An Adaptable Trade: The Jewellery Quarter at War

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Last week saw the opening of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter’s (MJQ) First World War Centenary exhibition ‘An Adaptable Trade: The Jewellery Quarter at War’. The exhibition tells the story of how Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter was affected by the First World War and the different ways in which it adapted to wartime conditions. The changing role of women, the impact of recruitment, the production of munitions and war-related goods are explored, with case-studies of three local firms – Smith and Pepper, Deakin and Francis and Alabaster and Wilson.

This was the third and final exhibition I worked on as part of my traineeship. Beginning last autumn, I started researching the history of the Jewellery Quarter during the First World War and then spent a month at MJQ in February working with the site’s property managers and curators Laura and Ollie helping to develop the exhibition, its themes and content. The small scale of this exhibition meant I had the opportunity to get involved with various different aspects of putting an exhibition together, from meeting with lenders, ensuring objects were conserved and photographed and maintaining loan agreement and condition report documentation. We were very fortunate to work closely with two local firms, Deakin and Francis and Alabaster and Wilson, who kindly lent us objects from their own archives, which told the story of the impact the war had on their families and businesses.

Installing going smoothly thanks to our wonderful technicians!

Installing going smoothly thanks to our wonderful technicians!

Working with Laura and Ollie on this exhibition was a great experience; I learnt a lot about the differences curating a show for a heritage site and the ways in which the curatorial aspects of working at somewhere like MJQ has to be balanced out with the property management responsibilities – not an easy task!

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Some of the objects loaned to us by local jewellery firm Alabaster and Wilson.

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One of the fantastic original war posters in BMT’s collection, recruiting for Jewellers’ Companies.

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Seeing the exhibition come together and hearing all the positive responses on the opening night was wonderful; I feel very lucky to have been involved with an exhibition that has both national connections, through the First World War commemorations and local connections through the stories it tells of the firms and people of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter during the war.

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‘An Adaptable Trade: The Jewellery Quarter at War’ is on now at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter until June 2015.

 

Husbands, Brothers, Lovers: The Other Pre-Raphaelite Stunners

Ford Madox Brown, 'Male Nude - Academic nude Study, half-length with Moustache and Arms folded',  1846 – 1849, Birmingham  Museums Trust 1906P708

Ford Madox Brown, ‘Male Nude – Academic nude Study, half-length with Moustache and Arms folded’,
1846 – 1849, Birmingham Museums Trust 1906P708

I recently hosted an event in the Print Room at BMAG, taking a small group of visitors behind-the-scenes of the prints and drawings collection to explore a selection of works in storage during a special one-hour session.

I had the opportunity of devising, researching and organising the event around a theme of my own choosing and decided to draw on the museum’s fantastic collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings. My event ‘Husbands, Brothers, Lovers: The Other Pre-Raphaelite Stunners’ explored the ways in which the Pre-Raphaelites understood, imagined and depicted the male figure in their art.

Print room events give our visitors the opportunity of gaining a behind-the-scenes insight into the museum’s collection and the work we do, and allows us to engage with our audiences in more direct and informal way.

The print room is where we store the majority of BMAG’s works on paper collection, which ranges from early manuscripts of the 1500s, English Romantic watercolours of the 18th century, to British and European prints and drawings from the 19th century to the present day. The most famous part of our collection is undoubtedly the Pre-Raphaelite collection of drawings, which is the unique in the world for its size, breadth and quality of works. This majority of this collection came to the museum from two important Victorian collectors, Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919) and James Richardson Holliday (1840-1927).

Fairfax Murray began his career as a studio assistant for both Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also working as a workshop assistant for Morris and Company transferring working cartoons onto stained glass. Following a trip to Italy in 1871-22, he became a copyist for John Ruskin, creating copies of major Italian works. After marrying and settling in Florence in 1878, he increasingly worked as a collector and dealer and went on to become one of the most prominent art dealers, collectors and connoisseurs of his day. He amassed his collection of Pre-Raphaelite drawings mainly from studio sales after the artists’ deaths and in 1903 agreed to sell them as a whole to Birmingham. Keeper of the museum Whitworth Wallis sought the funds via public subscription, gathering two groups of subscribers in 1904 and 1906, amongst whom were several notable Birmingham locals, including John Cadbury.

Holliday, a Birmingham solicitor, also acted as subscriber to help purchase the Fairfax Murray collection and sat on the Board of Trustees of the Public Picture Gallery Fund from 1893. His collection was bequeathed to the nation, with a considerable amount coming to Birmingham consisting of Pre-Raphaelite drawings and cartoons.

