Tag Archives: birmingham museum & art gallery

Lucinda Hawksley: celebrating 200 years of Charles Dickens

The 7th of February this year marked the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth and a multitude of events will be going on all year to celebrate one of the most famous British authors. This anniversary was marked by Lucinda Hawksley, great, great, great granddaughter of the man in question, giving a talk in the National Portrait Gallery, London, on his family and social life two days later. Since then, Hawksley has been touring the country giving the same presentation to Dickens enthusiasts everywhere; on Sunday, she came to Birmingham’s Modern Art Gallery the Waterhall.

As a public speaker and lecturer on Dickens as well as 19th century literature, art and culture, Hawksley was well suited to presenting an in-depth talk. Focusing on the lesser known facts, Hawksley took her audience through Dickens’s life, starting with his parents and the debtor’s disgrace faced by his father, and ending with his humble tombstone. She emphasised the importance of certain figures in regards to his fame, such as George Hogarth, a journalist who first published Dickens’s work Sketches, under the pseudonym ‘Boz’, in the Evening Chronicle. Moreover, Hawksley drew attention to Dickens’s social impact on 19th century culture and his activist writings campaigning for reform. Indeed, she revealed his dramatic impact on the poor quality of the Yorkshire schools where bad children were sent to board. Upon hearing of two boys who were blinded by the awful conditions, Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby, which highlighted these issues and within two years all of these Yorkshire schools were shut down. These nuggets of information lent further authority to her argument and showed the audience how Dickens’ works were thoroughly important, focused on topical issues of the time. The talk was perfectly balanced between being in-depth enough to entertain any scholar of Dickens, and being accessible to those who have had no engagement with the texts; it was a brilliant preview to her book Charles Dickens written for the bicentenary.

This event is only one of many going on around Birmingham about the celebrated author, but with Hawksley’s extensive knowledge matched with her family ties it was a terrific introduction. She also referred to many important events occurring this year in regards to his anniversary. Hawksley disclosed that although Dickens stated in his will that he wanted no memorial in England, two statues are set to be erected this year, one in Portsmouth where he grew up, and one in Southwark, London to honour this influential figure. Moreover, it was revealed that the Royal Mail is set to produce Dickensian stamps which will be released in June, two of which are available for preview now. Hawksley provided a fantastic insight into why Dickens has become the icon he has today, and we she should look beyond the books to see the influence he had on his society.

For more Charles Dickens events, see the exhibition currently on display in Birmingham Univeristy’s Muirhead Tower Atrium.
Also keep an eye out for the up and coming production of Great Expectations @ the Crescent Theatre.

Words by Eleanor Campbell

Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is currently home to an exhibition of Ten Drawings by the Italian Renaissance polymath genius, Leonardo Da Vinci. It is a huge coup not just for the gallery, but also for culture in Birmingham as a whole. So it is with fervent anticipation that I ventured into the city centre to visit the early sixteenth century master.

For those who have not visited Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, it’s a grand imposing feat of architecture that really makes for a particularly dramatic journey on your way through to the Da Vinci room. Under the vast ceiling of the entrance hall, patrons are greeted by a statue of Lucifer, surrounded by a wall of different landscapes and shaking a spear. The Da Vinci exhibition is hidden deep in the bowels of the gallery, which is actually a masterstroke in terms of the layout: this allows time for visitors to contextualise Da Vinci in terms of all the art, culture and history, both before and since his time. Walking through the gallery almost creates a montage effect of the past 600 years of human history, whilst building the anticipation of seeing the work of a true undeniable genius up close.

     Finally in the room with the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition, there was a tangible sense of reverent religiosity amongst the thirty or so patrons in the room, as though talking too loudly would damage the drawings. Certainly there was no question of flash photography because the images are over 500 years old and vulnerable to damage from exposure to bright lights. Perhaps most unusual about the exhibition is that, despite being beautiful, the works were clearly never intended for display. A striking contrast from Da Vinci’s iconic works such as the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper, instead this royal collection serves more as a narrative of his life and work. For a start most of them are not works of art at all but sketches and diagrams of academic interest. There are designs for weapons, chariots, maps, precise anatomical drawings of dissected humans, plants and even designs for men’s fashion. The wide cross section on display gives an insight into Da Vinci’s great, curious, enquiring mind: his fascination with and ability to excel in so many fields is irrefutably inspiring.

The anatomical diagrams displayed on two sides of a glass case are particularly impressive. They are drawn so precisely and accurately that it is possible to catch a glimpse of a great empiricist brain at work. The closer I looked at one of them, the more I noticed ink bleeding through the page, only to then realise that these two masterpieces were scribbled down on either side of one piece of paper. To Da Vinci, they were just scraps of sketches drawn on rag paper, but to us they are priceless and infinitely precious testaments to human endeavour.

     The drawings hang in roughly chronological order, each with a short synopsis beside it providing a vague biography of Da Vinci and explaining the origin of the work. This becomes unexpectedly moving at the end of the cycle where we see drawings he made as an elderly man. It is disheartening to see the brilliant enquiring genius somewhat lose that curiosity that made him so vital, moving to becoming obsessed with drawing old bearded men and apocalyptic scenes. It is a deeply melancholic end to the collection, reflecting on ageing and death. One leaves the gallery not only with a respect and admiration of Da Vinci, but also with a feeling of kinship with him as a mortal fallible man.

The exhibition opened on Friday 20th of January and now, a week later, the huge initial crowds have largely subsided. The main room was busy, but with a quiet contemplative atmosphere and the gallery was dotted with a few rather sad forgotten looking ‘Da Vinci queue’ signs. Nevertheless, now is the time to go and fully appreciate Leonardo Da Vinci’s work without having to queue or travel to Italy. The collection is in Birmingham until the 25th of March so there is definitely no excuse for missing it.

Words by James Grady