Sunday, 28 October 2012

Love and Death in Birmingham

Yesterday I had the jolly good fortune to find myself in Birmingham for the Pre-Raphaelite Society's Annual General Meeting, which is always a lovely opportunity to catch up with everyone and listen to a lecture, plus talk about Pre-Raphaelite art.  I love it, and everyone is always so friendly and enthusiastic it's a definite highlight of my Pre-Raphaelite year.

A rather splendid coincidence is that Birmingham is also home to a new exhibition entitled 'Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate'.  Well, while I was in Birmingham, I think it was inevitable that I would end up in the Museum and Art Gallery.  I have to admit it is one of my favourite collections anywhere, having an awful lot of material pertaining to Fanny Cornforth, and so toppling through the doors of the BMAG is never a hardship, but it's always nice if there is an added reason for a visit.  Plus, look what the headline image is...

The Lady of Shalott (1888) J W Waterhouse
I admit to having very high hopes, not least because this exhibition shares its name with one of my favourite exhibitions of recent years...

Brilliant exhibition from New South Wales, Australia

It might be a bit stereotypical to think of the Victorians as being obsessed with love and death, but it is the subject of some of the most outstanding works of the nineteenth century.  I'm sure each one of us could make a mental pick-list of what we would put in our own exhibition on these themes, especially when combining works from the Tate and Birmingham.

The exhibition is only two rooms and has no catalogue or booklet, but it is free of charge (as is the rest of the museum's galleries) so any comments I make in this review have to be backdropped by the fact that any chance to see these works is a privilege and to see them free is a joy.  I can never see The Lady of Shalott enough, it is astonishing in person and I never grow used to how beautiful she is in her lovely boat, with those  swooping birds and guttering candles.  Anyway, Room One....

Lieder Ohne Worte (1860-1)  Frederic, Lord Leighton
The first room is concerned with visions of classical, aesthetic beauty.  Here you can see that drape-y triumvirate of Moore, Alma-Tadema and Leighton with classical lady after classical lady.  All of them are amazing and a good many of them are without subject, like Leighton's painting above, with its apt title 'Songs without words'.  I do like a bit of Moore, so it was lovely to see these two...

The Dreamers Albert Moore
Sapphires (1877) Albert Moore
 All very splendid, but I think the highlight of the room has to be Alma-Tadema's Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to His Friends...

Phidias Showing the Frieze...(1868) Lawrence Alma-Tadema
The light effect on this work is astonishing, with the casting of shadows from the light warming the floor below, just seen.  The realistic depiction of the draped men, viewing the painted marble is breath-taking and I spent a goodly amount of time just staring at it, especially those two on the left.  Look how the strange light angle dazzles on their robes.  It seems a little odd to get so excited about someone's back, but the hands clasped behind the man on the right of the pair are perfect.

Other highlights are sketches by Walter Crane and Frederick Sandys, and a study by Charles Perugini, and other beautiful oils on the theme of classical beauty and ancient Greece and Rome.  And so to the second room....

Medea (1868) Frederick Sandys
The second room is much bigger, which is handy should you need to swoon with the loveliness of it all.  You stand less chance of smashing your head on anything.  The first few images are of sorceresses, including Medea and Morgan Le Fay by Frederick Sandys, and The Magic Circle by J W Waterhouse.  Also on display is a little sculpture, Circe by Edgar Mackennal...

Circe (1902-6) Edgar Mackennal
 You will know that since visiting the Tate's new exhibition I have become a little obsessed with Victorian sculpture and so I was delighted to see not only this one, but also a case containing three rather delicious gentlemen, Alfred Gilbert's Icarus and Perseus Arming and Leighton's Nude-y Athlete Gratuitously Grappling with a Python, You Know What They Say About A Man With A Big Python.  I spent a bit of time considering how important they were to art, if you know what I mean.

Anyhow, enough about my odd fixation on marble-y men.  The lefthand wall is dominated by the main event, The Lady of Shalott but beside it is a collection of other images to do with the poem, including this treat, by Arthur Joseph Gaskin...

