Monthly Archives: October 2013

Elizabeth I, her People…and a Guinea Pig: MA graduate Oliver McCall on his recent Curatorial Internship at the National Portrait Gallery

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“The Office” for 6 months

When it came to the end of my MA in Art History last September I was struck by that all-too-familiar feeling of uncertainty. The looming question: ‘what now?’. After spending some time working on a PhD proposal whilst also feverishly job-hunting, I was hugely relieved when I spotted a curatorial internship opportunity with the 16th century collection at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Given my interests in 16th-century English art, and Elizabethan portraiture in particular, the internship seemed like the ideal opportunity for me to gain some much needed curatorial experience. During the surprisingly enjoyable interview process I was given a tour of the Heinz Archive, which was followed by a fairly standard panel interview and an image test. Shortly after I was offered the internship, and now, six months later, I can say that it was a hugely enjoyable, informative and inspiring experience. Over the course of the internship it was my role to support the 16th-century collection curators with the development of their upcoming major show, Elizabeth I and Her People.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Zuccaro, Federico (1542-1609). c.1557-1609 (British Museum)

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Zuccaro, Federico (1542-1609). c.1557-1609 (British Museum)

This meant that I had a huge variety range of tasks to do, enabling me to gain experience of many different aspects of the planning and development of a large exhibition. However, most of my time was initially spent researching various portraits and object loans for the exhibition. The NPG is one of the premier centres for research into portraiture in the country; the curators attached to each collection (16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, contemporary and photography) carry out research into portraits that come to the gallery as exhibition loans, deal with enquiries from other galleries, collections and members of the public, as well as researching and developing the collection for which they are responsible. At the heart of the institution is the Heinz Archive, which is open to the public via appointment, and which houses a huge number of images, documents and tomes that anyone interested in portraiture would be thrilled to work with. One of the most useful resources is the collection of ‘sitter boxes’. These large files contain images of all known and supposed portraits of numerous sitters, together with correspondence relating to the whereabouts of various portraits. They are extremely useful as a source of comparison when trying to decide whether a portrait is of a particular person. As curatorial intern I was able to make full use of these resources, which helped me to develop my own skills and interest in 16th-century British  portraiture.

One of the most intriguing of the research tasks I was given involved that humble household pet, the guinea pig. During the planning of the exhibition a portrait had come to light that probably contains the earliest known depiction of a guinea pig in English, perhaps even European, art. The portrait was discovered by one of the exhibition curators in a private collection and it depicts three Elizabethan children, whose identities are unknown. There is a clear family resemblance, however, and their high social standing is clearly indicated by their fine clothes. Although the identities of the children are tantalising, it is the animals in the portrait which are most interesting. One of the boys holds a small bird, possibly a finch, which was a popular childhood pet in Elizabethan England. It is in the arms of the girl at the centre of the portrait, however, that the groundbreaking rodent nestles. This work may be unique amongst English 16th-century portraits in its inclusion of this familiar animal and I was tasked with researching the lives of guinea pigs in 16th-century England. Guinea pigs were imported into the Spanish Netherlands on ships from the New World and it is likely that they were transported to England from here. Since the discovery of 16th-century guinea pig remains at Hill Hall in Essex it had been assumed that these animals were kept as pets only by the wealthy. In 2007, however, a guinea pig skeleton was unearthed at an excavation of a ‘middle class’ home in Mons, Belgium, dated around the end of the 16th century. This suggests that guinea pigs may have been kept as pets by a wider range of social groups. It is likely that, in the context of this portrait, the guinea pig acts as a status symbol, given its exotic provenance. Aristocratic children were also depicted with small animals to illustrate their natural dominance. The portrait has already attracted media attention, and you can see the guinea pig in all its glory below and read more here.

