Ah, Birmingham, land of my forefathers (in-law). How sweet is your lovely art gallery, atop of Victoria Square? And how marvellous is your Pre-Raphaelite collection? Outstanding. Picture this: I arrived early for a talk by Franny Moyle on Sunday and so had an hour or so to run wild in the galleries. The Museum opened at 12.30pm and I was second through the doors and first into the Pre-Raphaelite room where I was all alone. Me. All alone in a big ol’ room of Pre-Raphaelite art. Queue the sound of manic laughter and a very near miss for The Blind Girl by Millais. Oh, come on, which of us hasn’t flashed a classic work of art? Exactly, we’ve all done it. Anyway, I thought I would give you my top ten works of art currently on display in Birmingham…
(I feel I should have some sort of chart music…)
10. Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1850-1) William Holman Hunt
There are some major, big-hitter works of art at Birmingham. I think that’s the thing about the provinces and their museums, you don’t need to go to the Tate to see a Millais, you can go to Brum or Liverpool or Newcastle. In fact, anywhere in this country you are probably a travelable distance to some great and important Pre-Raph art. This is a gorgeous work of art, so bright and fresh, the colours so luminous. Although I love the central group, I find the character on the left slightly awkward, with a weird angle lean against a tree. It is a marvellously disconcerting detail which draws away from the main action for no reason, highlighted by the carrying of the colour red across the canvas from Proteus’ tights, to Valentine’s sleeve to the tabard of the left-hand figure. It is wonderfully rich in detail which tell the story – Proteus’ knocked-off hat, the dipped sword by Valentine’s foot. I love the central group, the way that Sylvia leans in for protection and the way Proteus rubs his neck either in guilt or because he’s been given a clout. I hope it’s the latter.
9. Waiting (1854) J E Millais
It is generally felt that Millais went downhill after he married Effie, but this little gem from 1854, shows signs of a looser handling of paint in the foreground, especially that odd off-white smear above his signature. Is it meant to be a stone? Hmm, anyway, from what I remember this is a picture of Annie Miller, possibly one of the few times Millais used her as a model. I think this is a wonderfully, low-key depiction of the frustration of love – how long will she wait? Is she waiting for her lover to arrive or is she waiting for more, like a proposal or for an honouring of commitment. Actually, is she waiting for a man? Speaking as a girl from a rural town, who spent a fair part of her youth sat in the countryside, maybe what our girl is waiting for is life, waiting for something to happen. She’s got her bonnet on, so she is obviously ready to leave with it when it arrives.
8. Night With Her Train of Stars and Her Great Gift of Sleep (1912) Edward Hughes
Now I’m not usually a big fan of long titles, but this is so charming I don’t mind. The idea that Night is a woman who flies over us and brings with her children the stars and a scattering armful of leaves/petals/birds is gorgeous. Are each of the leaf/petal/birds a dream or are they sleep, winging its way to us? Night raises her finger to her lips indicating silence, but I have to admit the train of baby-stars do look noisy. I wonder if the baby-stars represent the hub-bub of life and Night’s gift is the silence of sleep, each of her russetty bird-petals enabling us to tune out from life for a few hours. The interplay between the warm autumn birds and the cool blue of Night make it such a striking image. Beautiful.
7. Autumn (1860-62) Frederick Sandys
Oh, I do like a bit of Sandys. He’s a jolly fellow who does a decent temptress in the Rossetti-mode. This is nice because it’s a curious allegory. It’s an image I knew well but I forgot who it was by, so when Mr Walker asked me who painted the picture of the soldier and his family I guessed Hughes, although it looks quite like a Millais. Anyway, at first glance it is about a soldier with his wife and child, relaxing on an Autumnal afternoon, but then possibly his wife looks a bit young…Is it therefore his daughter and grandchild? He seems rather old to be a soldier…Is he Autumn, the personification of a season? Are the woman and child Summer and Spring? And what's with all the stuff on the left? I do love a puzzle picture...
6. The Last Chapter (1863) Robert Martineau
My affection for this image has been discussed before. If you love to read and love a good book you will smile in recognition at the notion of crouching by the last embers in order to reach the end. I’ve been there on many an occasion, to the point where I’ve had to stop reading hardback books in bed as I’ve whacked myself in the face with a fair few as I’ve dozed off. Can you imagine having Fiona MacCarthy’s Burne-Jones biography smack you in the face? I don’t need a broken nose, thank you. Paperbacks only in bed, hardbacks when I’m upright, those are the rules.