I structured my session broadly chronologically, beginning in the 1840s-1850s with some early academic studies from antique casts and life models by Ford Madox Brown, Frederick Sandys and Henry Wallis. Particularly for a young artist keen to enter the Royal Academy Schools, being able to copy from antique casts was seen as a marker of artistic merit and taste.

Frederick Sandys, 'Male Nude - Copy from Antinoüs', 1846, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1906P933

Frederick Sandys, ‘Male Nude – Copy from Antinoüs’, 1846, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1906P933

Life drawing classes were another essential aspect of artistic training. Ford Madox Brown attended several different life drawing schools in London and Henry Wallis continued to draw from the nude model throughout his career. Male professional paid models were often from a working-class background, as the physical demands of their everyday work was seen to give them the physique that most closely approximated the classical ideal that was held up as the epitome of the male body that from a traditional and academic viewpoint was seen to be what an artist should strive towards in his depiction of the male form.

Henry Wallis, 'Study of a nude Man with Club', 1850 – 1860 Birmingham Museums Trust, 1918P12

Henry Wallis, ‘Study of a nude Man with Club’,
1850 – 1860
Birmingham Museums Trust, 1918P12

I then showed a selection of works from the 1850s period that explored the Pre-Raphaelites move away from using professional paid models to using each other and their colleagues instead. This was a significant aspect of the Pre-Raphaelite stylistic method, and not merely for convenience or economic reasons. The person chosen to sit for a particular figure or character was seen to embody certain qualities of that character in real-life. Furthermore, in their insistence on ‘truth-to-nature’, the Pre-Raphaelites avoided subsuming the individuality of the sitter into the character within the fantasy world of the picture. Traditionally, the noticeable presence of the model in the picture space was seen as a failure on the part of the artist to accurately convey their subject matter – the model was there to support the depiction of the character, but not impose on the overall impression whatsoever. However, the Pre-Raphaelites maintained their sitters’ individuality, meaning that in their paintings we can identify both the imaginary figure and the real-life person chosen to model for it – this is perhaps most famously seen in the figures of Lizzie Siddall/Beata Beatrix or Jane Morris/Proserpine.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Seed of David - Study for David', 1859 – 1862 Birmingham Museums Trust, 1904P261

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Seed of David – Study for David’,
1859 – 1862
Birmingham Museums Trust, 1904P261

Moving into the 1860s, the next group of works focussed on male characters drawn from key literary sources which inspired the subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelites works. These male characters taken from narratives and mythologies can be understood as fictional role models for the artists. In particular, they were drawn to the legend of the Holy Grail and the figure of the holy knight on spiritual quest. Sir Galahad was esteemed as an ideal of masculinity, being celibate, pure, spiritual, and pious – emphasising spirituality and religious faith, opposite notion of male as sexual and passionate being embodied by Launcelot.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Sir Galahad at the ruined Chapel', 1857 – 1859, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1892P4

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Sir Galahad at the ruined Chapel’, 1857 – 1859,
Birmingham Museums Trust, 1892P4

I then focused on two of the younger artists of the circle around Rossetti, sometimes known as the ‘second-generation’ and their unique, individual approach to the male figure. Simeon Solomon’s male figures are of a distinctive androgynous type, characterised by a fluid blending of both male and female characteristics and often depicted in ethereal, dream-like environments.

Simeon Solomon, 'Perseus with the Head of Medusa', 1840 – 1905 Birmingham Museums Trust, 1908P310

Simeon Solomon, ‘Perseus with the Head of Medusa’, 1840 – 1905
Birmingham Museums Trust, 1908P310

For Edward Burne-Jones, Michelangelo became a major influence on his work from the 1870s onwards, particularly after a trip to Italy in 1872 where he studied the figures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In his sketches from life models at the time, the Michelangelesque body has a pervasive presence and Burne-Jones brings out the dynamism and virility of the Renaissance male body to brilliant effect.

Edward Burne-Jones, 'Male Nude - Study for St Matthew the Evangelist', 1873, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1927P530

Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Male Nude – Study for St Matthew the Evangelist’,
1873, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1927P530

Edward Burne-Jones, 'Draped Study for St Matthew the Evangelist', 1873, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1927P531

Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Draped Study for St Matthew the Evangelist’, 1873, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1927P531

The final selection of works focused on a lesser known and rarely seen area of the Pre-Raphaelites’ artistic output – humorous caricatures dating from the early years of the formation of the group. These really bring to life the Pre-Raphaelites’ collaborative and fraternal nature, as well as showing their great sense of humour and self-awareness as to how they were perceived by the contemporary London art scene.

