Objects of Obsession, Birmingham

    Whenever I have the chance to visit the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, in Birmingham, I take it. It’s a small collection, but one that glows. I tend to dawdle longest before the Cima da Conegliano, the Frans Hals, the Degas, the Pissarro, the Gauguin and the Rubens landscape. But that’s just me. You might prefer the Botticelli, the Bellini, the Veronese, the Poussin and the Rubens portrait. Each to his own. Where we must unite is in recognising the choiceness of this compact selection.

    And perhaps in enjoying the way it rattles through the great epochs of art, from the Renaissance to the baroque to the modern age, at Jenson Button speed. If you need to understand Romanticism in depth, then the Barber is not for you. If you want to have it summarised in an amuse-bouche, then hurry to Birmingham and stride from the Ingres to the Delacroix. Voilà.

    Actually, you don’t need to stride. A shuffle sideways will get you from one to the other. The Barber makes a virtue of its compactness, and the interesting little offcentre shows they mount here instinctively favour the smaller talent.

    The latest is devoted to pre-Raphaelite portraits by John Brett. Those who recognise Brett already will know he is best known for landscapes. Indeed, I do not think it too cruel to suggest that he is known only for his landscapes. Among the pre-Raphs, Brett is a minnow who swam with the sharks. Rossetti, Hunt, Millais were predators who bit Jesus-sized chunks out of the Bible and tore the limbs off the giant femme fatale. Brett, however, was something smaller and nicer: a dreamy gazer-out upon the English landscape who seemed to enjoy the tiniest twist of a bluebell as it leant towards a primrose. Every wave that dashed itself against an English rock could count on his attention. He had the eyes of a hawk and the heart of a labrador. Or so I thought.

    In fact, the Barber selection of the portraits he produced of his family and friends makes clear that Brett was a much weirder artist than I had assumed. Place him atop a cliff and his immense love of the landscape drowns out all other responses. Put him in front of a woman, however, and you start to hear strange sighs, whispers and suckings. Everything grows more complicated for Brett when there are humans about.

    He was born in 1831, the second eldest of a cluster of five. His father was a veterinary surgeon who had served in the Royal Navy. So they were a military family, forced often to up camp and move. Because there were so many of them, they seemed to form their own battalion, and most of Brett’s early portraits feel as if they are placing you, the viewer, on the “them” side of the us-and-them divide.

    In a family situation, portraiture’s task is not the portrait’s usual task of flattering the sitter or marking their status.

    Family portraits are charged instead with secret codings and private noticings. Brett’s painting of his younger brother, Arthur, which serves as the kickoff for this gloomy game of unhappy families, shows us a flaxen-haired Viking type staring through us so intently that he appears a tad bonkers. On the wall behind, where the wallpaper should be, are the heraldic outlines of a regiment of lions. Brett, you realise, is trying to imply some kinship between his fierce brother Arthur and King Arthur himself. It’s an older brother’s reading. Take it out of the family situation and it begins to feel… eccentric.

    Some of Brett’s earliest portrait drawings are not much larger than a thumbprint. All are exquisitely made, with remarkable amounts of detail packed into a tiny space, but there is generally room enough here to reveal a set of predictable Victorian values: the women tend to be doll-like and sweet, the men favour fierceness and the leonine stare. Notably Brett himself, who, in a scary self-portrait with a huge beard, unruly hair and bulging eyes, seems to be going for the biblical-prophet look. There are doomed Israelites on the Sistine ceiling less fiercely chosen and sweaty than Brett imagines himself to be in his tiny presentation of himself.

    All of which I found difficult to take seriously. As an artist whose primary talent is for accurate observation — which is why his landscapes are so thrilling — Brett lacks the portraitist’s most precious gift, insight. In portraiture, understanding is more crucial than observing. The reason why brother Arthur appears to be staring through us so crazily is because Brett has noticed the reflections of some windows in his eyes and set out to record them perfectly. Which he does. The result may be a triumph of detailed observation, but the windows in Arthur’s stare make his eyes look huge and mad. Great observation. Unfortunate results.

    The display shifts onto even more peculiar ground when its focus switches to the women Brett adored. He seems to have been something of a spaniel as a lover, chasing after his targets with slobbering enthusiasm, then sitting at their feet, waiting. His most famous doggy crush was on the poet Christina Rossetti, who appears here with a spotless physiognomy worthy of one of Fra Angelico’s angels. Except for the note of sternness that Brett records in her demeanour. In real life, Rossetti tired quickly of Brett’s stalking and even wrote an excellent poem on the subject, called No, Thank You, John. It contains the splendidly direct conclusion: “I’d rather answer ‘No’ to fifty Johns/Than answer ‘Yes’ to you.” Not surprisingly, the angelic portrait of her was left unfinished.

    Another impossible crush was on a certain Jeanette Loeser, an older woman he met in Italy, the “companion” of the pianist Jacques Blumenthal. Brett was 31 when he met Loeser. She was 44. She had big pre-Raphaelite hair and, I read, an enticing and mysterious presence. So, when Brett set about painting her, he popped a white dove on her shoulder and dressed her up in a huge cascade of ruffles and frills. I like the way he records the grey in Loeser’s 44-year-old hair, but the rest of the picture is shrill 
    and silly.

    The show ends with another wall full of family portraits, in this case of Brett’s own children by his common-law wife, Mary. There were seven of them, called, rather charmingly, Michael, Daisy, Jasper, Alfred, Pansy, Spencer and Gwendolyn. He painted all of them as they popped out, one after another. Finding tangible character in the wide-eyed sweetness of a child’s face is perhaps the portraitist’s toughest ask. Alas, Brett, in a show that proves he was right to concentrate on landscape, finds it 
    beyond him.