For many of us, lockdown has been a time of digital discovery, and volunteers on the Artist Research Team have been online too investigating the personalities behind works in Birmingham’s collection.
Often that’s meant getting to know artists who had never figured on our art radar but whose works have graced Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG) since its early days. How many of us, I wonder, are familiar with the works of Henry Moore? No, not that Henry Moore. Henry Moore (1831-1895) the marine painter.
Born in York, Moore was from a remarkably artistic family. His father, the Birmingham-born portraitist William Moore, and four of his brothers (Edwin, William, John Collingham and Albert Joseph Moore) were painters, each with their own specialist subjects.
For Henry Moore, it was the sea. After training at the Royal Academy, he found his theme and stuck to it, spending his life sketching around the coast and out on the waves, before returning to his studio to paint myriad seascapes in oils and watercolours.
You won’t find many people in Moore’s paintings, and only a handful of boats. His focus was the water itself, which he painted in fine detail in all weathers. Anecdotally, when he won a prize at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, some critics found Moore’s seascapes ‘too blue’, but, as he demanded, what did they know of the high seas?
Certainly anyone longing to be out amongst the waves could do worse than to dive into one of his pictures in Birmingham Museums’ online collections .
Like Moore, the genre painter William Collins (1788-1847) found a popular niche in the 19th century scene and a place in BMAG’s collection.
Collins’ family had hefty artistic and literary credentials. His father, William Collins Sr, was an art dealer and biographer, while his sons were Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, and Charles Allston Collins, artist, writer and son-in-law to Charles Dickens.
Though he was born and died in London, Collins grew up in a time where he could learn to sketch in fields around the capital, and, after featuring in the RA Summer Exhibition aged 21, he made his name as a painter of rural and coastal scenes.
Collins’ vision of country life is, let’s say, not especially gritty. His paintings feature playful animals and cheery, if slightly ragged, children amidst charming rural scenery. Even BMAG’s more wistful ‘The Reluctant Departure’ has everything bathed in a gorgeous rosy glow.
Still, when 19th century city-dwellers admired works with titles like ‘The Pet Lamb’ or ‘Cottage Hospitality’, perhaps they too were looking for a little artistic escapism. Sometimes it’s just what the doctor ordered.