This week I found myself in Birmingham with a couple of hours to kill.
Just one problem – it was one of those gloomy, wintery days in the city when everything looked greyer, colder and less inviting than usual.
A wet and chilly February day in England’s second city may not sound like everybody’s idea of fun, but please bear with me…
Birmingham is not my favourite city with its drab townscape and grey urban streets so I was surprised to find a vibrant cultural scene when you venture indoors.
Look beyond the depressing ’60s architecture and the city’s notorious ‘Spaghetti Junction’ – and you’ll find arty enclaves and treasures to excite the taste buds of any culture vulture.
Being a child of the industrial revolution it’s perhaps unsurprising that the city boasts a wealth of culture. In the 19th Century Birmingham found itself with a new, wealthy middle class with money to spend on the arts.
The nouveau riche of the Victorian and Edwardian periods helped fuel a cultural revolution. They wanted to demonstrate their excellent artistic taste and display their new-found wealth on the walls of their houses or in the new museums of the period.
Cue a city of art collectors interested in the latest artistic movements from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts painters and designers.
Birmingham City Art Gallery has one of the best Pre-Raphaelite collections in Britain, rivalled only by Manchester, another former industrial city.
So if you find yourself cold and miserable in Birmingham on an uninspiring grey day why not head indoors and immerse yourself in a cultural feast… and better still, these galleries are free!
Birmingham’s artistic heart
Head for Birmingham’s Victoria Square with its impressive neo-classical architecture and civic buildings including the Town Hall, which was modelled on the Temple of Caster and Pollux in Rome’s Forum.
Over the road there’s the Museum and Art Gallery, also built in a classical style, which dominates Chamberlain Square.
There’s an eclectic mix of sculptures from the obligatory monument to Queen Victoria to a voluptuous, reclining woman, known locally as ‘the floozie in the jacuzzi’.
My preferred nickname for the female hulk is ‘Big Bertha of Birmingham’.
There’s also some cool fountains which added to the winter chill factor and made me yearn for mediterranean temperatures in which this type of water feature feels so inviting.
Look around and you’ll also see a fine figure on a slight tilt by the contemporary artist Antony Gormley, a contrast to the Victorian buildings, statues and memorials nearby.
Gormley’s monumental figure – called The Iron Man – represents Birmingham’s former industries including car manufacturing and engineering.
The city is, of course, indelibly associated with the design of the classic Mini car, once manufactured at the Longbridge factory down the road.
But perhaps Gormley’s metal man also provides a nod to Birmingham’s reputation as the home of British heavy metal and rock legends Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Napalm Death?
First major stop has to be Birmingham City Art Gallery and Museum, a fine collection of paintings and textiles largely from the 17th Century onwards.
Head to the 19th Century rooms where you’ll see classic paintings by Pre-Raphaelite painters William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne Jones and Arthur Hughes.
The star attraction for me is Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England, a moving painting showing a couple emigrating and looking for a better life in Australia, but the canvas is full of regret and sadness.
Another personal favorite is an Arthur Hughes’ work called The Long Engagement which is also filled with longing and poignancy. The colours are sublime but the repressed Victorian emotions bubble furiously under the canvas’ surface.
Birmingham’s importance as an artistic centre also receives a nod in the Arts and Crafts exhibition, a fascinating display of lesser-known paintings, drawings and furniture associated with the city.
If you’re doing a quick tour, don’t miss the star exhibits in the 19th Century rooms including a stunning Whistler painting, one of his symphonies in white.
For a change of mood, visit the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, the world’s largest display of Anglo-Saxon treasure, found by a metal detectorist in a farmer’s field in the mid 2000s.
The golden items are tiny, so much so that you almost need a magnifiying glass to see the full extent of their exquisite detail especially some of the gorgeous bejewelled pieces.
Finally, take a quick detour around the Birmingham History Galleries which provide a great insight into the social history of the city’s people and communities.
The Barber’s cultural haven
The Barber Institute is a real find, an artistic gem set in the heart of the University of Birmingham’s campus, just a few miles outside the city centre.
This striking building was designed by Robert Atkinson, who took his inspiration from Scandinavian classicism, and was built between 1935-39.
It’s a bit of adventure trying to find the Barber but it’s surprisingly easy if you follow the how-to-get-there directions properly.
The Barber is also open year round and can be combined with a trip to nearby Winterbourne Botanic Gardens in the grounds of an intriguing Arts and Crafts mansion (the house is not open to the public).
