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  • Writer's pictureVincent Jordan

Victorian Radicals: Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

This weekend, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) opened its doors for the first time in years. Vincent Jordan writes about its new exhibition — Victorian Radicals.

Above: Pre-Raphaelites return as part of Victorian Radicals. Photo: author's own.

With the exception of a partial reopening in 2022, during which only a few pieces from its vast holdings were on display, BMAG has been effectively closed since 2020; first it was the pandemic, then severe electrical degradation, that led to such a lamentable hiatus. But now old friends are back — and the place has an opportunity to do something genuinely special. 

The conditions for this are a litany of screw ups. Recently, the city has demonstrated that its enduring self-hatred is still alive and kicking by voting (twice!) to destroy a foundational piece of its architectural heritage — the Ringway Centre. It has shown itself to be bureaucratically inept, declaring itself ‘essentially bankrupt’ in September 2023, and as a consequence set out plans to make significant cuts beyond areas like cultural provision to those that many would think inconceivable, such as the Children and Families department, whose pre-bankruptcy services for SEND children were inadequate and ‘held back by politics in the city council.’ 

In isolation, the decisions concerning culture and heritage might be less damning; but when we look at the historical context, they represent the tragic continuity of the notion that Birmingham does not care about its past. This ignorance is generally associated with the controversial sins of Herbert Manzoni, who is universally blamed for the eradication of the city’s great Victorian fabric in favour of the modernist, brutalist, and car-centric constructs we see today. As W. H. Auden observed, returning to his native Birmingham after life in New York, ‘New York City rebuilt more, but you could always discern the old city behind or beneath. In Birmingham they seemed simply to have cleared away the whole thing and started again’.

Perhaps Birmingham’s diffidence is down to a certain existentialism—unlike most other cities, Birmingham has no compelling or obvious raison d’etre. No rivers, no ports, no organs of state, no military or defensive advantages, no abundance of natural resources: nothing. It is no surprise that the first chapter of Second City, Richard Vinen’s 2022 book about the place, opens with the question ‘Why does Birmingham exist?’. Another element at play here is that Birmingham has always been a city of immigrants, and still to this day, is marked by a desire, held by a significant proportion of its inhabitants, to leave it. It seems then, that its very existence depends on a sort of cellular regeneration in which cyclicality and replenishment rule supreme. But in the years before Manzoni, the city still possessed a great deal of civic pride tied up with its status as a major town of industry and empire, and the legacy of the Chamberlains, particularly Joseph Chamberlain, who laid the foundation stone of the Council House, which BMAG adjoins, in 1874. 

So what does this mean for Victorian Radicals, BMAG’s new exhibition? On the face of it, the show gives both BMAG the chance to open up its doors again and show off some of its outstanding collections, and the Brummie public to refresh its knowledge of the city’s most transformational period. Yet, given the context, Victorian Radicals is an opportunity to do something more — to show that this city cares about its heritage. Ever since it was announced that the exhibition would be a homecoming after an extensive tour of the US (including the Yale Centre for British Art), I was excited about what this exhibition could do for the public, and what the public could do for the museum: to demonstrate, in the face of possible cuts to the cultural budget, that BMAG is a unique and cherished institution that the city simply cannot afford to let go. There are times in life when the aphoristic ‘can’t afford to, but can’t afford not to’ is the best advice; BMAG is a glaring example. 

Victorian Radicals attempts to show how ‘three generations of young rebellious artists and designers revolutionised the visual arts in Britain and challenged the new industrial world around them.’ Jointly organised by Birmingham Museums Trust and the American Federation of Arts, the show is curated by Victoria Osborne (BMAG), Martin Ellis (BMAG), and Tim Barringer (Yale). 

It is clear from the get go that Victorian Radicals, is, ironically, not very radical in its curation. Staged in the Gas Hall - an airy adjunct to the main gallery building - exhibits are displayed on a maze of temporary walls. Paintings, metalwork, tapestries, sculpture, and prints are organised according to classic conventions, evenly spaced out over monochrome walls, with small descriptive labels, arranged along a circular route. The narrative is spare; visitors enter to a modest blurb about the exhibition, before entering open sections about the early Pre-Raphaelites and succeeding generations, the Arts and Crafts movement, and visions for the future. 

Yet none of these basic observations do justice to the real pleasures of Victorian Radicals, for which so many showed up on Saturday morning. The first of these lies in the exceptional artworks themselves: Victorian Radicals really shows off the heavy hitters of BMAG’s 19th century treasures, presented without obtrusion and with ample space for contemplation. This is a significant advantage of using the spacious Gas Hall for the show — it’s not as impressive as the main gallery building, but it gives these artworks room to breathe. 

