‘All the World’s a Stage: Court Patrons and Writers in Shakespeare’s Circle’, the department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies’s annual MA exhibition, is open at the Barber Institute of Fine Art. As part of the country-wide commemmorations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this exhibition brings together paintings, prints and miniatures from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery and the Cadbury Research Library.
Inspired by an extract from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It– ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts’- the exhibition explores how Shakespeare’s circle constructed character through their use of portraiture. It features iconic images of Shakespeare, including the one from his first folio, alongside those of other writers, patrons and members of the court, such as Ben Jonson, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, and Anne of Denmark, queen for the latter period of Shakespeare’s life.
The exhibition was co-curated by the nine students studying the department’s Art History and Curating MA course. The course gives practical, real life experience in planning exhibitions, as students work alongside Barber staff in planning a display for the Lady Barber Gallery over the summer period. In addition, the opportunity to work with the National Portrait Gallery and to be credited as co-curating an exhibition at such a prestigious gallery as the Barber certainly looks good on the CV! The topic for the course and exhibition changes each year, and while not everyone in the group had an existing interest in Elizabethan and Jacobean portraiture, the possibilities of the exhibition meant that, for a while at least, everyone enjoyed researching this era.
Some of the highlights of the course included visits to the National Portrait Gallery, both to view works in the store, as some of the portraits were not currently on display, but also to meet, discuss and have the occasional talk with people in various roles from the NPG. Being able to discuss the exhibition with Tarnya Cooper, the NPG’s Curatorial Director, who not only specializes in sixteenth-century art, but who had also curated a previous Shakespeare exhibition, was a particular highlight. In addition, we attended social media talks and had a visit to the conservation studio.
The course is unique in that the curatorial students are given a topic, but are then a free to decide on whichever theme and narrative they deem best. This is an excellent way to conduct the course, as I think us nine students would have struggled to come up with and agree on an exhibition entirely from scratch! The freedom to make our decision knowing that the Barber staff were on hand if we needed them meant that it really felt as if we were in control of the exhibition and were therefore learning real life and negotiating skills.
A particular highlight for everyone was to be involved with the installation of the exhibition, especially learning what goes on when high value loans arrive at institutions.
It also taught us the flexibility needed as a curator, as the floor plan had to be redesignedduring installation to allow room for the audience to full appreciate the striking, full-length portrait of the Earl of Southampton. This shows that even the best laid plans still need a backup and made us fully aware of the amount of planning that goes into an exhibition.
Overall the entire group really enjoyed the course, even people whose specialties and aesthetic loyalties lay elsewhere. We were lucky to have a topic such as Shakespeare to around which to curate an exhibition and we had some great leadership from Claire Jones our tutor and the Barber staff. Everyone felt that they had learned a huge amount from the course in terms of planning a loan exhibition and negotiating the difficulties that exhibitions can entail.
The exhibition is open till the 25th September. More information can be found on the exhibition’s webpage http://barber.org.uk/all-the-worlds-a-stage/
Writing Workshop- Saturday 17th September.
The workshop explores Shakespeare’s language and form in contemporary writing