Simeon Solomon, 'Sir Galipot bearing the holy Gruel', 1855 – 1859, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1922P20

Simeon Solomon, ‘Sir Galipot bearing the holy Gruel’,
1855 – 1859, Birmingham Museums Trust, 1922P20

From its creation to delivery, I really enjoyed putting on this event. I had a wonderful group who were keen to discuss the works and offer their thoughts and it is always wonderful to be able to show objects that are rarely displayed.

Exposed Installation Week 2

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The second week of installation began with setting out and hanging the final themed section of Exposed ‘Imagining’. The temporary exhibition space at The Herbert can be sectioned off with temporary walls, to create a variety of different areas. Previously, the space had housed two separate exhibitions, ‘Quentin Blake: As Large As Life’ (in the main, larger space) and ‘Sikh Fortress Turban’, which closed over the weekend during the ‘Exposed’ installation. The smaller extra space could be prepared and opened up for use as part of ‘Exposed’.

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The works for the ‘Imagining’ section were condition checked, set out on foam blocks and then attached to the walls.

SImeon Solomon, Ceri Richards and Francis Bacon being condition checked and laid out.

SImeon Solomon, Ceri Richards and Francis Bacon being condition checked and laid out.

This week we also finished installing all the sculpture. This went smoothly overall, until we came to moving Anthony Gormley’s Iron Man Maquette into place. Due to its fragile nature, lifting and moving it was not a possibility. Instead, we had to carefully tilt it, fit blankets underneath its plinth, and then very gently drag it to its correct place. This was especially nervewracking, but we managed it with success!

Anthony Gormley's 'Maquette for Iron Man' safely in place!

Anthony Gormley’s ‘Maquette for Iron Man’ safely in place!

Venus and Cupid (left) and Adonis (right)

Venus and Cupid (left) and Adonis (right)

We also got a preview of the fantastic Children’s Trail activity box that The Herbert’s Schools Learning Officer Mel had produced together with artist Sian Watson.IMG_2546

Just testing out the children's activities...

Just testing out the children’s activities…

The last couple of days of installation were busy with putting up the interpretation text in the form of wall vinyls for the introductory panel texts to each themed section and foam labels for each artwork.

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Whilst reading through one of the panel texts I spotted something which I’m sure most curators dread at this stage of delivering an exhibition – a mistake! Fortunately, the mistake was on one of the wall vinyls and easily replaced.

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Spot the difference!

Spot the difference!

The objects for the display cases were put in place and the lighting was adjusted to ensure that all the works were adequately illuminated but also kept within the correct light levels for conservation purposes. The amount of light hitting an object can be measured with a light meter that senses and gives a reading for the light hitting surface, given in ‘lux’. For all works on paper, the correct amount of light should be at 50 lux or below and oil paintings and sculpture at 150 lux or below.

Measuring the lux reading for Henry Tonks' sketchbook

Measuring the lux reading for Henry Tonks’ sketchbook

Finally, barriers were put up in front of unglazed works and the last wall vinyls and panels, audio guides and children’s activity bags put in place and display cases dusted down, Exposed was ready to open to the public!

I had a really enjoyable time working on my first exhibition installation and gained valuable experience during the process. I feel particularly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on a regional museums partnership exhibition, which has taught me about the importance of such exhibitions in promoting the wonderful collections of the UK’s regional museums and how museums can work together to support each other’s public programmes and diversify their audiences. Working with The Herbert’s curatorial, technical and front of house staff was wonderful and I owe them my heartfelt thanks for all their hard work to put Exposed on and also their support for me during my placement.

Exposed: The Body in Art from Dürer to Freud is on now at The Herbert Gallery, Coventry until April 22nd 2014.

Condition checking loans for Exposed

One of the most important processes essential to caring and safeguarding museum objects requested for loan is condition checking. In the lead up to the major regional loan exhibition Exposed: The Body in Art from Dürer to Freud opening at The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, Coventry on 22nd November, I had the opportunity to learn about and get involved with condition checking the works being loaned to the show from Birmingham Museums’ collection.

The basic purpose of condition checking a work is to ask  ‘is it damaged?’ Damage is understood to be anything from dirt, minor scratches and abrasions to cracking, loss of parts of the work and evidence of previous repairs or conservation. It is essential that any such visible damage is carefully recorded in a consistent and clear manner in order to be communicated to the museum/gallery borrowing the work. Existing damage is understood to be part of the ‘received’ condition of the work as it will be displayed. Furthermore, condition checking then makes it easier to distinguish any subsequent damage that can occur during transit to and from each venue or during the period a work is on display. If anything unfortunate does occur to a work while on loan, the decision as to who takes responsibility for this is then easily resolved.