Above: Paolo and Francesca (1852), Alexander Munro. Photo: author's own.

Pieces that particularly benefit from this environment include Paolo and Francesca (1852) by Alexander Munro, commissioned in marble by future Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone. The sculpture was originally worked in plaster for the Great Exhibition in 1851, but Gladstone’s version differs slightly. The sculpture shows the pair, who have helplessly fallen in love, reading together about Sir Lancelot and Guinevere. Their love is, romantically, forbidden — Francesca is married to Paolo’s brother — yet this moment represents love on the verge of triumph, as they are tempted to their first kiss. The inscription around the base — Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante — is translated as ‘The day we read no more’. It is interesting to note, as my editor did, that this marble incarnation diverges from its plaster predecessor by changing the angle of Francesca’s head to a more submissive, intimate position. And the visitor can see this pose from all angles; they can stroll around the monument, watching how its fabrics flow into one another, with the imminent kiss always in view. 

Above, left to right: Pygmalion and the Image; The Garden of the Hesperides Cassone; the Kelmscott Chaucer. Photos: author's own.

Similarly shown in a generous vitrine is The Garden of the Hesperides Cassone (1888), designed by Birmingham-born Edward Burne-Jones. It makes an impressive neighbour for his series Pygmalion and the Image (1875 – 78), here shown in entirety. The paintings follow the story of the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion, who, disillusioned with courtship, sculpts a statue which later blooms to life, and with whom he falls in love. 

The second element of Victorian Radicals that stands out is its understated curation. Labels and descriptive texts are very accessible and simple. Visitors can follow up on certain paintings by using a free audio guide, but the exhibition is perfectly comprehensible without it. The central narrative attempts to characterise the Pre-Raphaelites and figures of the Arts and Crafts movement as radicals because of their bold reimagining of the role that art could play in everyday life, and how the beautiful might prove an antidote to the squalid industry of Victorian England. In doing so, it is essentially presenting a canonical interpretation in terms that anyone could understand; the ethics of Ruskin and Morris loom large over the story being told, but are not tediously expounded. 

Another key part of the story is the connection of these artists to Birmingham. Had the exhibition been put on in different circumstances (i.e., not after five years of closure and funding crises) one might criticise the narrative for being sporadically absent. Labels occasionally neglect central themes, and there were some areas — perhaps it’s the Morris in me — where I felt obvious links with the locality were omitted. Examples that immediately came to mind were William Morris’s tenure as President of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, or the prominent role of early industrialists (cf. the metalwork on display) in setting up the gallery. But connections were made where they mattered, such as the section on Arts and Crafts in Birmingham, which presented two textiles made fifty years apart — one from steam powered looms, and another by Mary Newill, an artist following traditional hand-making techniques — in order to contrast them and raise questions about the status of art and artisanry in an industrial world. Display decisions like this are where the curation shines. 

With similar expertise, controversial representations related to depictions, for instance, of race, empire, or women, are addressed sensitively and fluently, with the curators even dedicating a section of the exhibition to getting feedback from the public. The comments gathered from the show will be used to inform curatorial decisions when the gallery reopens fully. Connections between works with challenging themes, such as the fascinating link between The Last of England (1855) by Ford Maddox Brown and Donald Rodney’s First of England (1983) — are deftly made. In this example, Rodney, a leading figure in the British Black Arts movement in the 1980s, replaces the figures in Brown’s painting with those of his parents aboard Empire Windrush. Contrasts like this allow visitors to see how the Birmingham public have responded to the city’s collections over time. 

There are other gems: the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ (1896) (‘a pocket cathedral’, which has been described as the most beautiful book in existence); the works of Birmingham artist Joseph Southall, who pioneered the revival of tempera; and, a personal indulgence, Tristan and Isolde (1904) by Maxwell Armfield, which ‘captures the couple’s mingled fear and desire’ as they long for the realm of the night. Yet the overwhelming pleasure of Victorian Radicals is that these beautiful things are back in town, and are being shown — as they should be — as assets fundamental to the cultural life of the city. The curators and organisers should be very proud of the fact that after such a long closure, Victorian Radicals does all it can to reinvigorate Birmingham’s appreciation for its treasures at a time when it so desperately needs it. And now, it is up to the public to show that this city cares about its past. 


Victorian Radicals is on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 31st October 2024. Adult admission is £11. Concessions available.


Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space.

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