tue 23/07/2024

Birth of a Collection: The Barber Institute, National Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Birth of a Collection: The Barber Institute, National Gallery

Birth of a Collection: The Barber Institute, National Gallery

A display that celebrates the founding of a forward-thinking arts institute in the heart of the West Midlands

Cima da Conegliano, Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist, c.1488/1493

Lady Barber (1869-1933) née Hattie Onions, had her portrait painted in sumptuous style about 30 times, mostly in a sub-Orpen vein, and almost all by the unknown Belgian Nestor Cambier. But that was the very least of her occupations. Her husband, the lawyer Sir Henry Barber (1860-1927), had made a fortune in Birmingham property, and became quite the gentleman.

Retired in his thirties, he took to riding to hounds and judging horses in the company of royalty, while his wife created a nationally known alpine rock garden around their mansion in Henley-on-Thames.

Their largesse funded what in fact became a prototype for arts centres to come

Hattie was also an accomplished pianist, and the childless Barbers decided that their substantial wealth should fund art and music not only for the University of Birmingham, which would also be accessible to the Midlands public at large. Their largesse funded what in fact became a prototype for arts centres to come in its support for diverse art forms. Even more enlightened, the money was to be used by the university’s experts to support excellence. Lady Barber wanted the eponymous Institute’s collection to aspire to the quality of London’s National Gallery and the Wallace Collection.

To mark the 80th anniversary of the University’s Barber Institute the first dozen paintings that entered the collection are spending the summer at the National Gallery. The gallery first housed this stupendous array of unusual masterpieces while the Barber’s purpose-built home was being built in the 1930s in confident art deco style at the very centre of Birmingham University. The quality of the collection from its outset was due to the Institute’s first director, the redoubtable Sir Thomas Bodkin, who set the standard for the decades to come. Bodkin was a charismatic Irishman who had been head of Dublin’s National Gallery, and he seized the opportunity to make outstanding and imaginative purchases, carrying the university hierarchy and the Barber trustees along with him. Those were the days: the Institute was concerned that they had too much money, and that their resources might even distort the market by raising the asking prices.

Frans Hals, Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull, c.1610-14The prices of course seem today totally astonishing, even allowing for 80 years of inflation. The lively informality of Manet’s oil sketch of the French portraitist Carolus-Duran, the teacher of Sargent, cost the Barber £3500 in 1937 from the London art dealers Brown & Phillips, while the evocative Monet The Church of Varengeville cost £1428, from the avant-garde French dealer Durand-Ruel. Ruisdael’s atmospheric Woodland Landscape was  £2200, from Tooth, and a Turner masterpiece, The Sun Rising through Vapour for £1350, also from Brown and Phillips. The most expensive painting was the late 15th-century Cima da Conegliano tempera on panel of Christ on the Cross (main picture) from Agnew’s for £8750 in 1938 - the dealer reduced the asking price by £250 -  and the next was Frans Hals exceptionally powerful Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull for £6500 (pictured above right).

All were bought through a network of dealers and auctions, so the show is also a little history of the art market. The language of a deliciously vituperative letter, also on exhibition, denouncing the young Anthony Blunt by William Sabin, the dealer who was selling the Barber the magnificent Poussin mythical scene, Tancred and Emilia (£2000 at the time), is a treat. Although the Poussin has an impeccable provenance, Blunt (referred to not by name but as a certain young man) had doubts as to its authenticity, and only recanted four decades later in that temple of art history, the Burlington magazine. So it was touch and go for a while, and this little glimpse into just one skirmish in the secretive and interconnected world of dealers, auctions, and art historians is both entertaining and instructive.  

Bodkin’s refreshing taste was intellectually assured and even advanced for the time. What shines through this mélange of Old Masters and 19th-century paintings is the range of what was available. The Barber started at the top and has remained there, as both a public and a teaching collection, embedded in a university and free to all.

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