Terry Grimley enjoys a peep through the keyhole at some of Birmingham's private art collections.


Birmingham and private art collections are not two concepts that are often juxtaposed in the same sentence.

So there is quite a pioneering spirit to Behind Closed Doors, an exhibition of privatelyowned works spanning eight centuries which has just opened at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

It reveals that Birmingham has some serious collectors - or, to be more accurate, that there are some private individuals who own some very serious works. What the exhibition does not show is how extensive individual collections may be - and everything, of course, is anonymous, for the obvious reason of security.

The three curators - the Barber's Paul Spencer-Longhurst, Tessa Sidey of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and Michael Cullen, an art-loving medic (not a rare species, apparently), have combed out some remarkable treasures from the city's private households. Anonymity aside, no-one they approached declined to lend their prized possessions to the exhibition.

If most of us probably haven't thought much about present-day Birmingham as a forum for art collecting, it is obvious that in the 19th century art collecting by the city's industrialists set the agenda for the Museum & Art Gallery. It is not particularly surprising to find that their tastes are continued today with works by Birmingham artists Walter Langley and David Cox (though what is surprising is the unusually large scale of a Cox oil painting), or even a Rossetti drawing.

But who would have expected to find a Van Dyck hanging on the wall of a Birmingham house? Margaret Lemon as Erminia, a portrait of the artist's mistress, is a same-size replica of a painting which hangs in Blenheim Palace, where the curators took this painting for comparison. Apparently it stood up well to this test of authenticity, although it is thought that assistants had some part in it.

The Van Dyck isn't even the earliest work in the show. There is a small but strong 16th century painting of the Holy Family by Garofolo which will already be familiar to regular visitors to the Barber Institute, as it is on long-term loan here. And there are prints by Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Durer, dating from around 1470 and 1505 respectively.

There are two other notable old master paintings which are more impressive for their intrinsic quality than for the renown of the artists - a tiny mountain landscape by the Flemish artist Martin Ryckaert and a Dutch canal scene by Isaak Isaacsz. The latter has an interesting collector's story attached to it: it was bought at auction in the early 1990s without a specific attribution and was identified as a work by Isaacsz after his initials were revealed by cleaning.

Leaping forward 250 years there is a painting by Boudin, the precursor of Impressionism, of Bordeaux Harbour which looks much fresher since the inside of the glass covering it was cleaned for the exhibition. Unfortunately the reproduction in the catalogue preserves its previous, duller, appearance.

Twentieth century works range from a drawing by Picasso, reflecting his linear style of circa 1920, to a scorched copy of the Birmingham A-Z street atlas which is part of Cornelia Parker's meteorite-in-Birmingham project. However the most recent exhibit is actually a small painted relief made in 2004 by Joe Tilson, an artist associated with the 1960s Pop Art movement who is 80 this year.

Two pictures I would be very pleased to clear wall space for in my house are George Clausen's close-to-Impressionist Head of a Young Girl and Edwin Butler Bayliss's fantastic Snow and Furnace.

Bayliss was a self-taught artist who painted a subject few artists would touch, the Black Country industrial landscape of the early 20th century, with a Whistlerian eye for abstraction. Actually this small gem-like example reminded me of the once-fashionable abstract painter Nicholas De Stael.

Ironically, the fact that he came from a family of foundry owners gave Bayliss the financial independence to specialise in a subject with no commercial appeal. This fascinating West Midlands artist is surely long overdue a definitive exhibition.

There is one other industrial subject in C R W Nevinson's lithograph of two women acetylene welders working in an aeroplane factory in 1917.

I can remember this powerful image coming up at a Birmingham gallery a few years ago with a price tag of several thousand pounds. I can also remember passing up the chance to buy a Nevinson lithograph - admittedly of a less interesting subject - for £25 in the late 1960s. But, believe it or not, £25 was a lot of money for a hard-up student in those days - and there you have the would-be collector's perpetual dilemma.

* Behind Closed Doors: Works from Birmingham private collections is at the Barber Institute, Edgbaston Park Road, until April 27 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12 noon-5pm; admission free). ..SUPL: