I’m a romantic at heart, which makes Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (known by locals as BMAG) one of my favourite places in the city. This is because it has the finest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world, featuring paintings, drawings and prints by the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Edward Burne Jones.
The first time I visited the museum it was to meet one of the curators, for an art historical research project. She asked me to meet her in the infamous Round Room. I was amazed to find a beautiful, domed space, watched over by Jacob Epstein’s striking bronze statue, ‘The Archangel Lucifer’. It’s the best place to start exploring the museum.
She took me to the Pre-Raphaelite galleries, which tell the story of the Brotherhood, their associates and followers, and their revolutionary contribution which changed the face of British art. As the Pre-Raphaelites were strongly influenced by literature, stories run throughout the images on display. Most captivating for me is Frederick Sandys’ symbolic masterpiece, ‘Medea’ (1868), which shows the protagonist as an enchantress, creating a poison to kill her love rival, Glauce, for whom her husband Jason had deserted her. Jason’s ship, the Argo, is painted sailing away into the distance.
Other key works include Edward Burne-Jones’ huge watercolour, ‘Star of Bethlehem’ (1890) which stretches across an entire wall, and Arthur Hughes’ ‘The Long Engagement’ (1854 – 1859), in which a couple embrace in a brightly painted, overgrown forest, surrounded by ivy.
During other trips to the museum I have also made my way to Ancient Egypt. In the Ancient Egypt Gallery you can see an elaborately bandaged Graeco-Roman mummy with gilded terracotta studs, pottery and items from daily life, which illustrate attitudes to death and the afterlife.
From the past to the present: one of the downstairs galleries also allows for temporary exhibitions, showcasing contemporary art. I recently attended a virtual reality exhibition, wobbling my way around the space with a large headset on. Mat Collishaw had staged a magical, virtual exhibition of photography, which you could interact with.
I also make sure, during my visits to the museum, that I have enough time for tea in the Edwardian Tearooms. With its high ceiling, tiled floors and historical paintings on the walls, this café is certainly grand. At the same time, its cosy seating (and generous patisserie table) creates a welcoming ambience. They also introduced, last year, a ‘Press For Champagne’ service: each private booth has been installed with its own Champagne buzzer!
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Ruth Millington is an art historian, art blogger and writer, based in Birmingham, England. You can read more about the Pre-Raphaelites in her article here: http://ruthmillington.co.uk/art-history-an-introduction-to-the-pre-raphaelites/