Five Paintings, Ten Minutes Each = 300 Years of Art History!

Question: What do a couple of thieving peasants, the Marriage Feast at Cana, a Russian countess, a Monet landscape and a lady arranging her hair all have in common?

Answer: They are all paintings from the Barber Institute that formed part of our Art History Speed Workshop that took place on Wednesday 20th March as part of UoB’s Arts and Science Festival.

The idea was the brainchild of PhD student Carly Hegenbarth during a brief meeting in the autumn term when we were racking our brains as to what we could offer the Festival: we wanted something that would be different and fun and at the same time show case both the Barber’s collection and the talents of some of our up-coming researchers. Like speed dating (well, sort of…), the idea was to get people up close and personal to a work of art for a short space of time, and then, when the bell rang (or rather my mobile phone), to move them on to the next picture. Will it work, we thought? Will we have enough people? Will everyone be able to keep to time? Will anyone ask any questions?

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After a bit of a slow start, the number of people registering for the workshop began to pick up, with a sudden flurry of a dozen or so people expressing their interest up until a few hours before. Thus we found ourselves with some thirty participants congregating in the Barber Foyer on the Wednesday at 2pm. These included current students and employees of UoB from across the disciplines, retired professors, and people from the local community.

Divided into five groups and armed with a postcard listing the paintings to be explored, our Speed Workshoppers went off to their first painting with their PhD student and the stopwatch was set to ten minutes. Walking round the gallery to see how things were going, it was interesting to catch snippets of the talks being given or the questions asked. ‘Do you think these are good or bad peasants?’, Jamie asked of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Peasants Binding Faggots from the early 1600s while, round the corner, Amy was pointing out the patrons of Murillo’s Marriage Feast at Cana, depicted as the married couple in the biblical scene.

Brueghel, Peasants Binding Faggots, early 1600s
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Peasants Binding Faggots, early 1600s

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Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Marriage Feast at Cana (1672)

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In the Beige Gallery, Carly’s group were wondering about the diagonal background to Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait of Countess Golovine. Was it the shadow of the guillotine, someone mused…

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Countess Golovine (1797/1800)
Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Countess Golovine (1797/1800)

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In the Blue gallery Imogen was relating Monet’s Church at Varengeville to Impressionist practices and, nearby, Hannah was making her listeners think hard about what we expect in a portrait in relation to Vuillard’s Mme Vuillard Arranging her Hair. Ginny Turner, a retired clinical scientist, said she found this image ‘the most fascinating with all the patterns, the claustrophobic feel to the painting and the fact that we could not see Mme’s face. I would never have noticed all these points without Hannah’s input.’ Before too long, the ten minutes were up and we were imploring our participants, rather like the Mad Hatter, to ‘move one place on’ and the show started again.

Claude Monet, Church at Varengeville (1882)
Claude Monet, Church at Varengeville (1882)

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Edouard Vuillard, Mme Vuillard Arranging her Hair (1900)

We were overwhelmed by the number of people who participated so enthusiastically in the workshop and who took the time to give us their feedback. Ann Darton, a retired lecturer and Honorary Fellow at UoB said, ‘I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop, which offered just sufficient input.  Any more and it would have been difficult to take in and certainly to retain. The postgraduate students […] were keen to share their knowledge of the areas in which they were working.’ We even had a cheeky ‘insider’ attend the workshop, Professor of Medical Oncology, Michael Cullen, who is currently doing an MA in Art History. He said, ‘I thought my fellow postgrads were all very impressive, giving confident and engaging accounts of the paintings.  I liked how they made it all seem very relaxed and informal encouraging audience contributions despite the brief time available for each presentation. I especially enjoyed Jamie’s rather infectious enthusiasm for his PhD project which added a personal aspect to his interaction with the Brueghel. I even felt encouraged to consider a PhD myself.’

‘Please run more workshops!’ was a frequent comment on our feedback forms and we are certainly tempted to do so, so watch this space! You can let us know your thoughts about themes that could be explored or artists you’d like to see featured by emailing us at or by leaving a comment here. Who knows, perhaps the next workshop will feature Professor Michael Cullen as one of our speakers!

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Find out more about the Barber Institute’s collection at



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