Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Barber Institute Exhibition - price tags at the National Gallery

Picture: NG
Copyright Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
The Barber Institute is one of my favourite museums - a fine building with a really excellent small collection.  Almost everything there has been bought from the endowment left by Lady Hattie Barber, so the taste of successive directors is clearly evident.  Barber stipulated that acquisitions should be of a quality demanded by the National Gallery or the Wallace Collection - fine sentiments, although she seems not to have known that the Wallace Collection is a static museum that doesn't acquire new works.  

The Barber Institute's earliest acquisitions were displayed in London's National Gallery gallery until its own building in Birmingham was completed.  Last weekend I saw them back in the National Gallery for a small exhibition marking the 80th anniversary of the Barber.  An 80th anniversary is a particularly flimsy excuse for a show, but these pictures are worth seeing and the exhibition focuses on the formation of the collection under Thomas Bodkin, the first director.  It includes a fine Poussin, one of the best Monets in the country and Simone Martini's St John the Evangelist (above) - my favourite in the show.

Some years ago I looked through some of the files at the Barber Institute, and the receipts were always marked 'Not to be shown to students'.  In this exhibition even students can see the prices paid, and its a fascinating record of the collection's history.  The exhibition suggests that the £2,000 paid for the Poussin's Tancred and Erminia was high, but even for the time that seems quite reasonable - a much better buy than the very first purchase, a Lancret that cost £1,800.      

Bodkin bought the two greatest pictures in the Barber's collection - a superb Rubens landscape, and the exceptional Murillo Marriage Feast at Cana - the latter cost only £3,500 and is surely the best Murillo in the country.  The Simone Martini and Monet were also very good purchases.

But on the other hand, he paid £14,000 for a picture from Botticelli's studio (listed as Botticelli in the catalogue, but generally regarded as a good studio version of a painting in the Pitti).  That's more than the Rubens and Murillo combined.  Two expensive acquisitions were in particularly poor condition - a Tintoretto that cost £2,000 and Giovanni Bellini's Portrait of a Boy at £9,500.  Two costly purchases were really bad - a feeble 'Rembrandt' for £14,000 and 'Rubens' for £6,000.  And paintings by Constable Corot, Gauguin, Goya, Le Nain and Zurbaran turned out to be imitations or studio works - some of them conspicuously weak.

Bodkin had a relatively large budget and was buying during the depression, when prices were low and good pictures plentiful.  He bought some wonderful things, but I can't help thinking that he could have done much better.

The accompanying book is an interesting read, but a bit mixed.  I'd always wanted to know more about Lady Barber.  The chapter on her makes a valiant effort, but there's not much material to go on, and she doesn't seem particularly interesting.  The chapter on sculpture and decorative arts is especially strong, and its judgments of Bodkin's collecting seem astute.  The chapter on the paintings is more measured, and in my opinion too generous in its assessment of Bodkin.  I winced when I read the claim that auction trade with the US "literally stopped overnight" (p.71).  If the Assistant Curator of the Barber Institute doesn't know what 'literally' means, surely one of her academic colleagues could have caught that howler?  

A few pieces from the Barber's collection of sculpture and decorative art are on display at the Wallace, but don't get too excited - it's just four pieces in an area outside the toilets.  If you're in London, it's worth calling in on the Wallace and the NG to see the Barber loans.  Better still, wait until the exhibition's finished and go to see them at home in Birmingham with the rest of this great collection.


  1. I seem to recall that the late Sir Ellis Waterhouse, who was also sometime a Director of the Barber Institute, called Thomas Bodkin's weaker acquisitions 'ACTS OF BOD'. Waterhouse's acquisitions were much better, but Waterhouse's unblemished reputation as an art historian and picture lover was not always noted, as James Lees-Milne recorded watching him go up and down ladders, I think it was at Charlecote - where he was to report on the pictures for the acquisition of the house by the National Trust - and afterwards said to the future Sir Ellis, 'You clearly don't like pictures, Mr Waterhouse. You haven't LOOKED at a single one'. When we look at Waterhouse's acquisitions, in my opinion, at the Barber, we should bear this in mind....

  2. Thanks - nice term! Hard for Waterhouse to compete with Bodkin giving increased prices and decreased supply. Seems such a wasted opportunity in retrospect.

  3. I've just come across another fascinating notice on Waterhouse's connoisseurship in Jaynie Anderson's large 2003 book on the National Gallery of Australia's acquisition through the Felton Bequest of Tiepolo's Cleopatra. Though of impeccable provenance, indeed acquired by Tsar Paul I for the Hermitage, and well-published with full correct provenance in Germany in the early-20th century, Waterhouse's damning 1933 verdict on the desirability of the painting for the London National Gallery - largely studio work' - is almost as shocking as that of Martin Davies, of whom Anderson remarks it 'is such that one wonders whether he really looked at the painting at all.' One does wonder sometimes if any of these famous art historians ever really liked paintings.....

  4. Interesting - I'll look out for that book. I recently read that Tiepolo described as the greatest painting in the southern hemisphere, which seems a reasonable judgment. I think Hendy made some good acquisitions at the NG, despite presiding over possibly the most damaging cleaning campaign ever undertaken at a major museum. I read a description of his myopia somewhere, saying that he simply couldn't appreciate paintings as anything more than blocks of colour and didn't realise the difference Ruhrmann's cleaning was making. I thought I'd read it in Kenneth Clark's autobiography, but I can't now find it there.