I spent a day with Jane Thompson Webb, Conservation Officer at Birmingham Museums Trust who took me through the step-by-step process of condition checking a work for loan. At BMAG, we use a form onto which various information about the work’s current condition is recorded. It also includes an image of the work, so that specific areas of damage or concern can be clearly annotated. This form is then sent along with the work to the borrowing venue and once unpacked, the work is condition checked again against the information on the form. After the exhibition ends, the work is condition checked again before being sent back to its home museum and finally checked once more when it arrives home and is unpacked. Just learning about this intensive process has made me very aware of how agreeing to loan a work is far from a simple decision!

Ceri Richards' 'The Rape of the Sabines'

Ceri Richards’ ‘The Rape of the Sabines’ in the conservation studio.

Ceri Richards’ ‘The Rape of the Sabines’ raised an interesting issue as its  surface has various deep scratches and marks – these are original to the work and were made by the hand of the artist. However, even these areas were noted on its condition form – because of the subjective nature of condition checking, you can never assume that the conservator at the borrowing museum will also understand such marks as original.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'La Donna Della Finestra'

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘La Donna Della Finestra’

With paintings, it’s very important to include the frame in the condition check, as it forms part of the received work, and can also suffer damage. The frame of Rossetti’s ‘La Donna Della Finestra’ features moulded gesso details that were applied separately onto the main frame. As such, some of these pieces are vulnerable to damage, chipping and loss.

Plaster cast of the hands of Edward Burne-Jones (left) and Georgiana Burne-Jones (right)

Plaster cast of the hands of Edward Burne-Jones (left) and Georgiana Burne-Jones (right)

With three-dimensional objects such as sculpture, it’s important to look at them from all angles and record any chips, losses or surface abrasion. These plaster casts of the hands of Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones are, I think, the strangest and most obscure works going into Exposed!

Hand of Georgiana Burne-Jones - note the included detail of her wedding band.

Hand of Georgiana Burne-Jones – note the inclusion of her wedding band in the cast. These casts entered Birmingham Museums’ collection unrecorded and it is not known their true function and purpose. It’s possible that they were made to commemorate an anniversary – or maybe the Burne-Jones’ were just bored in the studio one day!

A touch of genius - condition checking the hand of Edward Burne-Jones

A touch of genius – condition checking the hand of Edward Burne-Jones

Halloween at the Museum Collections Centre!

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On the 31st of October, Birmingham Museums’s Collection Centre turns into a warehouse of horrors for Halloween. Strewn with sticky spiderwebs and dimly lit by flickering tealights, it’s the one night of the year where the wierdest and strangest of objects in the collection come out to play together.

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From leering taxidermy ferrets and plaster cast limbs, to creepy dolls and a skeleton reclining in a dentist’s chair, a walk through the aisles of the warehouse after dark on Halloween is a disturbingly different experience from the normal daytime tour.

I volunteered to help frighten our visitors a bit more, so dressed as a ghostly Renaissance woman, stalked the aisles with my fellow costumed BMT spooks, having a fiendish time while doing so!

Getting spooked 1940s B movie horror-style

Getting spooked 1940s B movie horror-style

Being spooky with my new found pet

Being spooky with my new found pet

The MCC Halloween crew

The MCC Halloween crew

All photos thanks to the wonderful creative eye of our History Curator Jo, last one by our lovely Collections Support Officer Emily.

Print Room visit: Woodcuts

One of the print room visits I recently helped supervise was focused on woodcut prints. The visitor initially requested to look at a selection of Japanese woodcuts in BMAG’s collection, and we also showed some original 19th-century Japanese woodblocks.

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This one appeared to be a distinguished portrayal of a warrior-type figure. Look closely though and you can see that he is carrying the severed head of an enemy – quite a terrifying portrayal!