Three unknown Elizabethan children Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1580 Privately Owned

Three unknown Elizabethan children Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1580 Privately Owned

Following on from my introduction to the 16th-century guinea pig, I was tasked with some good old fashioned art history detective work – to try to establish the identity of an Elizabethan warrior whose portrait was to be loaned to the exhibition from a private collection. The sitter, known as Vaughan of Tretower, cuts a striking figure with his huge reddish beard and intricate Italian armour and weaponry. In Dynasties, an exhibition catalogue from a few years back (Tate, 1995), the suggestion was made that the sitter might be one Cuthbert Vaughan, a member of an influential Welsh gentry family. Using this as a start point, I used the sitter boxes in the Heinz Archive to search for other portraits of sitters by that name. By all accounts, Cuthbert was a quarrelsome character. He had spent time in prison during the reign of Mary I, and whilst serving Elizabeth as a military leader he often wrote to William Cecil, one of the queen’s chief councillors, to complain that he had not been adequately rewarded for his years spent on campaign. The inscription around the portrait frame, which states that those who through ‘bludy swets’ defend the realm deserve to gain, seems to fit in with this identification.

Portrait of unknown soldier, thought to be Cuthbert Vaughan (c. 1519-1563), dated 1560

Portrait of unknown soldier, thought to be Cuthbert Vaughan (c. 1519-1563), dated 1560

Although most of my research tasks, like those mentioned above, related to loans to the Elizabeth exhibition, I also had the opportunity to assist with enquiries from a couple of other galleries. I helped identify a mystery countess in a hugely elaborate costume as Catherine Carey, a close friend of the queen. I also hunted through pages and pages of portraits of Sir Francis Drake in the Heinz Archive to decide whether a newly rediscovered portrait of an armoured Elizabethan commander was a good likeness of the famous explorer and buccaneer. In addition, I was able to further hone my research skills by attending a workshop on using online resources and databases, a lecture on Elizabethan and Jacobean ‘pregnancy portraits’ at the very grand Royal Society of Antiquaries, and a number of talks at the NPG’s lecture theatre.

As the opening of the exhibition crept ever closer, loans research gave way to more practical considerations and I became more involved with the design and interpretation aspects of the exhibition. One of the major themes of the show, as the title implies, is that it focuses not only on the queen and her aristocratic courtiers, as so often happens with portraiture exhibitions of this kind, but also gives space to members of the Elizabethan gentry, judiciary, clergy and merchant classes, as well as ordinary people. Thus, in an innovative move that parallels developments in collection display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, among others, the portraits in this exhibition will be hung in themed areas, surrounded by other objects that will help to evoke what life was like for different social groups in Elizabethan society. Each area of the exhibition will be focused on a different social group. A similar technique was used at the impressive show The Lost Prince (NPG, 2012/13).

My role in all of this was to compile a dossier on Elizabethan style (something like a 16th-century design magazine) for the gallery design team to use as a source of inspiration when designing and decorating various areas of the exhibition space. The task was a highly enjoyable one and, surrounded by piles of glossy tomes on 16th-century decoration, I gained a greater understanding of Elizabethan and Jacobean design principles and visual culture. Visitors to the exhibition will be taken on a journey through the world of the nobility and gentry, glistening with fine jewellery, decadent silverware and elaborate costume, and heavy with intricate, classically-inspired wall-hangings and architecture, through into the world of the aspirational ‘middling sort’, where the more reserved tastes of merchants and judges is reflected in more traditional timber-framed architecture and worldly motifs. Some of the fascinating objects from the exhibition include a clear class tankard, which William Cecil, Lord Burghley, commissioned to try to promote glass making in England, a charming coin purse in the shape of a frog and the will of a poor woman, which highlights the desperate poverty in which many Elizabethans lived. All of this and more will be displayed in spaces themed around the original owners of such objects.

