My last region of residence in the UK was south west of Birmingham.
I was very lucky to have the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum (see previous posts) a twenty minute train ride away.
This called to me constantly, siren-style, and I needed a regular fix (at least four times a year) of their painting galleries, particularly the Victorian rooms and, more specifically, the later Pre-Raphaelites.
One of the things I like about this gallery is that no-one objects to the public taking photos, which I always do.
My favourite painting at Birmingham,and one of my top ten works of art ever, is “The Stonebreaker” by Henry Wallis 1857 . In my opinion, this is an incredibly important work in a breakthrough style and with a compelling substance in it’s qualities of light and composition that were well ahead of his time. Look at those “abstract” shapes and the use of colour!
Not a popular painting in his lifetime, he was much better known for the rather overstated “Death of Chatterton”, 1856, a version of which hangs in the Birmingham Gallery also. Wallis once said that dead poets were more saleable than dead labourers! Born in 1830 to an unknown father (that’s interesting) his life changed when his mother married an architect and Henry was able to study at the Royal Acadamy and also in Paris.
The story goes that Wallis painted a new version of “Chatterton” whenever funds ran dry. I like this pragmatic approach; I should work on a celebrated cash-cow of a painting myself….
Dan and I studied this late Pre-Raphaelite Painting “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” by local boy Burne-Jones very closely.He pointed out that the beggar maid would have fitted right in at Glastonbury with her suprisingly “modern” hippy frock. I love the way the African king’s features are captured in profile.Yes, Burne-Jones employed his perfectly justified artistic licence to lengthen and attenuate his figures but this works well within his choice of subject matter. In contrast to this style I personally find Rossetti’s overly ripe and exaggerated female figures and faces a step too far for me.
Back to cash-cows and the ideals of starving romantically in Victorian garrets for one’s art; my companion on these visits until she became virtually house bound was my friend the painter, ceramicist and sculptor Pamela Phillips-Johnson.
Pam and I craved our Pre-Raphaelite fixes and stood in front of each painting for ages, analysing and enjoying at the same time. Like me, her style leans toward narrative symbolism, but unlike me she didn’t take day jobs to pay the bills or feed her children. Once hers had reached the relatively independent adult stage she rented a small flat and studio and just worked on her paintings and pieces of sculpture exclusively. She often skated close to penury and starvation quite literally and won’t mind me telling you all that her family and friends often had to bale her out.
The point of this true tale is that this woman’s integrity and her iron determination that her art came above all was absolutely admirable, if totally impractical. The question I will always ask myself is should I have made this lifestyle choice, once my children became independent? I will never know.
I saw Pam recently. Her various ailments and old age are restricting what she can do now, She is still skint, yet happy, and covered in paint and clay and ankle deep in stone chips.
She is also the woman who introduced me to Trev, who thinks that she is as mad as a box of frogs. In a good way of course. She knows that too…………..
Pam’s pieces, not great photos sorry