Catch a train from Birmingham New Street Station to University station, a short eight minute journey (trains run every 10 minutes on the Redditch line).
On leaving the station take a left and walk downhill, continuing past a large, imposing modern art installation which I’ve nicknamed ‘Techno Man’.
Actually it’s a brutalistic, bronze sculpture called Faraday by Eduardo Paolozzi which is a popular meeting point if you’re hooking up with friends.
On a bright and warm day it’s worth walking the University’s sculpture trail but I gave up halfway round due to the extremely cold weather and near frostbite!
There are interesting works by Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Epstein and Anthony Caro on this campus walk which can be combined with your trip to the Barber Institute.
Take a right after about 100 metres and cut through the Chancellor’s Court, a pleasant stroll. Follow the signposts to the Barber Institute, an Art Deco building with an impressive entrance and gilt-adorned historic shield.
Venture inside and walk through the Art Deco lobby, taking a peek inside the concert hall which is still used for live events and recitals.
The Barber was founded by Dame Martha Constance Hattie Barber, a patron of the arts, in memory of her husband Sir William Henry Barber. The building is beautifully-proportioned and it’s definitely worthy of the label, ‘Art Deco masterpiece”.
The impressive collection features high quality paintings by Monet, Magritte and Manet plus works by Rodin, Degas and Picasso.
Post-Impressionsim and Symbolism are well-represented with Puvis de Chavannes’ famous The Beheading of John the Baptist and impressive works by Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Vuillard and Bernard.
The animal magnetism of the Fauves is also captured in a strikingly vivid work by Andre Derain.
The tranquility of the galleries provide a relaxing respite from the bustling noise of Birmingham city centre and the world outside.
There’s much to admire including a decent collection of Dutch paintings, some classy Pre-Raphaelite works including Rossetti’s The Blue Bower, and a stunning Poussin with colours so vibrant that the paint looks as fresh that it could have been painted yesterday.
Nestling in a corner is a small but stunning Odilon Redon oil painting of the crucifixion of Christ bursting with intense red colours.
On the opposite wall there’s an impressive Turner seascape followed by a run of wonderful Impressionist works including Monet, Manet, and Renoir (from his over-coloured, ‘chocolate box’ period).
Another personal favourite was an intriguing work by the Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte called The Flavour of Tears in which a caterpillar crawls across a bird of peace which disintegrates before our eyes.
Today it remains a fitting image for our times even though it was painted just after the Second World War.
Other Birmingham attractions
Back in the city centre you can opt for another cultural excursion to the Ikon Gallery or go shopping!
The Bullring lies at the heart of Birmingham’s retail centre and is a star attraction following its massive transformation which has brought it back to life. This three storey shopping mall with 140 shops is mostly made up of well-known high street names plus a couple of big department stores.
My top choice? I love Selfridges’ massive store which has a brilliantly designed interior and stylish outdoor facade which looks like a curvy sheet of giant architectural bubble wrap. Don’t miss the downstairs deli which has some classy food and delightful nibbles.
If you like ‘high-end’ shopping, head over to The Mailbox, a striking red, beige and dark grey box of a building. It’s not my cup of retail tea as the shops are out of my price range, although it’s fun to drop into Harvey Nichols with its overpriced designer labels.
Sadly the recession has hit The Mailbox and there’s now too many vacancies to make this a truly exciting shopping experience. On the plus side, I spotted a fun addition – table tennis tables in the malls. Don’t forget to bring a bat, balls and net if you fancy a game of ping pong!
If you’re staying overnight in Birmingham, the Malmaison Hotel is a good choice with a decent restaurant and very pleasant, if darkly-lit, rooms. The cheaper Ramada is a decent alternative with access straight onto the canalside with its smart bars and eateries.
Many of the restaurants and bars are popular chains but my favourite place with a bit of a difference is the classy Epernay champagne bar with live piano music and decent bar food.
Birmingham has a wealth of evening venues for theatre, music and entertainment including the anonymous, giant-sized NEC for big-scale arena concerts by major touring artists.
But it is home to some nationally important arts companies. The Birmingham Hippodrome is the UK home of the Royal Ballet whilst the International Convention Centre (ICC) is the place to go for the world-famous City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
My recommendation? Take a trip to the art deco Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the UK which is located near to Birmingham New Street Station.
It’s a great way of winding down after a day wandering around the museums and galleries of Birmingham.
Who would have thought I’d enjoy a trip to the Brummie cultural capital quite so much?