Sea-Going Clothing 1590–1650 Image: © Museum of London

Sea-Going Clothing
1590–1650
Image: © Museum of London

The exhibition spaces will also be interactive, with ‘windows’ to allow visitors to gaze between worlds, and a virtual bookshelf, where some of the most famous, and some lesser-known, Elizabethan texts can be perused. As part of the internship I helped to develop a shortlist of Elizabethan texts, ranging from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, and John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, to pamphlets by notorious author and playwright Robert Greene on “Coney-catching” (a name used for thievery through trickery). Thinking about the democratisation of literature in the Elizabethan period, I also selected several fascinating Elizabethan broadsides, full of tales about monstrous births, deadly sea creatures and the exploits of famous figures. After selecting several texts I used online archives, including EEBO (Early English Books Online), the British Library and the Huntington Library to find copies with impressive engravings. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to browse through pages of these texts and get a feel for the literary life of Elizabethan England.

The burning of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, 1563

The burning of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, 1563

In my opinion, no exhibition is really complete without a glossy catalogue to go with it. The catalogue not only serves as a guide to the exhibition, granting the curators a space to go into greater depth about exhibition themes and loan items, it also serves as a souvenir of the show. Its pages should serve as a reminder of the spectacle of the exhibition space itself. The NPG has produced several stunning catalogues recently, and the catalogue accompanying the Elizabeth exhibition is no exception. Packed with high quality images of many of the portraits and objects in the exhibition, accompanied by essays about Elizabeth I and Elizabethan society, the catalogue should serve as a great introduction to Elizabethan England as well as providing a comprehensive account of the show itself. Although I was unfortunately too late on the scene to be able to contribute any catalogue entries, I was pleased to be involved in several rather frantic proofreading and editing sessions. Of course, although all of the work I did at the NPG was interesting, the internship was made really enjoyable thanks to the guidance and assistance of the gallery staff I was working with. I found the curatorial team at the gallery to be really welcoming and helpful, and I certainly seized every chance to ask as many questions as I could think up about my own research, the gallery and those much-desired career pointers. Having completed the internship I now feel that I’m much better placed to negotiate the rough road to building a career in the arts. I’m also left with the sense that, through the work outlined above and many other tasks, I contributed actively to the development of the Elizabeth exhibition. It was also nice to see among the loans list the extraordinary and little-known Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the ambassador of the Barbary States to Elizabeth I’s court, which usually resides here at Birmingham in the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural Collections.

The Procession Portrait  by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1600–3 Sherborne Castle Estates

The Procession Portrait
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1600–3
Sherborne Castle Estates

 Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, unknown artist, c. 1600

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, unknown artist, c. 1600

I really recommend that you follow the Ambassador down to London and see him alongside other Elizabethan gems, including the huge and impressive Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which I wrote about for my MA dissertation. The inclusion of this mysterious portrait, which shows the queen in procession surrounded by many of the most powerful figures of her later reign, provided a personal link between myself and the show, which I am very proud to have played a part in.

Elizabeth I & Her People is on at the NPG until 5th January 2014. Admission: £13.50 full price, £11.50 for students. More information and bookings is available here.

Last chance to see: Ron Mueck at Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Mueck, Spooning Couple, 2005

Mueck, Spooning Couple, 2005

As part of ‘Artist Rooms’, a participation with Arts Council England and the Art Fund, the contemporary art of Ron Mueck has been made available to Wolverhampton Art Gallery (you can read a previous blog post about Artist Rooms here). This exhibition only runs until 2nd November so after my visit I urge everybody to have a look before it’s too late!

The collection of works by internationally renowned sculptor Ron Mueck are on loan from the Tate, together with some pieces from private collections which have rarely been seen in the UK. It is a great opportunity to see his impressive works in person, and only a stone’s throw away from Birmingham.

Previously in the props industry, Mueck now uses mixed media to create hyper realistic human figures with a dizzying play on scale. To accompany the exhibition there is a fascinating display of photographs from Mueck’s workshop where you are offered a glimpse into how these lifelike constructions come about. In all it makes for a fascinating show that I highly recommend seeing…

Mueck, Wild Man, 2005

Mueck, Wild Man, 2005

Mueck, Mother and Child, 2001-3

Mueck, Mother and Child, 2001-3

Holly Wain (finalist)

A date for your diaries this week: Can we trust the experts on what’s good and bad in art?

