Visiting the Birmingham Museum of Art

Now that the fabulous exhibition The Look of Love has closed in at the Birmingham Museum of Art in the largest city in Alabama, I want to encourage a visit to see the permanent collections. You will find many fascinating objects and stories. The website is here.

Because I found the exhibition of Lover’s Eyes so exciting, I admit I skipped some of the Museum’s excellent collections of Asisan, African, Native American, and pre-Colombian art — which is really a shame.  However, I lingered in the American and British galleries as long as I could.

In the American galleries, you will find outstanding works from many familiar artists and movements.  One of my favorite groups is the Hudson River School, usually sweeping and dramatic views of the American landscape. 

Looking Down the Yosemite Valley, California, 1865
 Alfred Bierstadt, German-American, 1830-1902

Portraits are always popular, especially those of heroes — and beautiful women.

Portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry, Hero of Lake Erie
by Jane Stuart (1812-1888)

Jane Stuart was the daughter of that renowned painter of early Americans such as George Washington, Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828).  Jane assisted her father in his work and after his death carried on his portraiture and promoted his legacy.

In the Galleries
John Singer Sargent was well known in Europe and the U.S. for his outstanding portraiture, continuing the magnificent tradition of Lawrence, Gainsborough and Van Dyke.  Lush colors, rich fabrics, flattering facial and body characteristics, and an overall impression of aristocracy were a few of the characteristics these artists shared.

Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon
John Singer Sargent, American, 1856-1925

I notice that many museums have trouble deciding whether to put the work of Thomas Sully and Benjamin West in the British or American galleries.  It seems to depend upon which side of the Atlantic the institution rests.

Thomas Sully, American, born England (1783-1872)
Prison Scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot 1841

“Cecilia Howard and Katherine Plowden arousing the prisoner Edward Griffiths from his slumber.” 

Erasistratus the Physician Discovers the Love of Antiochus for Stratonica, 1772
Benjamin West, b. U.S., d. Great Britain 1738-1820

Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania and early in life showed artistic promise. He moved to London in 1863 and within a few years was named historical painter to George III. West served as second president of the Royal Academy of Art. The painting above is typical of the very popular style of large historical paintings in the third quarter of the 18th century.  There are many fine portraits it he British Gallery by an array of excellent 18th and early 19th century artists.

Unknown Sitter, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, British (1769-1830)
ca. 1800
Wilson Gale-Braddyll (1756-1818) 1776
by George Romney, English 1734-1802
Captain Arthur Blake 1769
Sir Joshua Reynolds, English (1723-1792)
1st President of the Royal Academy of Art
E. Finley, Esq.
Sir Henry Raeburn, Scottish 1756-1823
Mrs. William Monck 1760-65
Thomas Gainsborough, English 1727-1788

The Birmingham Museum of Art has wonderful collections of Decorative Arts, below a scene in the British Gallery.

The chair, ca. 1775, originated in the workshop of Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779), mahogany, with modern upholstery.

Sewing Box on Stand, 1790, attributed to Matthew Boulton, English (1728-1809)
Rosewood with stoneware (jasperware), silver and cut steel

Below:   Wedgwood,   Britannia Triumphant, jasper; holding a portrait medallion of George III. Thought to have been made to commemorate the victory of British Naval forces over the French in 1798.


The figure itself, attributed to John Flaxman Jr., English, 175501826
The collection of Wedgwood is stupendous, totalling almost 10,000 pieces from 1759 to the mid-20th century. Below of wall of medallions, mostly Jasper.

Below, a selection of vases from various Wedgwood periods.

Wedgwood, designed by Halsey Ricardo, England 1854-1928
Originally made for Buckminster Park, Leicestershire
house demolished 1952

Obviously, I could go on for ages telling you about the glories of the museum.  But I will leave that to you, as you investigate their very fine website.  I close with a final piece, a charming cherub head that caught my eye.

Scent Bottle, ca. 1750
soft paste porcelain with gold mount
from the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory
Chelsea, England

Visiting the Geffreye Museum by Guest Blogger Jo Manning

Geffrye Museum frontage, showing extensive lawns…a serene place of an afternoon to wander about or just to sit on a bench and contemplate life…

Blogger  Margarita  Lorenzo (her blog is here) writes:  

“13 years I have been in London, and never have visited the Geffrye Museum before, that is bad!! considering it is a bus ride away from home, free to visit and about a subject I adore, interiors.  [I] decided to venture to East London to discover a bit more about this area and the Museum. The venue is the right size, have gorgeous gardens, entrance, and rooms exploring each period of the English Middle Class houses and their decorations, different styles, ways of living etc. … “ 

Main entrance to Geffrey Museum, with statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, who was a Lord Mayor of London and Master of the Ironmongers Company, over the door

Ms. Lorenzo’s remarks are what one hears over and over again when the Geffrye Museum is mentioned in conversation… Yes, people have heard the name, but, no, they’ve never visited, and, gee, it’s so accessible using public transportation! 

