At the Ikon Gallery

At the opening of the Jesse Bruton Exhibition.



Winterbourne: when gardens tell a story

I have the pleasure while here to have a placement at Winterbourne House and Garden, an Edwardian Arts and Crafts house built in 1903 with surrounding gardens that have a changing and interesting history. When I came here, I hadn’t really thought that much about the garden, focusing more on the house’s architecture and interior design. What I ended up being maybe most interested in though, were the gardens – or at any rate, the way the house and garden complement each other.

Winterbourne House with an Angel’s fishing rod in the foreground.

Therefore, this first post about Winterbourne will mainly focus on the gardens. The Winterbourne garden is a peculiar but charming mix of preserved Edwardian garden, university botanic garden, and modern but heritage styled garden.

A pergola – a typical Edwardian feature (but this one is actually from 2005).

The Arts and Crafts garden was the typical Edwardian garden, heavily influenced by William Morris. Another name that is impossible not to mention when it comes to the Edwardian garden’s style, planning and colour scheme is horticulturist, garden designer, painter and artist Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932). While she herself did nothing at Winterbourne, her theories and work at other places is what made that garden possible. Margaret Nettlefold, who created Winterbourne alongside her husband John, was an avid amateur gardener. She took inspiration from Jekyll’s books and designed the garden herself.

The red and yellow border, one terrace down from the house.
The Scarlet Sunset circa 1830-40 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
“The Scarlet Sunset” (circa 1830-40), Joseph Mallord William Turner. Image from Tate.

The Arts and Crafts garden took inspiration from the English cottage garden – a (to begin with) mostly function based, orderly but simple garden, densely planted. It was here that garden designers like Gertrude Jekyll found the pretty “naturalness” and informal design that would be modified to suit even the grandest of houses. The garden was supposed to be a continuation of the house and thus needed to be divided into different rooms. This was done by terracing the garden and structuring it with hedges and paths. Jekyll was particularly influential when it came to colour in the garden. The natural looking borders, densely planted with different “simple” flowers, should have a set colour scheme and not be thrown together haphazardly simply because the garden was more informal than its predecessors. Her time as a painter influenced her to plan gardens according to colour, even publishing a book on the subject (Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden). She also drew inspiration for this from the use of colour of JWM Turner and the  impressionists.

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The Plant Heritage National Collection of Anthemis.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Winterbourne House & Garden was donated to The University of Birmingham, since it became difficult for a family to afford the running of such a house. The gardens were transformed into the university’s botanical gardens, changing some of the designs and expanding the amount of species and milieus. Among other things, in the 1960s it housed a collection of plants from the Antarctic! A special greenhouse had to be constructed, mainly facing away from the harsher sunlight from the South. Today that collection is removed, and that greenhouse is filled with orchids, since they are one of the few species that can manage in such unusual light and heat conditions. Thus the plan of the greenhouse is adapted to the plants, and then the plants adapted to the plan of the greenhouse! While the gardens aren’t the university’s botanic gardens anymore, the collection of different plants and species still continues. Winterbourne is the host of the National Collection of Anthemis.

The blue and purple border.

I haven’t thought before about the ways in which gardens are collections, with the same need for documentation and expansion as other types of collections. Not only are there obvious and named collections (such as that of anthemis), but the entire garden is a set of collections, inspiring the same kind of questions as Cadbury Research Library did: Why are we preserving this? Who gets to decide what should be preserved and what should be renewed?

The largest watercolour in the world

At the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), there is an entire room dedicated to the works of Edward Burne-Jones (see, I told you I would mention him again!). In this room hangs a painting especially commissioned for this very gallery. Its name is The Star of Bethlehem, and it is, apparently, the largest watercolour in the world. It is painted on ten papers joined together and measures roughly 2,6 x 3,9 m. What I also found fascinating to study was the technique: in one place, the white in the picture was simply white paint, while in another it was lack of paint, paint having been scraped away, the raw paper – almost breaking – giving a new light to the motif. The detail of the painting in general is fantastic, and I could look at it for ages, constantly finding something new.

“The Star of Bethlehem” (1887-91), Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Image from BMAG’s website.

The white flowers at the feet of the Madonna are significant and also allude to the painting’s title. The flower is Prussian Asparagus, also known as The Star of Bethlehem.

The Star of Bethlehem. Image from Flower Info.
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Detail of “The Star of Bethlehem”, where you can see both the technique and the white flowers. Sir Edward Burne-Jones. BMAG.