NADFAS

Controversies surrounding artworks and the art market are many and take on many forms. In a special event taking place this Thursday (24th) at The Barber Institute, organised in conjunction with NADFAS (the National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies), one particular controversy is on the agenda: the thorny subject of “quality” in art and the “science” of attributing pictures to artists.

Rembrandt(?), Polish Rider, Frick Collection, NYC

Rembrandt(?), Polish Rider, Frick Collection, NYC

Popular NADFAS lecturer David Phillips will be discussing the mysterious Polish Rider in New York’s Frick Collection, which may or may not have been painted by Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt’s œuvre has been the subject of a decades-long project (the Rembrandt Research Project), which has tried to settle once and for all just what Rembrandt did or didn’t do. The project though has ended-up becoming as much a study about the trickiness of attribution itself as of Rembrandt’s output as an artist. Meanwhile, right now, Martin Kemp (the doyenne of Leonardo da Vinci studies) is convinced that he has discovered a new work (that is to say, a picture that has up to now languished in a private collection) by Leonardo: the Salvator Mundi. Kemp’s “discovery”, however, has stimulated a great deal of argument among the experts, with many specialists disputing Kemp’s attribution of the picture to Leonardo.

Leonardo(?), Salvator Mundi, private collection, NYC

Leonardo(?), Salvator Mundi, private collection, NYC

So why not come along this Thursday and listen to David at the Barber as he reviews a number of these controversies. He will also join the Barber’s curatorial team in conversation about some of the Institute’s own attribution riddles, affecting works formerly attributed to Rembrandt, Goya, Constable and Gauguin.

And what’s more, it’s FREE for students (glass of wine thrown in as well). The event kicks-off at 6pm with a drinks reception and late view in the galleries, followed at 7 by David’s lecture and discussion. Tickets are available from the Barber Reception (we’ve been told that booking is advised!).

Thoughts from Vienna….

 

Bruegel Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I’ve heard it said before that doing art history from the books is easy. It was Prof. Mary Beard, Cambridge Classicist of A Don’s Life fame, that said it, who is married to Robin Cormack, the art historian. Now inasmuch as I’d say that doing art history from the books is only as easy as doing any humanities subject from the books, and that researching and putting together a coherent argument about art history is only as easy as doing the same in, say, History, English and, indeed, Classics(!) etc., I have a new-found empathy for Beard’s statement after this weekend.

I’ve been in Vienna. My PhD’s on Pieter Bruegel’s paintings and the lion’s share of the surviving ones are displayed in Vienna at the Kunsthistoriches Museum. The  Bruegels assembled here are the ones that were in the Habsburg Imperial collection, having been collected by Emperor Rudolf II and his brother the Archduke Ernst of Austria, who were both apparently dead keen on Bruegel’s art. It’s these (less the ones that the Habsburgs lost and are now elsewhere) that I came to see this weekend. 

I wanted to put some of my thoughts–gleaned from hours pouring over the books and trawling JSTOR, etc., as well as looking at other Bruegels in Europe–to practice in front of the pictures themselves. And let’s just say that things quickly get tricky when you’re face-to-face with the things.

Bruegel, Peasant Feast

Take the Peasant Wedding Feast. Painted around 1568, the literature about this picture (and all of Bruegel’s peasants for that matter) usually says 1 of 2 things. 1 school of thought says that the peasants are emblems of sin, intended to represent drunken gluttony and supposedly put up on the wall to be seen by posh people who would renounce the peasantry and deplore their lack of table manners, keenness for booze etc. School of thought number 2, however, says that the peasants are emblems of fun, and that posh Antwerpers would have had a laugh at the peasants and their rustic, bumbling ways. According to this reading the pictures were looked at in lieu of actually going out into the countryside to mingle with the farmers, which wealthy Antwerp citizens were fond of doing in the mid-1500s. 