'I am Half Sick of Shadows...'  (1888) Arthur Joseph Gaskin
I don't know a lot about Gaskin, but I want to know more now as this little drawing was exquisite, and the crowd of figures passing by the window as The Lady looks away were so detailed and fine.  Moving on from The Lady of Shalott (try explaining that to a six year old - 'She's going to die' 'Why?' 'Because she's doomed,' 'Why?' 'Because she looked out of her window,' 'But that's silly...' 'Well, yes....') they also have Saint Eulalia by Waterhouse which is a miracle in perspective (I've never gotten my head around foreshortening and all that stuff, but it's very effective) and huge and next door is G F Watts' The All-Pervading...

The All-Pervading G F Watts
This begins a run of pictures very obviously reflecting the title of the exhibition, including the autobiographical Love Locked Out by Anna Lea Merritt (painted after her husband died and showing a personification of her love shut out of her husband's tomb) and one of my favourites, Sydney Meteyard's Hope Comforting Love in Bondage...

Hope Comforting Love in Bondage (1901) Sydney Meteyard
This is a gorgeous picture which I was delighted to see in person as the colours are so fresh and clean.  Despite the facial expressions being a bit bland the figures are delicious and Love's wings are amazing.  Talking of wings, look at the wings on this...

The Lament for Icarus Herbert Draper
I almost don't notice the rather nice bottom on the lady in the lower part of the picture because I am too busy looking at the size of Icarus' wings.  They are enormous and look so billowy and soft.  Goodness, I'd lament him too.  This is such a beautiful image and I don't think any illustrations do it justice as they tend to make it look rather too sepia and washed out when rather the pale feathers are echoed in the pearly skin of the ladies cradling the stunning form of Icarus.

Go on, go to Brum and see gorgeous Icarus for free!  However I have a couple of points I'd like to raise - I think possibly BMAG have been rather too shrewd in their marketing of Love and Death, when actually the exhibition encompasses 'the Victorian fascination with re-imagining life in ancient Greece and Rome, from lovers' flirtations to dramatic martyrdom.'  There is a real disconnect between the first and second room, and starting in a room of aestheticism, paintings without subject, is a bit difficult to tie the theme of love and death to it.  What does Sapphires have to do with flirtation and martyrdom?  And what does The Lady of Shalott have to do with ancient Greece and Rome?  The exhibition examines 'universal themes of love, beauty and tragedy' but then that covers a lot of eventualities, and I think those themes could be applied to pretty much any picture you care to mention.  If you hang the pictures together with a notion of 'love' and 'tragedy' then how do you explain Phidias Showing the Frieze?  It's like you are watching one programme on telly only to flip over to Grand Designs by accident (thank you Mr Walker for pointing that out).  The only way to tie Phidias to tragedy is to say that hundreds of years later the Frieze would be subject to some dodgy conservation at the hands of the British Museum, but I feel that might be stretching the point a bit.

In a way it would have been enough to give the opportunity to see the major works from the Tate in a regional museum without having to tie it to a theme.  Looking at the BMAG collection online, there are many other pictures they could have chosen to make the point of their exhibition.  The theme hangs well with the major images of The Lady of Shalott and The Lament for Icarus but marrying them to something like The Dreamers is always going to be an uphill struggle.  However, as it is free and the art works are jolly I am feeling forgiving and grateful so I would encourage anyone to make the journey to Birmingham, not least because you can couple the visit with seeing the rest of the nineteenth century stuff and see the new history of Birmingham galleries, which are amazing.

And I bought a hairband with the Lady of Shalott on it from the gift shop. Marvellous!

'Love and Death: Victorian Paintings from Tate' runs from 8th September to 13 January 2013 and further details can be found at


  1. So wish I could go too, but great review

  2. Those are quite some wings on Icarus, all right, but I have to wonder exactly what bird, prehistoric or otherwise, has wing feathers the size of ceiling fan blades.

  3. Nice way to decorate your walls. I have never done that. My effort to beautify the walls in my house was to order big-sized canvas prints from, from images of western art. I use the same angel motifs in all of the rooms painted by different painters, such as this one by very interesting English artist Stanley Spencer,


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx