The People’s Galleries: Birmingham City Art Gallery

Giles Waterfield’s The People’s Galleries is a wide-ranging examination of the phenomenon of the art museum in Britain, from its early days in 1800 when the British Museum was Britain’s only public museum, to the onset of the First World War. Paying particular attention to museums outside London, Waterfield argues that these new museums – and especially the art museums – represented a different type of institution that had not previously existed in Britain, or internationally.

To mark the release of this publication we are sharing a three-part series of extracts from The People’s Galleries that explore the origins of these museums, many of which still exist today and are as popular as ever. The second in the series looks at the Birmingham City Art Gallery.

From The People’s Galleries

by Giles Waterfield

By 1885 Birmingham Art Gallery had acquired permanent premises in the centre of the city through the generosity of a private patron. Its six rooms epitomised the dialectic between industrial art and fine art that marked the emergence of some Victorian galleries. On arrival, visitors found themselves in a circular hall hung with a hundred or so paintings, almost all of the modern British school. This room was separated from the other picture gallery by a suite of three rooms dedicated to the institution’s declared purpose of instruction in design. The Italian Gallery, the next room on the route, contained a mélange, with statuary and paintings treated as subsidiary to the decorative arts. Metalwork naturally played an important role in a city of metal production, and the catalogue, emphasising materials, included extended observations on ‘Decorative Iron Work’. Etruscan vases, maiolica, wooden furniture, stone doorways and balconies, ceramics and ‘Della Robbia Ware’, and enamels were also on view, some in the wooden and glass show cases patented by the South Kensington Museum. Borrowing heavily, the Industrial Hall contained in rows of cases on two levels assorted bronzes, enamels and ivories, many from the Far East, together with jewellery, textiles, arms and electrotypes representing European and Asian work from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth. The Wedgwood Gallery exhibited the collection of the Tangye brothers, whose offer to establish a purchase fund for works of art, along with the loan of their Wedgwood collection, had stimulated the erection of the building . The Great Gallery – a descendant of the Great Rooms of the early nineteenth century – reverted to paintings. Here indeed was a museum of the fine and of the decorative arts, cohabiting, though in a relationship that was to become increasingly strained.

The People’s Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain, 1800-1914 by Giles Waterfield is available from Yale University Press.

For an article written by the author, please click here. 

The People's Galleries

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