A landmark RBSA exhibition marking the key moments in the history of the Society over 200 years was held in 2014.
A Place for Art was curated by art historian Brendan Flynn, who had the task of revealing the history of the Society from 1814, when the first exhibitions of contemporary art were organised by artists in Birmingham.
The exhibition also focused on some of the key individuals who played an important role in the development of the RBSA.
A Place for Art exhibition, RBSA Gallery. Photo credit: Felicia Guingouain
Brendan said: “It was a balancing act of wanting to showcase rather beautiful, interesting, and curious works of art and aspects of the Society that are important historically. I wanted to show major works by major figures, but also the works of art of Members and Associates who have perhaps fallen through the net.”
Brendan began his research by reading widely on the history of the Society before delving into the archives with the guidance of long-standing Archive Officers, David and Carol White.
Brendan Flynn, Research Curator, RBSA Gallery. Photo credit: James White
One of the most exciting discoveries proved to be the minutes of the Society’s meetings. Dating back to the 1820s, the minutes proved to be a mine of art historical information.
“They made the Society a living thing – not just lots of facts and statistics. You can hear their voices in those pages, speaking across the centuries,” Brendan added.
In the early twentieth century, Joseph Edward Southhall (1861 – 1944) and Arthur Gaskin (1862 – 1928) were a voice for progress, defending British modernists and Post-Impressionist drawings when other members of the Society were condemning the artists as scoundrels and charlatans.
“Gaskin and Southhall recognised that if the Society turned its back on modern art, it would condemn itself to being irrelevant.
“If you read some of the press cuttings in the archives, the arguments in the Birmingham press about the virtues and vices of contemporary art would make your hair curl… they were saying the most dreadful things about modern artists.”
Themes emerge over the course of the Society’s history.
“You can almost identify a Birmingham school of landscape painting or drawing. There was a strong Pre-Raphaelite movement in the 1880s which began to reflect the output of local artists and art teachers, and the Arts and Crafts movement is also important.”
Joseph Barber, ‘The Travellers on a Country Path, a Castle Beyond.’ Photo credit: James White
Brendan asserts that the exhibition shows a history of how RBSA artists responded to British art rather than the history of British art in microcosm.
“It’s a very separate, independent organisation with its own art history, its own internal rules and dimensions.”
In addition to choosing work from the RBSA’s archives, Brendan recognised the importance of looking outside the organisation, helping secure loans from a variety of lenders, including Birmingham Museums Trust and local private collections.
He says: “It’s one of the most challenging exhibition projects I’ve ever undertaken in nearly forty years as a curator, because one needs to say so much in such a tiny space – I hope I made the right decisions.”
By Becky Sexton
A Place for Art: The Story of the RBSA was held at the RBSA Gallery from 8 October – 15 November. It was supported by grants from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
A fully illustrated colour catalogue is available to purchase for just £14.99 (£9.99 for full-time students)
With thanks to Brendan Flynn, Research Curator