The Barber Institute

A visit to another of the Wonders of Birmingham, perhaps the greatest of them. The Barber Institute sits on a corner of the atmospheric Birmingham University campus. I think of it as a place of pilgrimage. Lady Barber (born Martha Onions) established an art institute in memory of her property-developer husband, and then died months later. She wasn’t to see the jewels of the collection bought in her husband’s name, exhibited in a custom-built gallery which opened in 1939.

The paintings are hung chronologically. It’s a swift, well-planned route via the work of most of the great painters you have ever heard of. Somehow the building encourages you (but this might just be my longtime mistake ) to view the history of art backwards. Starting with what was modern in the mid 20th century (although a Howard Hodgkin was immediately evident this time) you can progress back through the important movements and eras, with the climactic prospect of a clutch of really great early paintings, at the summit of which I particularly look forward to seeing Saint John the Evangelist by Simone Martini (dated 1320).

The focus is definitely on the paintings (I think I remember a time when there weren’t even any labels – you had to guess). It’s not the place to go for a café visit (though there’s a perfectly good tea/coffee machine in the foyer) or to catch up on your Christmas shopping. It’s often quiet – that’s the reason I love it, able to spend time with the paintings in a very personal way. But (presumably for all of these reasons and more) changes are in the offing. See it while you can!

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JUDITH WEIR

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