And the exhibitions are always worthwhile.  In keeping with the dedicated educational purpose of the Geffrye, there are excellent demonstrations and talks.  Their holiday celebrations are not to be missed! (Though be warned that the herb gardens may not be open to the public at that time.) Click here for upcoming events. 
So, yes, if one has the time, walk…but take a good map.  There are some challenging blocks from the tube station to the Geffrye, many windings and turnings. (And some excellent Vietnamese restaurants, though I’d recommend eating in the brand-new, very nice restaurant at the Geffrye.)  This used to be the seat of the furniture trade and a Jewish area.  It was also home to Huguenot weavers. The little houses where the weavers lived and wove are now selling in the millions of pounds.

 Before lottery money, the Geffrye was these old almshouses bequeathed by a wealthy 17th century London merchant, a charming but rather modest low-key and free museum that was a must on school visit lists.  Its raison d’etre was the glimpse of the many rooms, by ce
ntury and decade, depicting life in London. 
Since my initial visit some dozen or so years ago, the Geffrye has blossomed.  Yes, that lottery money!  It enabled the museum to put in more extensive herb gardens (a joy!), expand the educational nature of the museum with gallery space and a large room for crafts and other activities, add additional period rooms, exhibition space, and, last though certainly not least, to install a gorgeous restaurant where once there was only a modest café.

(See for a virtual tour, or, using the search term Geffryre Museum, click on to Google Images. The new website is amazing!)

Below is a good aerial view of the 1998 extension to the Geffrye. You are seeing the windows of the restaurant that look out onto the new herb gardens.  If you could see further, there’s a wall and beyond that, the new tube station. The church spire is St Leonard’s, I believe, and you can just make out some of the tall office buildings (the famed Gherkin is one of them) in the environs of Liverpool Street.  Directly across from the museum is well-maintained council housing. The architectural firm responsible for the extension done in 1998 was Branson Coates Architecture.
The Branson Coates extension to the Geffrye almshouse, above.

In May of this year, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £518,500 to the firm of renowned architect David Chipperfield for a new, major development.  The resulting museum will be renamed Museum of the Home. (Surely not! Will they really eliminate the name of the benefactor Geffrye from the museum’s name? Methinks it will be along the lines of:  The Geffrye, Museum of the Home.)

schematic of the design

According to the Geffrye Museum website: “The total project cost is an estimated £13.2m and is due for completion in April 2015.”

Masterplan by David Chipperfield Architects, 2010

A view of Sir Robert Geffrye’s almhouses, 1805

It was apparently owing to influential members of the Arts and Crafts movement in England, circa 1914, that the old almshouses became a museum.  One of the main ideas behind it was to honor the local furniture industry in the Shoreditch/Spitalfields area and “to educate and inspire the local workforce”.  The major consumers of such furniture were London’s middle-class, so the period rooms reflect middle-class taste and furniture affordable to them.  

1906 watercolour 


According to the Geffrye website:
   “The museum’s collections are presented in the context of period      rooms…Their purpose is to show the changing styles and tastes of this  urban middle class at different periods of history. They represent liv
ing rooms, known in the past as parlours, and later, drawing rooms, and  show examples of the furniture, textiles and decorative styles…in a particular period. Clearly there were always a number of designs, colours  and patterns to choose from, and these displays can only show a limited  selection.”

1790 Parlour
Again from the Geffrye website:
            “The use of the parlour remained much the same as earlier in the  century… the room where the family … gathered, received guests and taken meals. However, the way it was decorated and furnished had  changed considerably.
            “In diaries, journals and letters of the time people often referred to rooms and furnishings that they liked as ‘neat’, which meant bright and stylish as  well as clean and tidy. This taste required lighter colours and more delicate decoration. Wallpapered walls were particularly useful for achieving this effect, replacing heavily moulded panelling.  
            “In the museum’s room the wallpaper is a modern replica copied from a  fragment dating to around 1780. The plaster frieze is copied from a house in Cross Street, Islington. Interest in classical design and decoration was increasingly widespread towards the end of the century.”
Keep in mind that the primary visitors to the Geffrye are school groups.  I think that this description is clear but does not make the mistake of talking down to students. The rooms are accessible, the descriptions brief, and every child can surely relate to the concept of a living room.

And the gardens!  These are my favorite part of the Geffrye, to be honest. (A word of caution:  they are not open all year around, so check before visiting if this is would be an important reason for your visit.) When I first found my way to the Geffrye, there was only this (below).  When more funds became available to the museum, period gardens were put in place, and they are brilliant.
Entering the first (and original) herb garden

 And here is the 18th Century Period Garden:

This is rose “De Meux” with a box hedge

 “Town gardens were increasingly seen as an extension of the house, a place for recreation and entertainment … The evidence indicates that the prevailing taste was for simplicity and tidiness, with ornamental gardens featuring paved and/or rolled gravel paths, geometric beds with box edging and the use of evergreen shrubs, often clipped and kept distinct from  one another.”

Last year at the Geffrye  —  I am in the Period Gardens   over my left shoulder is the restaurant  — to my right and behind the brick wall, is  the brand-new and spiffy Hoxton Station, on the spur line coming from Liverpool Street Station
What else is there to do at the Geffrye?  And you will have to dedicate at least 2 hours to the galleries and gardens; 3 hours if you decide to have lunch. (Wish they’d post the menus online! It’s great English fo
od, the best.)