Shakespeare celebrations

During my time here at the RCC I have had the chance to write a small article for Buzz Magazine, The University of Birmingham’s very own magazine! I wrote for the recurring column “Campus Curiosities”, which highlights a different object from the collections in every edition. The column also gives information about how and where you can see the object (usually by making an appointment with the RCC team), giving people all across campus the opportunity to learn more about both that particular object, and about the collections.

Portrait of William Shakespeare with the arms of John Shakespeare, 18th century. The Campus Collection of Fine and Decorative Art, Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham. Image from the UoB Online Collections website.

Due to my Shakespeare interest, and as a tie-in with my research on the Tibor Reich Shakespeare textile, I wrote this edition’s Campus Curiosity about an 18th century portrait of Shakespeare, now on display at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. You can read the column here, on page 14.

Handling ancient Egyptian objects…

A little of my time here is also spent at the Eton Myers collection of Egyptian Antiquities, a wonderful collection of objects, many of them made of faience. My nine year old self (fascinated by ancient Egypt and fully determined to learn hieroglyphics) would have been as thrilled and awed to get to see this collection up close as I am today. Just as when I was working with the Archaeology Museum, I couldn’t really believe that I would actually get to touch these truly ancient objects – but here I am, having worked to help expand the information on the different objects for database. I have also gotten the opportunity to write a small essay about collecting ancient Egyptian objects in the late 19th/early 20th century, but mainly focusing on one particular shabti figure that you’ll get to hear and see more of soon enough.

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A bird made of beeswax. Eton Myers Collection, Eton College. On loan to the University of Birmingham.

The Eton Myers Collection consists mainly of decorative art, objects that were small enough for the original collector, Major William Joseph Myers, to transport himself. Upon his death he bequeathed his collection to Eton College, where he’d once been a student.

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The collection of decapitated Osirises (Osirii?), as I like to call it. Neither of the heads go with this body. Eton Myers Collection, Eton College. On loan to the  University of Birmingham.

I found it very interesting to get to know more about the manufacturing process. The classic Egyptian blue colour (a sort of very pigmented turquoise) was attained by using copper (image below), while the darker blue colour, meant to imitate the exceptionally expensive lapis lazuli, was  achieved with cobalt (image below). The  process of burning the faience glaze could of course also go wrong, as it had in a couple of the objects in this collection. These objects would in all probability not have been used (they were created for use in tombs), but tell a story that in many ways is at least as interesting as the perfect pieces. The faulty objects can tell us about the manufacturing process, but also allow us to glimpse the craftsman as a human being capable of fault. That way, faulty objects from ancient times can somehow bring us closer to the people of the time than completed objects sometimes do.

What I also found fascinating while Stephanie, who looks after the collection, and I discussed the different objects was to see the progression of certain traditions and rites and how that evolution affected the objects. I will write more about this when I do a post about the shabti figure that I’m writing about, but I’ll give another example now. The four sons of Horus were seen as guardians of different organs in the body. Their heads (a man, a jackal, a baboon and a falcon) formed the lids of canopic jars used to hold the organs after mummification. As the mummification process got more efficient and professionally done, the need for separate jars for the organs disappeared – but the protection that the four sons of Horus gave to the dead person’s organs was still desired. Thus, instead of using canopic jars, amulets of them were created and placed by the organs they were thought to protect. Thus the protection, the main aim of the choice of motif, is maintained even though the rest of the aspects have changed.
The four sons of Horus. The Eton Myers Collection, Eton College. On loan to the University of Birmingham. Image from the UoB Online Collections Website.


‘I like this place. And willingly could waste my time in it.’

During my second weekend off, I went down to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a couple of performances and to visit some of the houses of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. When I went down on Friday, I hadn’t planned to stay the entire weekend, but ended up not going home until Sunday evening. I really do love this place and already long to go back. I think I always will, really…

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Me visiting Anne Hathaway’s cottage. (After walking the so-called ‘Hatha-way’ to get there…)


While there I had the chance to visit The Royal Shakespeare Theatre both on a behind the scenes tour and to see a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Being a great Shakespeare fan, it was absolutely amazing to finally get to see a performance here, and I thought it was a brilliant one at that. I was especially impressed with the acting, choreography and costume (set in the 1940s, one of my favourite style eras!). Due to the River Festival taking place during that particular weekend, my night at the theatre was ended with a magnificent fireworks show. To see someone use the night sky for canvas and paint with fire was the perfect end to my evening…

Getting in the mood with afternoon tea at The Fourteas, Stratford-upon-Avon’s 1940s tea rooms, while waiting to see the performance. 