The premise underlying both is that Bruegel’s peasants were looked at by people who were in no way themselves peasants. Panel paintings in general would indeed have been prohibitively expensive and well out of the reach of the poor in the sixteenth century. A fair amount of evidence also exists to permit the conclusion that Bruegel’s panels were especially pricey. Moreover, we’ve learned recently that the Peasant Wedding was probably owned by Jan Noirot, Master of the Antwerp Mint who was a member of Antwerp’s upwardly mobile, mercantile class and who had 5 Bruegels in total. And so it seems that the premise is correct: that peasants in (Bruegel’s) art weren’t looked at by the peasants.

But trying to figure out which of the moral or non-moral readings is closest to the mark when you’re looking at the Peasant Wedding proves impossible.

Are the wedding celebrants really gluttonous drunks? Sure, a couple swig from their big beer jugs in a way that makes them look like the sixteenth-century’s equivalent to the modern-day binge drinker, but where’s all the vomiting, falling over and fistycuffs that we see in older art showing the drunken fallout of a peasant wedding or kermis? Meanwhile, the food itself is pretty simple and I don’t reckon these peasants would ever have been accused, as was sometimes said of peasants at this time, of squandering their meagre earnings on lavish food that was above their station. Meanwhile, the bride herself looks positively demure, happy (well she is newly-wed after all!) but demure all the same. And what about the cute kid at the front eating with his fingers? Although some might think this is intended to say “the apple never falls far from the tree” and that the child has acquired the same bad habits and ill-manners as his elders, is it not simply the case that kids from all kinds of backgrounds eat with their fingers and that it never raises an eyebrow?

So you could say that the picture is fairly innocent. It hardly seems to be the case that Bruegel wanted to make a bad example out of the peasantry.

But at the same time, and turning to the other side of the debate, what’s actually funny about this picture? Although we might like to think that in the 1500s sensibilities were different and that they might have laughed at stuff we now don’t, there really is nothing outrageous happening in the Peasant Wedding that might have raised a smile, and there’s no pun being illustrated or funny gesture being performed that may have roused laughter. Looking at it today, I think it’s pretty naïve to think that Bruegel’s original audience found peasants implicitly funny irrespective of what they’re actually shown to be doing, which in this case is simply celebrating a wedding over beer and porridge. Proof again comes from older art. For example, look up Sebald Beham’s peasants and his images of them shitting and drunkenly canoodling. These may well have been funny (the scatological has always tended to induce laughter) but they’re funny in exaggerated ways that emphasise debauchery in ways that Bruegel’s are not.

And so the comic reading is as tough to swallow as the moral one.

In other words, the essential binary that has become the norm in investigations about Bruegel’s peasants falls apart when you scrutinise the pictures in reality. Standing in front of the Peasant Wedding today, I realised that while the picture may well have been owned by a well-to-do man (although Noirot did ultimately become bankrupt AND was implicated in a murder!) the ways we’ve approached understanding the pictures in this context hitherto is simply flawed. This is of course great, because it means there’s much left to say. But it is still a realisation that comes from confronting the picture in real life, devoid of an accompanying essay telling you this or that.

Bruegel, Nester

Bruegel, Suicide of Saul, 1562, oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Equally perplexing are some of the other Bruegels. Is the nest robber in the Peasant and a Nest Robber really stealing from the bird’s nest? And what’s the peasant doing for that matter? Is he pointing? What at? And why? And why’s he stumbling headlong into a brook? The Suicide of Saul is simply weird because you can barely see the suicidal Saul and the picture’s dizzying amount of detail is even more staggering given the picture’s tiny dimensions – something you can only appreciate properly when you see it, because dimensions given in books fail to provide the same realisation. And what about the Children’s Games? Who was supposed to look at that? Why? What purpose does a picture showing kids playing serve? (Although you can read a good article about the last of these questions in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, which is available online here.)

