The University of Birmingham’s wide range of cultural collections are all cared for by the Research and Cultural Collections department. Working at RCC I got the opportunity to explore some of the collections and I particularly engaged myself with one of them, namely, the Schwarz Art Collection.
Hans Schwarz (1922-2003) was an artist, illustrator, sculptor and writer of Jewish heritage who came to Birmingham as a teenager in 1939 on the Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Austria. In Birmingham Schwarz found refuge and a home, working as an apprentice machine minder for the Cadbury family. He would later attend the Birmingham College of Art and establish himself as a freelance illustrator. In Birmingham he also met Lena who would become his wife and life long companion. In 1964, a few years after the couple moved to London, Schwarz gave up his commercial work in order to fully engage himself in his artistic endeavours. Schwarz would work long hours every day, seven days a week, throughout his working life and was as a result an amazingly prolific artist.
The Schwarz Art Collection, bequethed to the University by the artist’s sons Julian and Stephen Schwarz in 2011, includes paintings, sculptures and works on paper and provides great insight into Schwarz personal and artistic life. I’ve been working with organising the collection and documenting the artworks for the catalogue. Going through the collection I found everything from self-portraits and family scenes, to drawings on the back of a letter and a birthday card made by Schwarz for Lena. Its been a pleasure working with the collection and after going through and organising more than 400 of Hans Schwarz art works, I do feel like I’ve gotten to know him a little bit!
Schwarz’s made figurative art and was inspired by German Expressionists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele and the British figurative painters John Minton, Robert Coloquhoun and Keith Vaughan who were associated with the Neo-Romantic Movement. Schwarz is most notably known for his portraits and had a great interest in painting people. Schwarz said:
I like to paint people; I’m interested in them. If I were told I’m only allowed to do one subject from now on I’d say people. The portraits that I do are not just likenesses, the settings and the general feel are important too, so even if the genre of portraits were forgotten, they could still be looked at as paintings.
I’m currently working on an online exhibition of the Schwarz Art Collection, which is going to be published on RCC’s Flickr account in the near future. The online exhibition will discuss Schwarz life and art through a few selected images and provide a taste of some of the artworks in the collection. To view the final result, keep an eye on RCC’s Flickr account!
The Eton Myers Collection of Egyptian Antiquities bequeathed to Eton College by former pupil Major William Joseph Myers in 1899, is one of the world’s largest collections of Egyptian faience. More than 500 objects of the collection has been lent to the University of Birmingham by Eton College for teaching and research purposes, and I’ve been working with the collection as part of my IMCA placement. In short, its been an amazing experience; I’ve been introduced to the subject of Egyptology and gained valuable insights on the processes of handling and documenting Egyptian antiquities.
Myers was fascinated by ancient Egyptian artefacts and started to collect objects during his time in Egypt where he served as a soldier in the late 1800’s. Although Myers could not afford to buy large monuments and was restricted to collecting ‘minor art’ and objects that he could carry with him, I find his collection particularly interesting as it consists of a wide range of objects that large institutions like the Louvre and the British Museum were not interested in at the time. The collection includes objects like amulets, figurines, tools, vessels, chalices and much more. This blue faience lotus chalice is one of my absolute favourites!
Birmingham is conveniently located in the centre of Britain and the trains can take you pretty much anywhere in the country in just a few hours! I’ve taken every opportunity to travel and explore British history, art and culture and I have enjoyed every second of it! Here are some of the highlights:
The Winterbourne house, built in 1903-04, was commissioned by John and Margaret Nettlefold. The Arts and Crafts inspired villa, with examples of local craftsmanship throughout, was built with many modern features such as hot water points and gas fires. Winterbourne was also the first house in Birmingham to have electricity built into the designs! Both John and Margaret had big input into the house when it was built and Margaret also put a lot of effort into planning the beautiful Arts and Crafts inspired garden.
The exhibitions in the house focus on the Nettlefold family but also look at the local history and the importance of Winterbourne and its occupants within the wider community. The Winterbourne team is currently working on expanding the exhibition on Edwardian hobbies that is displayed in the house. They are in the early stage of planning the exhibition and researching new material, primarily letters, diaries and photographs of the Nettlefold family. To me its been an exciting time to join the Winterbourne team as I got to be part of the project, working on an exhibition proposal of how to display and disposition the exhibition.