Woodblock print by Hiroshige, c. mid-19th century

Woodblock print by Hiroshige, c. mid-19th century

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We then showed some examples of British woodblock prints, specifically the amazing Dalziel’s Bible Gallery. The Dalziel Bible was published in 1881 by the Dalziel brothers Edward, John and George. The brothers approached various artists of the day including George Frederic Watts, Edward Poynter, Frederic Leighton, Simeon Solomon and Frederick Sandys to produce designs of Old Testament subjects for their illustrated Bible. Birmingham Museum’s bible is number 256 of only 1000 produced. Find out more here: http://www.preraphaelites.org/the-collection/1920p713.1/dalziels-bible-gallery/

The Israelites in Egypt - Water Carriers by Edward Poynter

The Israelites in Egypt – Water Carriers by Edward Poynter

Jacob Hears the Voice of the Lord by Frederick Sandys

Jacob Hears the Voice of the Lord by Frederick Sandys

Samson Carrying the Gates by Frederic Leighton

Samson Carrying the Gates by Frederic Leighton

The Victorian Tactile Imagination, Day 2

Day 2

Dr Constance Classen gave the opening plenary of the second day. She discussed the Victorians’ obsession with memento mori and the need to have tokens of love and death that involved a tactile experience were rooted in a wider fasciantion with objects not only of the personal and private realm but those found in museums. The Victorians’ interaction with museum collections involved not only looking, but also touching, holding and stroking these enchanting objects. Queen Victoria’s mourning of Prince Albert and her own interest in memento mori exemplifies the ‘cult of death’ prevalent during this period. The Queen had a cast made of the Prince’s arm, which she held hands with and requested to be buried with it. As memento mori provided a means to bridge the gap between life and death through a tactile object, so the act of touching works displayed in museums was rooted in a desire to have tactile dominion over the realms of time and space.

Dr Classen discussed the Victorian museum visitor’s tactile need in relation to the Egyptian mummy of the British Museum, the star attraction at this time. The way a Victorian visitor encountered Egyptian mummies presented a complex and emotionally-invested experience. In itself the mummy presented a problem as its bandages were seen as a barrier to sight and touch. Public unwrappings and ‘unwrapping parties’ were held in which a mummy would be unrolled for the curiosity and entertainment of a gathered audience. The surgeon and antiquarien Thomas Pettigrew (1791-1865) became famous in London social circles for holding such parties and published History of Egyptian Mummies, 1834. Ladies in the audience would be given pieces of the mummy’s bandages to touch and smell. Many contemporary sources describe the sensory experience of a tactile encounter with a mummy. They are described as having a variety of textures, from fragile and dusty, hard from tar used to preserve them, or soft and pliant. The smell of mummies was described as a pungent odour, between spices and decay, which linked to Victorian ideas of immortality and death and the conception of the East as both enticing and corrupt. Even more strangely, the taste of mummies was also an element of the Victorian’s sensory experience. Mummy ‘dust’ was often used as a medicine and Classen explained there are even accounts of it being seen as a gustatory delicacy!

Professor Lynda Nead (Birkbeck) gave a wonderful paper on what she described as ‘temporalities, texture and textile’ in relation to women’s fashion in the 1850s, specifically the crinoline. Professor Nead discussed the increasing elaboration and ornamentation of women’s dress during the mid-1850s and the role, meaning and function of the crinoline in relation to a woman’s sense of self, social status and pleasure. I found her discussion of the crinoline as a source of pleasure and self-esteem for women of the time fascinating. From our modern point of view, such items of clothing are usually percieved as restrictive and burdensome to women of the time, yet Professor Nead explained how the lightness of the new steel-wire crinolines introduced buoyancy and a sense of floating into its wearing and furthermore, the ever-expanding size of crinolines and the masses of fabric used to make the skirts to cover it meant that women actually possessed a power and presence over their own space – indeed satires of contemporary fashion such as those illustrated in Punch cartoons reveal an underlying alarm that women were now taking up too much space.  Professor Nead focused her argument on Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s painting The Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting (1855).

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 'The Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting', 1855,  Oil on canvas, 300 × 420 cm, Musée du Second Empire, Château de Compiègne.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, ‘The Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting’ (1855)
Oil on canvas, 300 × 420 cm, Musée du Second Empire, Château de Compiègne.

Giving an in-depth visual analysis of, Nead discussed the layers, folds, pleats and masses of fabric in Winterhalter’s painting, the texture and sheen of silks and skin and the idea of space and frothy mass create not only a ‘textural’ canvas surface, but also an atmosphere from the haptic nature of all these elements. Nead then drew out this image of beauty and power into one of vanitas and sadness as she recounted how in the Princess’ refuge after the overthrow of the Second French Empire as a result of the Franco-Prussian war and as an elderly woman, she kept this very painting above the doorway to the main hallway of her residence in England, where all visitors could see it upon entering.

I heard many other fascinating papers and overall the conference was very inspiring.