynter clambered up into the bell tower of St Mark’s in Venice to view the city from its topmost loggia. He presumably decided to turn an earlier sketch into a painting — The Bells of St Mark’s is dated 1903 — after the spectacular collapse of the campanile in July the previous year. His paint captures the translucent lagoon light with a force rarely managed by non-indigenous painters.

Brown’s painting is maddeningly contrived. In his 1864 Elijah and the Widow’s Son, the prophet descends a perilously steep outdoor stone staircase, cradling the newly awakened lad into life but unable to see his own footing. At the foot of the stairwell, the waiting widow of Zarephath kneels (1 Kings 17.8-24) in front of the open door of her home, around the portal of which is inscribed the Shema Israel (Deuteronomy 6.4-9).

We glimpse a swallow’s shadow (symbolic of resurrection) flying towards its nesting box, which is a bottle immured high in the wall, while, in the yard below, is a chicken and her chick, further signs of new life. The image became widely popular through a later print.

Since 1975, the gallery has owned The Raising of Lazarus, a strong Mannerist work by the North Italian artist Giovanni Girolamo Muziano (1532-92). Leaving Brescia after a few years’ study in Venice, by 1550 he moved to Rome, where he cut something of a figure: an early biographer, Andrea Fei, reported that he had shaved not only his beard, but his entire head, too, “which made him look like a galley slave”.

His determined study of “not only the antiquities and best modern works of Rome but of nature as well” (in the words of another biographer, Giovanni Baglione) won him immediate attention. His work was admired by the ageing Michelangelo, and he was commissioned by Ippolito d’Este to paint frescoes for the family villa at Tivoli and the Roman palace of the Quirinale, where to this day they attest to his inventiveness and ability.

At his death, he left his houses in Rome and all the paintings in his studio to be sold for the benefit of the city’s art guild, the Academy of St Luke, and the inventory makes for fascinating reading.

Muziano painted a larger-scale narrative of Lazarus (295 x 440cm) around 1555 at Subiaco. That painting, which is now in the Vatican Museums, had hung for a time above his grave in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo and was then transferred to the Quirinale. In it, Muziano included some forty or fifty figures, crowded into a vast ruinous pagan basilica. The stone hewn square tomb offers a central void.

In the tighter composition in Birmingham, which owes something to the artist’s knowledge of both Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, Jesus stands to one side, his right hand raised in phatic utterance as he commands Lazarus to new life.

Two of his companions have stripped the young man bare of all his shroud, but for a head cloth and a loincloth. Mary and Martha’s brother is exposed, as if prefiguring the naked figure at Calvary. Jesus looks compassionately at his friend, and his searching gaze suggests that he sees in him his own forthcoming death.

These and other paintings in the collections can be explored here:



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