The Barber Institute of Fine Arts was donated to the University of Birmingham by Lady Barber in the 1930s in memory of her husband, Sir William Henry Barber. The original Trust Deed specifies that the purpose of the Institute was ‘for the study and encouragement of art and music’.
This building and its wonderful collection has become familiar to me over almost 50 years. I have visited since my sight deteriorated and find I still love the cool Art Deco interior with many of my favourite paintings and other parts of the collection.
Then, eureka, I get a message via the Macular Society that Volunteer Guides in conjunction with the Learning and Access Team of the Institute are organising a series of sessions for people with VI. The theme this week was Family Connections and the pictures were chosen accordingly. For a list, see below.
A number of participants had travelled by train from other parts of the West Midlands and were met at University station and accompanied across the campus, which was looking its best in the early spring sunshine. We gathered in a seminar room and introductions took place over coffee and delicious flapjacks. There were about 9 participants with varying levels of VI as well as a very bored guide dog, five volunteer guides and a member of the Institute’s Learning and Access Team.
We were given some superb copies of the pictures we were to see, together with some basic hand held magnifiers. Some of the reproductions were of early exquisite miniatures of children and families which we did not see in the original, however the miniatures were reproduced in detail and to a much larger scale.
After a fascinating account about the miniatures, we set off into the first gallery and the first picture: Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with St. John. For me the guide got it exactly right, first of all describing the painting, colour and form and then moving on to the detail and symbolism. Next was Bellini’s Portrait of a Boy. I used to think if I could steal one portrait from the gallery it would be this. Onward then to Etienne Aubry’s Paternal Love and John Christian Dahl’s Mother and Child by the Sea leading ultimately to Bettina von Zwehls tiny photographic miniatures of her daughter Ruby in Ruby’s Room.
I was pleased that I could see most of the pictures. The guide’s talks helped a lot by pointing out details that I would have missed (and may well have done so even when fully sighted). What was most enjoyable was to have such professional and interesting explanations of the exhibits.
I was surprised that although the golden Bellini boy is still engraved in my imagination, my favourite on this trip was Botticelli’s Madonna and Child. I believe the reason for this was its clearly defined lines and spaces; its blues and reds which were easily accessible and the dark hair and eyes of John the Baptist which enabled me to see his face. This is a picture, to my shame, that I have passed many times without examining it.
However, I found, in spite of the excellent descriptions, that I was frustrated by the pictures I could not see – mainly the Dahl and the photo images. I don’t like to be challenged in this way but, then again, a totally blind visitor said she enjoyed using her imagination to envisage the descriptions. Luckily there is scope on this tour for everyone and inevitably, any analysis of the visit will be personal and depend on the individual’s level of VI, and their interests and experience.
This event is a work in progress and a marvellous resource for people with VI. I hope the project continues to expand as knowledge and expertise develops. I think the most positive feeling I took away came from the connection the guides built up with their audience as well as from the discussions about, and differing responses to the exhibition.
Something weird: There was a strange collection of circa-18th century mourning rings in the form of loved ones’ eyes in Ruby’s Room. Worth a look if you are visiting.
For more information about the Insight programme at the Barber Institute, you can contact Jen or Alex at the Learning and Access Team on 0121 414 7335 or 0121 414 2261.
British Portrait Miniatures of Children and Families
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Madonna and Child with John the Baptist
Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) Portrait of a boy
Etienne Aubry (1746-1781) Paternal Love
Johan Christian Dahl (1785-1857) Mother and Child by the Sea
Bettina von Zwehl (current) Ruby’s Room