Barber Institute of Fine Arts awarded Grade 1-listed building status

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Barber Institute of Fine Arts awarded Grade 1-listed building status
The Birmingham art gallery once described as ‘the perfect place to contemplate art’ has been awarded the highest heritage honour, Grade 1-listed building status.

BIRMINGHAM.- The Birmingham gallery once described as ‘the perfect place to contemplate art’ has been awarded the highest heritage honour, Grade 1-listed building status.

Announcing the updated listing from Grade 2, Historic England said: “The Barber is a building of exquisite architectural quality, with a sophisticated design which follows logically from its plan, arranged around the central auditorium; for the set-piece interiors, particularly the auditorium, which express the sophisticated style of the 1930s; for the remarkable quality of the detailing throughout, with even the smallest features contributing to the thoughtfulness of the overall design. for its survival with relatively little alteration … as what is thought to be one of, if not the first integrated facility of its type for the teaching of music and the arts, with gallery and exhibition space.”

Located in Birmingham’s Edgbaston district in a leafy campus setting, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts was founded in the 1930s as ‘a civic (indeed a national) centre of humanistic culture for all and sundry’, as Sir Charles Grant Robertson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, described it during the building’s opening ceremonies in 1939.

Funding for the Barber was provided by the Henry Barber Trust, established in 1932 and endowed by one of the University of Birmingham’s greatest benefactors, Lady Hattie Barber, the wealthy and childless widow of Sir Henry Barber, a Birmingham-born property developer who made his fortune putting up and drawing rent from the city’s working class suburbs. Lady Barber’s far-sighted intention was ‘to build, equip and endow, and present to the University… an Art Museum or Gallery, and so form an Art Centre for the University’.

This answered Sir Charles’s own wish that ‘the University of Birmingham would be the first of the modern universities to give effective expression to the claim of the Fine Arts’. Sadly, Lady Barber’s death in 1933 meant she never saw nor enjoyed the results of her generous vision.

The Barber is renowned today for its superlative displays of Old Master and Impressionist paintings making it a veritable ‘mini-National Gallery’ in the Midlands and this outstanding collection also owes its existence to Lady Barber, as the Trust she founded provided for the acquisition of works of art. However, the museum is definitely a work of art in its own right, as has been highlighted by the announcement of Historic England’s upgrading of its listed status to Grade 1.

The Barber was first listed in March 1981 and given Grade 2 status, perhaps an accolade itself at a time when understanding of 1930s architecture was at its lowest ebb. Forty years on, it is now appreciated as a masterpiece of the era.
The building was designed by architect Robert Atkinson (1883 – 1952), working closely with the Barber’s first Director and Professor of Art, Thomas Bodkin (1877 – 1961).

Despite having no previous practical experience of designing museums – having forged his reputation with a varied portfolio, ranging from apartment blocks and cinemas to power stations – Atkinson’s early plans set out the basic layout of a central concert hall rising through two stories and circled by a sequence of four galleries on the first floor. He was aided by Bodkin who contributed his knowledge of the aesthetics and practical considerations of picture hanging and presenting artworks.

Nottingham-born Atkinson has been described by the late architectural historian, Gavin Stamp, as one of the most interesting and representative architects working in England in the period between the two world wars - neither a post-Edwardian working in the Beaux-Arts tradition, nor a polemical Modernist.

In its original listing of 1981, it was noted that Atkinson’s design was ‘sophisticated’, with even the ground floor windows described as ‘suavely combined’ and ‘giving a crisp linear definition to the design.’

As befits a museum housing fine art from all over Europe and welcoming visitors from across the world, Atkinson and Bodkin toured contemporary institutions in Germany, Holland, Belgium and France, as well as English examples, During their 1935 tour, Bodkin – with specific lighting requirements in mind - made detailed comparisons of the systems at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, the Boymans, Rotterdam and the new Courtauld Galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, telling Atkinson that, for their new construction, ‘it is absolutely essential that the galleries should be top-lit’ and further suggested that they should consist of wedge-shaped bays rather than a straight run of wall, thus making ‘the area available for the display of pictures… nearly doubled’, as well as creating handy storage areas in the voids.

‘There is no doubt in my mind, that Bodkin’s involvement was instrumental in why Andy Foster, writing in Yale University Press’ updated Pevsner Architectural Guide Birmingham, said: “Among public buildings, Robert Atkinson’s Barber Institute of 1936-9 at the University is an exceptional, nationally important example of this style. Cool and sophisticated, with interior finishes in beautiful materials, it is a perfect place to contemplate works of art”,’ says the Barber Institute’s current Director, Nicola Kalinsky.

She adds: ‘The Professor, mindful of the academic purposes of the then completely new university institute, also advised Atkinson to make space on the ground floor for the various rooms – lecture theatre, book and slide libraries, offices - needed to administer the museum and teach the History of Art to the University’s students.’

Construction began in 1936, with the exterior largely complete by late 1937, while the interiors were fitted out throughout 1938. The generous budget, provided by the Henry Barber Trust, allowed for high-quality materials to be used, such as the travertine marble used in the foyer and the sinuous staircase which winds up to the galleries, and the fabulous Art Deco auditorium, panelled in Australian walnut and with a proscenium arch of satin-inlaid maple.

Externally, the walls of warm red handmade brick are defined with pale Darley Dale stone facings to the lower levels and the string course, and decorated with relief carvings of laurel, palm, lyre and torch to symbolise the Fine Arts, the Reward of Merit, Music and Education.

Despite some later alternations, including the erection of a sympathetic library wing, this exceptionally beautiful and usable building produced by a unique partnership of architect and museum director remains essentially that which Queen Mary opened on 26 July 1939.

‘One of the many delights of the Barber is that today’s visitors and students experience a building – whether walking to the Library along the original linoleum corridors or contemplating art resting on the substantial oak banquettes in the picture galleries - pretty much as Atkinson and Bodkin intended.’

Sir David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, comments: “The University of Birmingham glories in an exceptionally attractive campus at its main Edgbaston site, with its rich mix of distinguished buildings testifying to our institution’s historic and continuing commitment to setting the highest standards for all it does. This highly merited upgrade, underlining the unusual survival of this 1930s building’s nature and characteristics, is a wonderful testament to our stewardship of our estate.”

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