Well, there is a very fine shop.  (I’d recommend buying the beeswax polish, for starters, great for antique furniture!)  Nice ceramics and fun stuff for children like the Regency paper doll.  There are inexpensive and handy cutaways of period houses that can be very useful for writers of historical fiction, too.  Check here for items made exclusively for the museum.


 Above is a schematic map showing how to get there from Liverpool Street Station. The Geffrye stop is Hoxton Station. You won’t have to walk if you don’t want to do so. (Or, you could walk there, through that intriguing old East London area, and return to Liverpool Street by tube…)
I would also recommend walking around that Liverpool Street area, checking out all the (expensive!) trendy shops and restaurants, and don’t forget to take a photo under the famous Brick Lane sign.  You’ll be happy you did  — Jo

* I assume everyone reading this knows what almshouses were…but, just in case, here is the definition, from the online Cambridge Dictionary:

“A private house built in the past where old or poor people could live without having to pay rent.”  

It’s as good a definition as any, but I would add that both private individuals and local towns, villages, etc., would erect such houses.  Their distinctive style of architecture can be seen all over England and many have been converted to senior citizen subsidized housing.

Lansdowne House and the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne

Lansdowne House, c. 1920
Lansdowne House, located adjacent to Berkeley Square, was begun by Lord Bute. Architect Robert Adam, had not finished the house when it was sold to William Petty-Fitzmaurice (1737–1805), Earl of Shelburne, later named first Marquess of Lansdowne. After Adam completed the house in 1768, the house was often the scene of social and political maneuvering among London’s leading Whigs. 
William Petty-FitzMaurice, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, KG, PC (1737 – 1805), known as The Earl of Shelburne between 1761 and 1784, was Prime Minister 1782 – 1783 during the final months of the American War of Independence.

Shellburne/Lansdowne was a fascinating example of the quintessential 18th C. British gentleman, wealthy, politically active, supportive of scientific experimentation, an avid collector of art treasures, and occasionally quite eccentric. Horace Walpole mistrusted him, writing, “He was so well known that he could only deceive by speaking truth.” But Shelburne/Lansdowne was a friend of many: he advocated for the rights of Nonconformists,worked to soothe relationships with the former colonies in North America, both US and Canadian, and befriended Jeremy Bentham, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Dr. Johnson, David Garrick, and Benjamin Franklin. For more information on the building, which presently houses the Lansdowne Club, please see my previous post of March 29, 2010.
Lansdowne Club, London, c. 2009
One of Lord Shelburne’s friends was Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), who discovered oxygen in the laboratory supplied to him at the Shelburne country house of Bowood. A version of this room can be seen today at the estate near Chippenham in Wiltshire.

Priestley was also a dissenter and clergyman as well as an educator, political observer, and scientist. He conducted many experiments with gasses and electricity. His religious and political writings were controversial and he was several times persecuted by mobs for his views. Lord Shelburne supported Priestly and his family for a number of years. Priestly was able to pursue his scientific interests as well as advising Lord Shelburne on political matters. But they had a falling out about 1779 and Priestly moved to Birmingham, England, where he continued his religious, scientific and philosophical pursuits.

About the time his portrait was done by Ellen Sharples in 1794, Priestley emigrated to the United States and lived in Pennsylvania for the rest of his life.

The first Marquess of Lansdowne, after he received the title, largely for his work in negotiating the end of the war, withdrew from active political participation. He continued his many interests in scientific pursuits, philosophy and in his collections. 

His descendents still live at Bowood, about which I shall post soon.

JO MANNING to present talk at Dr. Johnson’s House, London May 20th

“When a man is tired of London . . . “
Jo Manning, author of My Lady Scandalous, Seducing Mr. Heywood, The Sicilian Amulet and other novels will be speaking at Dr. Johnson’s House, London. The topic of Jo’s talk will be Artists and Their Models: A Personal Insight Into Three Georgian Artists and Their Favorite Female Sitters and will include a personal look at three prominent Georgian artists – Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and George Romney – and what Jo Manning imagines their relationships were with several of their female sitters.
Jo asks, “Have you ever wondered, when you looked at a particularly beautiful portrait, what the dynamics were between the artist and his/her sitter? While researching the world of Grace Dalrymple Elliott for my biography, My Lady Scandalous, I delved deeply into the Georgian art scene and came to some interesting conclusions about three particular artists and their favorite models, all of them women who happened to be courtesans. These portraits are not only beautiful works of art by gifted artists; I believe they tell a fascinating story about the relationship of each of these men to his model(s) and thus serve to enrich our viewing pleasure.”
Dr. Johnson’s House is one of the few residential houses from the period still surviving in the City of London. Built in 1700, the house has now been restored to its original condition, with a collection of period furniture, prints and portraits. Situated to the north of Fleet Street, the house is found among a maze of courtyards and passages that are a reminder of historic London. If you’re going to be in London on May 20th, I urge you to attend. If Jo’s other seminars are anything to go by, this talk will be a pip!