I have spent a lot of my time at Winterbourne in the archives going through letters, photo albums and diaries of the Nettlefold family. The Nettlefolds were keen travellers and loved the out doors. Letters and diary notes describe holidays in Italy and France and cycling trips around the countryside and local villages. The Nettlefold family also had a great interest in the arts and several notes describe John and Margaret’s visits to the theatre and art exhibitions. Margaret’s diaries give detailed information on family activities and pastimes but also convey attitudes toward class and society in the Edwardian era. It’s been a great experience working on the project and I have learned a lot about the processes of exhibition planning. Unfortunately I won’t be in Birmingham for the exhibition opening to see the final result, but I guess that’s just a great excuse for me to come back and visit!
Winterbourne and its first occupants are fascinating in many ways but I found John Nettlefold and his passion for social reform and social housing particularly interesting. John was a British industrialist and earned his fortune manufacturing screws, bolts and nuts. He was initially part of GKN (Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds) but would later move on to becoming Birmingham’s most notable town planner and social reformer. Inspired by the Garden City Movement and Cadbury’s Bournville Estate John built the Moor Pool Estate in Harborne, Birmingham. In contrast to the horrible conditions of the Back-to-back houses the Moor Pool Estate offered low density housing, green and open spaces and community facilities. John is most notably renowned for his pioneering work as the chair of the first housing committee in Birmingham and his contribution to the improvement of public housing for the working classes. I think Winterbourne and the Nettlefold family has given me a great introduction to the Edwardian era and the local history of Birmingham and I am very interested to learn more about John and his work!
Every first Friday of the month Digbeth (a quite industrial part of Birmingham) comes alive with pop-up events, street food, live music, exhibitions and much more. I went to the Digbeth First Friday event in the beginning of July to explore Birmingham’s contemporary art scene and was really impressed with the whole thing! First of all I think Digbeth with its obscure red brick buildings has a really nice vibe. I went to a few different events including a Pop-up Waste Food Cafe hosted by Digbeth Community Garden and Centrala Gallery where PIND, an international art project with site specific work by the Estonian artists Carl-Robert Kagge, Anton Koovit and Uku Sepsivart are currently exhibited. I definitely enjoyed the First Friday, Digbeth offered a creative environment and the pay-as-you-feel street food was absolutely delicious!
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, established in 1932 for ‘the study and encouragement of art and music’, holds a relatively small but outstanding art collection. The collection includes the work of many great artists such as Dürer, Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini, Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, Claude, Gainsborough, Turner, Manet, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh and Gauguin. The magnificent Art Deco building also houses the Departments of Music and History of Art and facilitates offices, lecture halls, music auditorium and the lovely Fine Art Library. Let’s just say, I envy all the History of Art students at UoB who get to study in this setting with a world-class collection just up the stairs…
What’s so exciting about the Barber is that there is always something going on! The Barber’s calendar is packed with events such as workshops, gallery talks, lunch lectures, Youth club events etc. where the public is invited in to the galleries to enjoy the collection. I have attended quite a few lectures, talks and workshops on various topics over the past few weeks and what occurred to me is that the Barber is really good at targeting different groups – there seems to be something there for everyone! This is why I very much appreciated to spend some time with the Learning and Access team and to gain insight into their work and the strategies they use to reach out and make the collection accessible to the public.
My main project at the Barber has been to research art works from the print collection and put together a proposal for an upcoming Print Bay exhibition in one of the galleries. I decided to include 10 prints and watercolours in my proposal – all images of landscapes. In my interpretation of the art works I chose to focus on “the Traveller”, exploring different attitudes towards and ways of viewing the landscape. I absolutely loved working on the project and the time spent in the print room (where I got to have a close look at Dürer, Turner, Beardsley, van Dyck and other great artists work!) has definitely been one of the highlights of my time here!
On my first weekend I went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of the Merchant of Venice. I was very impressed by the actors, the scenography and the costumes and the whole experience was really quite amazing! Before it was time to head back home to Birmingham I had some time to explore the city and visit a few of the many inviting English bars, cafes and restaurants. I also took a walk along the river and visited the Holy Trinity Church – apparently one of Englands most beautiful parish churches and the place where William Shakespeare is buried! Needless to say, I had a very pleasant day in Stratford.