The Barber Institute was opened in 1939, designed by Robert Atkinson, an architect famous for his luxury, Art Deco cinemas.

It is considered to be the best preserved example of his work, a perfect combination of his style and technical capabilities.

To this day the Institute, situated on the University of Birmingham's Edgbaston campus, remains one of the city's most prized spaces, brimming with works by some of the world's great artists.

The Grade II-listed building is the legacy of the Lady Martha Constance Hattie Barber and her husband Sir William Henry Barber, who were both well regarded in the city. Sir William was a solicitor and property developer who rode the tidal wave of Birmingham's expansion in the 1920s, when it was the 'workshop of the world'.

The Barber Institute came as a legacy securing contribution to the city from Lady Barber, after her husband's death.

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A driving force behind its creation was that all the works included in the collection would be of the same quality required by the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection.

A red-brick exterior helps the building to sit harmoniously within the rest of the university campus, however a plinth of Darley Dale stone cuts through, creating a simple, yet bold motif, while the interior is typically art deco, ornate and striking, with sculpted heraldic shields and relief panels.

Despite this rich ornamentation it never imposes itself on the visitor.

The ground floor of the Barber Institute houses an immaculate concert hall, panelled with Australian walnut, which is clearly reminiscent of his earlier cinema designs.

This musical heart has provided a beautiful performance space to countless choirs, ensembles and solo performers.

The concert hall was refurbished in the 2000s, with the original bronze framed seating being restored to its former glory. Ascending an impressive travertine staircase, visitors flow into the gallery spaces, the polished parquet flooring shimmering beneath the soft glow of the ceiling lights.

The long galleries are punctuated by small archways and alcoves that break off to intimate display areas.

To one side of the galleries is an unassuming staff door, a locked, dead end, overlooked by visitors. However, behind this door lies an incredible hidden space.

 

The conservation area is a double height room, dappled in the pale, sensitive lighting required of a space dedicated to maintaining some of the city's most prized works.

Here artworks such as Jockeys Before the Race by Degas, are prepared for global transit. The conservation room contains a large storage rack, filled with works either returning from or awaiting rental. A collection of portraits of Lady Barber are stored here, in the first of many racks.

The climate-controlled environment ensures the works are kept safe and in perfect condition. Artefacts from the institute's many years in operation are stored here, including ornate gilded signage that originally accompanied an events board at the entrance of the building.

Returning to the lower floors and following the tiled corridors away from the music hall one can find small reference libraries not used by the public, which are overflowing with volumes of books and manuscripts.

While it may seem in stark contrast to the clear, well articulated upstairs galleries, they are a reminder that education is at the heart of the building.

These small rooms, with their stacked wooden shelves appear twee and gentle in comparison to the powerful, bold art deco stylings of the rest of the institute, but they are a welcome oasis for the occasional student who has managed to slip out of the red-brick hustle of the university.

The Barber presents a conundrum. It's a beloved location of Birmingham but one that is sometimes overlooked due to its out-of-the-city home on the University of Birmingham campus grounds. However, this semi seclusion offers a romantic escapism.

Visitors can lose themselves in the building and disappear from the real world, if only for a short while. With such a vast breadth and quality of works, the institute is able to bargain on a worldwide level when it comes to loans and exchanges, providing Birmingham with some incredible visitors, such as a Picasso in 2014.

Without question the Barber is one of the most important cultural sites that our city possesses and tucked behind its walls is a hidden history of preservation, education and legacy building.