5. Prosepine (1881-2) D G Rossetti
I think every time I see Prosepine, ‘Blimey, I didn’t realise it was here!’ because I have seen so damn many copies of bloody Prosepine. There are eight of them! Eight! For goodness sake. If you want proof of how disturbed poor Rossetti was by the end, look at these lovelies. Prosepine is a monumental draped figure, clutching a pomegranate awkwardly in her shadowy room. It’s all about love and loss and marriage and waiting. When Franny Moyle showed this image at the talk I attended, she commented that it was about how much hell the Morris’ marriage was. Well…kind of, but I think it’s like a reassuring mantra from Rossetti about how much hell he would like it to have been in order to excuse his actions. He wanted to rescue Jane from something, he did like to rescue women, mostly from imagined peril, so he rescued her from the ‘hell’ of her ‘terrible’ marriage to Morris, a brutal god of the underworld. The fact that none of those things are true is neither here nor there. What he did was mess up the marriage of a woman who wasn’t sure what she wanted or how to cope with what she had. Mind you, that’s harder to paint.
4. Medea (1866-68) Frederick Sandys
This is the most Rossetti-esque of the Sandys on display and actually is somewhat better than a lot of Rossetti’s output at this time (don’t tell him I said that). While sharing some elements with famous Rossetti images, it brings together a moment of drama. I think the red beads and thread are reminiscent of Fair Rosamund, heralding the imminent death and destruction of those who have wronged the witch. You don’t have to know the story of Jason and the Argonauts in order to recognise this is a woman in the throes of revenge, her passion both angry and sexual. I find the cup she pours from both intriguing and unsettling in its weirdly organic shape and the way she pulls at the beads shows her loss of control. Amazingly powerful, the colours glisten and shimmer drawing you closer before you realise this is no ordinary stunner, but a toad-toting wronged woman who will destroy you. Blimey, though, she is beautiful.
3. The Star of Bethlehem (1887-90) Edward Burne-Jones
This will no doubt crop up again in December when I am planning a Christmas extravaganza, but this huge picture is so magical, I had to mention it here. Housed in a Burne-Jones room, it dominates a wall, with a lovely photograph next to it of Burne-Jones painting it from a stepladder. My favourite bit of the nativity is the three kings as I have an obsession with crib sets, and especially with the kings. I think it was because when I was a child we had a little plastic set and while I loved the blue angel who was blu-tacked to the roof of the stable, the figures of the kings were so beautiful and richly decorated, I found I loved them the most. I also remember heating up some frankincense on one of the rings of my parent’s Belling cooker and the strange perfume it gave off. These kings are strangely and beautifully dressed, carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I’ve never had to type ‘myrrh’ before, that was an exciting ten minutes before my spell-checker worked out what I was trying to spell. Anyway, this is magical, pared down and yet richly detailed, and makes me long for Christmas so I can get my crib set out.
2. Hope Comforting Love in Bondage (1901) Sidney Meteyard
I love Meteyard’s Lady of Shalott and was delighted to see this hanging in the ‘Birmingham Artists’ room just off of the Pre-Raphaelite main gallery. The colours are fresh and delightful and the figures are attractive. It’s just such a lovely image, all pretty colours and pastel softness. I love how the fabric strips bind Love, who still clings to the ribbon of his arrow quiver, but also the brambles that thread through the feathers of his wings. Love looks very sorry for himself indeed, but Hope seems to reassure him that she will remain with him. It such a lovely image and Love’s wings are breathtaking in their detail and colour. Gorgeous…
1. The Blind Girl (1854-56) J E Millais
This is a unique picture, not only in its beauty but also in its subject matter. As a portrayal of disability, it is neither glamorising or patronising, and how many other Victorian images of the disabled can you think of that aren’t revoltingly sentimental or horribly stereotyped? As I have said before, my little stunner, Lily-Rose is severely visually impaired and it has been a fascinating experience watching how she experiences the world in slightly different ways. She loves touching surfaces, she foot-taps to see where pavements change in colour or texture, she sniffs, licks and listens to things before she rams her face against something to look at it. The Blind Girl is a lesson in beauty; the little girl gazes in awe at the double rainbow, rare and stunning, while her sister who has no access to the bands of colour in the sky, feels the grass with a look of solemn appreciation. While I sense Millais feels sorrow for the blind girl for not being able to marvel at the beauty around her with her eyes, he implies that she manages her own acknowledgment of beauty through touch, hearing and all her other senses. The butterfly settled on her shawl is missed by the little girl staring at the rainbows, possibly drawing attention to the fact that we search for ‘big beauty’ while missing small, exquisite pleasures that are right under our nose. Even though the blind girl cannot appreciate the butterfly, she is busy experiencing the wonders of her environment, blade by blade. Millais, as a visually-biased practitioner, makes a complex and interesting statement in a bold beautiful way: There are other pleasures than those you experience with your eyes, and maybe if you resist being led by your dominant sense, you may well discover other beauties that you never noticed before.
Go, my friends, go to Birmingham and run free among the beautiful works of art they have on display. There is no entrance charge and there is a goodly amount of works to enjoy. Bliss!