While in town I also saw a performance of Impromptu Shakespeare, where they use a randomly selected set of Shakespeare-like characters and plot twists to create an entirely new (and mostly very funny) story. At the outdoor theatre of the RSC there were also performances of Shakespeare’s plays by theatre schools. I managed to catch three plays while I was there: Much Ado About NothingLove’s Labour’s Lost, and Macbeth.

“I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church by daylight.” Much Ado About Nothing with The BRIT School.

Even though I did see a lot of theatre during my weekend in Stratford, I also (as mentioned) visited some of the Shakespeare related houses. I also took the time to walk along the river and see the many swans of Avon, and to visit the beautiful Holy Trinity Church, both to see Shakespeare’s (and his family’s) grave(s) and to look at the church properly.

I also had some Jammie Dodger ice cream. The Doctor Who fan in me was much thrilled with that.

‘Ay, now am I in Arden’

Tibor Reich’s textile Age of Kings, as is one of my ongoing projects to research and examine, is one of many of this prolific designer and manufacturer’s textiles. Not only does the Age of Kings (1964) design (actually designed by Pamela Kay, as mentioned before) come in several different colour schemes, but he designed textiles in 1969 for the bicentenary of the Garrick Jubilee and his designs for the then (1964) new Shakespeare Centre include the carpet called “The Forest of Arden” which was made using a technique of Reich’s own invention. He called it “fotexur” (a portmanteau of the words ‘photograph’ and ‘texture’).

Tibor Reich. Image from Aesthetica Magazine.

Like Hans Schwarz, Tibor Reich argued that nature was the best designer. To create his designs, he took photographs of different parts of the landscape, from close-ups of mud or bark to aerial photographs of the landscape. These photographs would then be used in ways to enhance the rhythmic and geometric qualities contained in them, creating a pattern based on nature but far removed from a simple classification of for example floral or organic visuals. The fotexur technique was regarded as groundbreaking for textile design in post-war Britain.

Thus the carpet “The Forest of Arden” is not only named for the forest in the Shakespeare play As You Like It, but is actually based on an aerial photograph of woodland. When you tread the carpet you are, in a way, literally walking in (on?) the forest.

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The conference room at the Shakespeare Centre, with the “Forest of Arden” carpet. Image from Finding Shakespeare.

While the Age of Kings does not use this technique, it is important to understand the ways in which Tibor Reich worked and how innovative his designs and manufacturing were considered at the time. You can also tell from his work that he was interested in Shakespeare, not only creating textiles for places like the Shakespeare Centre, but also naming other designs for characters or places in Shakespeare’s plays or life.

So in what ways did this Hungarian born 20th century textile designer see fit to celebrate Shakespeare?

The Schwarz Art Collection

Apart from working on the Tibor Reich textile and the Archaeology museum, most of my

A young Hans Schwarz. Image from The University of Birmingham.

time at the RCC has been spent cataloguing works on paper (and some on board) by artist, illustrator and writer Hans Schwarz. Born in Vienna in 1922, he escaped to Britain on the Kindertransport shortly after the Anschluss in 1938. Upon arriving in 1939, aged 16, he started to work for the Cadbury family here in Birmingham. He lived in Bournville, the area in Birmingham in which the Cadburys created their ‘model village’. Quite a few of the sketches and drawings that I catalogued for the RCC were made before Schwarz’ journey to Britain, and had been stamped when taken out of Austria. On the back of these was a large triangular stamp with the eagle of the Third Reich and a message stating that it was allowed to transport these images out of the country. Seeing this made quite an impact on me, coming closer to the history of Schwarz and to the world of the Second World War.

I’ve enjoyed working with the art works of Hans Schwarz. It feels rare to get to see one artist use so many different kinds of materials, subjects, techniques and styles – and still be somehow recognisable. I have appreciated getting to handle the art works, and to work with documenting and organising – both the actual objects and their records in the object database.

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Hans Schwarz, “Ranger’s House, Greenwhich”. Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham.

While Schwarz is mostly known for his portraits, and he himself said that depicting people was his greatest interest, his landscapes and illustrations range from serene to entertaining, and should not be forgotten.

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Hans Schwarz, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”. Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham.