The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, on the doorstep of the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus, was founded in 1932 by Dame Martha Constance Hattie Barber in memory of her husband, Sir William Henry Barber. The Grade II listed Art Deco building features iconic sculptures, pastels and water colours assembled together in a ‘haven of tranquillity in a bustling metropolis’, as stated on the galleries own website. The range and quality of the collection shows that there is passion behind the choice of what is displayed. Recently, the theme of ‘Art and the City’ has prevailed in one of the Gallery’s smaller, yet incredibly innovative exhibitions.
‘Living City’ by Sarah Taylor Silverwood combines technical architectural accomplishment ink drawings with inspiration from the fantasy comic book genre and literary masters such as the Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s image of a man walking out into the street and feeling the pulsing energy of the city, supplies part of the inspiration for Sarah Taylor Silverwood’s exhibition; ‘Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.’ (Baudelaire 1863)
Sarah is presently an artist-in-residence at the University, which provides artists with a studio on campus and an opportunity to engage with the diverse range of cultural experiences that the city provides. The scheme brings a stimulating addition to the culture of the University, for example she part designed a limited edition map celebrating the University’s artistic and social offerings as part of her 2012 residency with the Cultural Engagement department.
The intricate drawings are on layers of tracing paper, with separate sheets for ink and colour, which is a technique also used in the construction of comics. This reflects the evolving relationship between humans and the ‘universal life’ of the city. Her sketches are shown alongside in depth research, artist’s maps and sketchbooks which demonstrate the cultural profundity that her depictions of Birmingham’s skyline have been inspired by. Seeing the well known Birmingham and Digbeth landscapes in such detail makes you appreciate the city’s architectural structure and history.
The biggest impact of her exhibition on the observer is a feeling of insignificance in the colossal presence of the city surrounding you. Even when the viewpoint is looking down on the city below, as in ‘Birmingham Skyline’, the observer is still amazed by the complexity and the depth the layers of tracing paper create. Her bare use of colour and clear, defined and detailed lines capture the strength of the buildings and the feeling of an energised, bustling culture.
The exhibition inspired me to consider my own opinion of the ‘Living City’ and my relationship with Birmingham, especially as it is one of the most cultural cities in Britain. It is true that when you walk the streets of Birmingham, you could not be in a more diverse area, and Sarah captures both post-industrial Birmingham and the city’s modern development. The exhibition is easy to relate to and this makes her collection a must see, not only for the general public, but for students in particular, so they can find a distraction from the stresses of University life for an hour to experience some of the artistic offerings the University has to offer. It is certainly worth a visit, and is a free way to experience a moment of peace and see our city from another point of view.
Baudelaire, Charles “The Painter of Modern Life” , in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays  tr. Mayne, Jonathan.