Bruegel, Children's Games, 1560, oil on panel, Kunsthistoriches

So Beard’s words apparently have a ring of truth in them – the abundant literature tells us this and that about Bruegel’s moral or not pictures, which we might at the time believe, but it seems difficult to give credence to either view when you’re actually in the Bruegel gallery in Vienna. This is of course an example of why seeing art in real life is so important: it forces you to think outside of what you’ve read and question some of the presumptions that sway your way of thinking about things. I’d already done this, of course (you don’t get a PhD by re-hashing all the old stuff), but seeing the pictures really brings it home.

Akademie der bildenden künste, Vienna

Bosch, Last Judgment

Meanwhile, a whole other can of worms was opened up when I popped to the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden künste, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Kunsthistoriches. It’s basically the same set-up as the Barber (that is, it’s a picture gallery that’s part of an educational establishment, this time the fine art academy) and I went there to see Bosch’s Last Judgment, which he did probably at some time around 1500. Staring at the Last Judgment I found myself wondering: why didn’t Bosch paint any genitals? Christian propriety of course dictated that genitals shouldn’t be shown too much (Michelangelo got into enough trouble because of that, whose Last Judgment (1530s) in the Sistine was called ‘disgraceful’ by Biagio da Cesena, who deemed it worthy of a bathhouse on account of all the bits that were on display), and so usually artists avoided the problem by showing their nudes with artfully placed and folded legs or bits of cloth. Others though had no problem with it and showed genitals, and, if you think about it, in last judgments it was probably rather meaningful to show the corporeal, fleshy, body in all its nakedness since the subject is after all about the Judgment of sins, among them lust. In his picture, sometimes Bosch adopted the strategy of having artfully posed people who aren’t exposing their genitals, thus alleviating the problem. But he does also have naked people with splayed legs, and when he does he has just put a rather odd smudge of flesh-coloured paint where the genitals should be. Perhaps, then, Bosch was more of a prude than the rhetoric surrounding this “outlandish” artist would have us believe? Infamously, for example, Wilhelm Fraenger argued that Bosch was actually a heretic who worked for the “Adamites”, an underground sect that celebrated the pre-Fall sinlessness of sex and had orgies and stuff. And although I never really believed it anyway, the Vienna picture makes me think that this really is quite wrong and that Bosch’s pictures really were made for the conventionally religious. Who knows. It just struck me as being odd… No doubt I’ll have a think about it and look it up in the books.

Jamie

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Getting a Taste for Art History – finalist Nelle Jervis reports on our Sixth Form Study Day

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts - home of the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts – home of the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies

On Saturday 28th September, the Barber Institute opened its doors to welcome a group of prospective undergraduate students to experience a taster day – ‘Art History at University and Beyond’ – to see what University of Birmingham’s department of History of Art, Film and Visual Cultures has to offer them. The sixth form students had the opportunity to be History of Art students for the day and take part in mini seminars and lectures to see what a great and exciting department we have to offer them!

After a welcome by the Admissions Tutor, Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange, the day began with a lecture given by David Hemsoll on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and was followed by a lecture from Dr Alex Marlow- Mann on ‘Film as Art: The Last Days of Pompeii’. Both lectures, although on very different topics, suggested how artists and film makers referred to well-known works or visual traditions as a way of appealing to a particular audience. Later in the day, Professor Matthew Rampley gave a lecture entitled ‘The Artist as Entrepreneur: Damien Hirst’ in which he argued that Hirst’s artistic practice – often vilified in the press – in fact draws on and references more classical artistic genres and scientific traditions like still life and collecting. All three lectures were an opportunity for the students to see the diversity of subjects which the course has to offer and also to get a feel for what it is like to attend a real lecture at the University of Birmingham in the Barber Institute.

Poster for Last Days of Pompeii, 1913

Poster for Last Days of Pompeii, 1913

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1486, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1486, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Following the morning’s lectures the students took part in two mini seminars, one with Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange on ‘Women and Art’ and the other with PhD student Jamie Edwards on ‘Paintings as Objects’, upstairs in the Barber Gallery.

