Appreciating art at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

12 March 2016

Find out why Birmingham is a must-visit day out for fans of fine art.

Winston Churchill did not start to paint until he was 40. It was to become a passion of which he said “when I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject.” Modest about his abilities, one of his works sold for £1.8 million in 2014.

Whether you take up brushes, or prefer to lose yourself in the art of others, exploring and appreciating art is one of life’s great pleasures. However, ask what art is and you may be surprised by the answer. For some it will be an impressionist masterpiece, for others Tracey Emin’s famous bed. You may find it in Another Place, standing among Antony Gormley’s enigmatic iron men gazing out to sea, or in the ‘blue period’ of Picasso. Wherever and whatever art may mean to you, this country is blessed with some marvellous galleries in which to enjoy it.

Great art in our cities

Collections can in found in many major cities including Liverpool with its Tate and Walker art galleries, Bath with the Holburne Museum, and the beautiful Bowes Museum close to Durham. 

Perhaps one of the best-known however, is Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, home to the world’s most important public collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. This collection of some 3,000 drawings, prints and paintings, together with decorative arts, chronicles the famous ‘Brotherhood’ who changed the face of art in Britain. It includes such paintings as Prosperine and Beata Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Star of Bethlehem by Burne Jones, and Frederick Sandys’ Morgan Le Faye, providing glimpses into the initially secretive world of the Pre-Raphaelites. Fans of the period will also be keen to visit Wightwick Manor – a house of the Aesthetic Movement now owned by the National Trust and containing an important collection of Pre-Raphaelite, and Arts and Crafts Movement, works of art.

Birmingham’s collection of decorative arts shines equally brightly, one of its brightest stars being The Staffordshire Hoard. Discovered in 2009, the hoard comprises the largest collection of Anglo Saxon gold ever discovered and includes sword hilts, jewellery and helmet decorations, all wonderful examples of the art of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith.

From Bellini to Epstein

Birmingham’s art treasures do not stop there however and fortunately ‘time travel’ is easy in terms of art. Simply head to The New Art Gallery in nearby Walsall to step forward into the 20th-century world of Epstein and Freud. The gallery’s contemporary design is an explosion of light and space where you can also enjoy works by impressionists such as Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir, later works by painters including Pierre Bonnard and Robert Delaunay, sculpture and exhibits of local interest.

For lovers of the 18th century and earlier, a visit to Birmingham University’s Barber Institute of Fine Arts may be just the thing. Here you’ll find paintings by Reynolds, Gainsborough and Lancret, alongside earlier works by Veronese and Bellini, and later pieces by Degas and Whistler. Housed in a splendid Art Deco building, the Institute also has a fine Byzantine coin collection.

Birmingham’s cultural heritage

Birmingham became known as the ‘city of a thousand trades’ during the 18th and 19th century. While its industrial base may have altered over time, its host of listed buildings, museums, parks and gardens as well as shops and restaurants, mean there is plenty to choose from in terms of art, architecture and culture. After a busy day, the cathedral provides a perfect retreat where you can take time out to marvel at the stained glass windows, designed by Burne-Jones and manufactured by the firm of William Morris and Co.

Enjoying objects of beauty – be they paintings, drawings, sculpture or artefacts – can be like a breath of fresh air, energising, uplifting and thought-provoking all at the same time. Fortunately, you don’t have to necessarily travel abroad to enjoy them. With its good transport links, a fascinating heritage and some wonderful galleries and art treasures, Birmingham is waiting… for you.

Special Interests Holiday Creator Tremaine Moore recently visited Birmingham – here’s what he found

‘Despite being mid-winter, the Birmingham Art Gallery was pleasingly crowded. Its art collection is truly world class and for me – and I’m sure for many others – the highlight was the Pre-Raphaelite collection. Wandering through the galleries, I was transfixed by Burne-Jones’ watercolour The Star of Bethlehem, its size (it was the largest watercolour of the 19th century) and beauty taking my breath away. Commissioned by the Corporation of Birmingham in 1887 for the then new Museum and Art Gallery, it has remained here and for me represents part of the city and museum’s heritage. Before we left, we looked at the glittering Staffordshire Hoard, which is definitely not to be missed, and then ended with a visit to the beautifully renovated Edwardian tearooms where loose tea was served!’

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