In the ‘Women in Art’ seminar the students were presented with two Impressionist paintings showing a woman in front of a mirror and were told that one was painted by a man and the other by a woman.

Berthe Morisot, Lady at her Toilette, 1875/1880, Art Institute of Chicago

Berthe Morisot, Lady at her Toilette, 1875/1880, Art Institute of Chicago

Edouard Manet, Woman in Front of a Mirror, 1877, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Edouard Manet, Woman in Front of a Mirror, 1877, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The students were asked to discuss in groups if they could tell who painted which picture. The groups were divided, leading to an open discussion about whether it is possible to tell whether a painting reveals the sex of its painter, and about the position women have occupied in art history. Although this was an unfamiliar area to some, everyone showed an interest and got involved in the debate.

In the ‘Paintings as Objects’ seminar in the Barber Gallery the students were each given extracts from Cennino Cennini’s fifteenth-century Craftsman’s Handbook to read. These extracts describe how a Renaissance painter should prepare a panel for painting, and advice on how to paint drapery. The students had the opportunity to read the extracts and discuss it in front of a real Renaissance panel painting, Simone Martini’s St. John the Evangelist.

Simone Martini, St. John the Evangelist, 1320, Barber Institute

Simone Martini, St. John the Evangelist, 1320, Barber Institute

Students discussing Renaissance works in the Barber Gallery

Students discussing Renaissance works in the Barber Gallery

The gallery session replicated the kind of work that students would be doing when they study History of Art at Birmingham: doing preparation before a seminar, applying it to a particular piece of art, sometimes first hand in front of the painting in the Barber Institute.

The Barber is a great resource for Art History students at the University of Birmingham which few other universities can offer. The students really enjoyed doing work in the gallery and some students even said they would have liked to have spent more time there so we’ll definitely keep that in mind for next year’s Taster Day! Overall, both the seminars and lectures gave the students an opportunity to experience the variety of ways in which they can be taught here and also gave them the chance to develop their own skills in analysing works of art and being active in group discussions.

We asked the students to express how they felt the day went, any positive impact it had on them, and what they most enjoyed about the experience. It was clear that the students loved the variety of the lectures and mini seminars, with one student commenting ‘I enjoyed the wide range of topics covered – film, Renaissance, women and contemporary art – as it provided a wide range of information and catered to people of all interests’. The students also enjoyed being able to see what a lecture and seminar are like, and as one person commented ‘the best part of the day was seeing how the style of teaching can differ. I particularly enjoyed the women and art seminar as it opened my eyes to the general theme of masculinity in art’.

In addition to the lecture and mini seminar experiences, the event also featured a talk from David Rice, Student Recruitment Officer, who discussed how to write a successful personal statement as well as Jen Ridding and Alex Jolly who spoke about volunteering opportunities at the Barber, and Charlotte Clark, a graduate of our History of Art programme who discussed her career since graduating. This gave the students a well-rounded and informed idea of applying to university, what our department has to offer, and where a History of Art degree can take them.

There was also the opportunity to talk to current students who were more than willing to express their enthusiasm for the course and answer any questions from the perspective of a student. One of the volunteers, Sophie Ross, a second year student, felt that the event was a huge success, and even felt the benefits for herself: ‘It was great to work with the lecturers on this and get to know them better outside of teaching and, for the prospective students, it was good for them to be able to speak to them too’. Another volunteer, Josh Roy, a third year student, said ‘I thought the open day was a success and catered well to the needs of prospective students. It was nice to be able to talk to them and see how they enjoyed it too – especially getting a taster of what it is like to learn inside the Barber. Despite not having attended a History of Art taster day myself- I believe I would have definitely swayed more towards taking the course at Birmingham!’.

Overall, the day gave the sixth formers a great insight into what art history is all about, especially at the University of Birmingham. Judging from the feedback, which was entirely positive, I think it’s safe to say that the day was a success! We look forward to welcoming some fresh and – and perhaps familiar – faces into the department next September!

For more information about studying at Birmingham, click here.

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