If you’ve visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the last year, you might have noticed a new addition to its central Round Room: a blue plaque. The commemoration may not be exactly what you expect however – it doesn’t refer to a much-lauded artist or to someone fundamental in establishing BMAG as an institution. Instead, the plaque pays tribute to Bertha Ryland, an Edgbaston Suffragette, for deliberately damaging a painting there in 1914 as part of the campaign to secure women’s right to vote. It seems only fitting, then, that Jacqui Rowe, assigned to write in response to BMAG for Overhear, is also interested in paying attention to the historically overlooked voices of women. We met up with her in the Round Room itself to find out more.
‘Tom approached me through Writing West Midlands some time last year,’ Jacqui tells us, ‘and it sounded like a great opportunity. I like writing about place, I like writing about art and as a Birmingham poet, I like writing about Birmingham.’
‘BMAG is the most significant art gallery in Birmingham,’ she says, ‘I’m interested in writing about galleries – I’ve been writer in residence at the Barber Institute in the past, and as I say, I do enjoy writing about paintings. What I really like about BMAG is that it has such a wide range of collections; there’s local history here along with the fine art.’
‘I always find having to write to a purpose for a commission interesting because it takes me somewhere that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. I’ve walked through here–’ the Round Room ‘–in the past, even run workshops with other writers but this is the first time I’ve written in here myself. It’s the place that everybody comes through if they visit the gallery. They always end up in this room at some point but, like me, they might not always take the time to stop and look at it properly.’
‘It’s got this rather large collection of nineteenth century paintings hung several tiers high on the walls, some of them actually quite hard to see. It’s taken me in a different direction than I’d thought it would. The original plan was just to write generally in response to some of the paintings but being here, looking around, it was the women that interested me.’
She continues: ‘As it’s more or less all nineteenth century, it’s more or less all done by white men, so I began looking at some of the women characters in the paintings. The theme of what I’m doing, it turns out, is writing from their perspective, the framing device of the poem being a kind of treasure hunt to find the pictures to match the voices in the poem.’
Jacqui reveals this isn’t her first time creating this kind of work: ‘I have actually written another sequence of poems that gave a voice to a woman in a painting, and there’s a lot of poetry about art in my first collection, so I have done this sort of thing before. But it’s always different,’ she adds, ‘because the painting’s always different, the viewpoint is always different.’
‘I’m definitely taking some creative liberties,’ Jacqui admits wryly, ‘because I’m creating voices for these characters which probably aren’t the way the painter imagined; some of them are quite funny – I hope.’ She points at a painting across the room from us – pictured here. ‘The one over there, for example, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgin, is all about how sensible girls don’t let their lamps go out while waiting for their bridegrooms.’
‘It’s meant to be about being prepared at all times, to expect that God might call on you but it does annoy me slightly that it’s presented in that way – there’s a way to tell that kind of story without making the women look stupid. So I’ve taken the liberty of giving those characters voices, where one of the girls is just very annoyed that the bridegroom is late!'
‘When people get here, when they look at the paintings, they might have a completely different take on things, which is a good thing! I’m not writing a documentary, it’s coming from my own interpretation, my own inspiration. As I see people going around, I don’t imagine any of them are seeing the paintings in exactly the way I am.’
She concludes: ‘Usually a poem comes to you, either on the page or online… so I like the idea that you’ve got to come to these poems to get them – I want people to be looking at the things I’m writing about, to find new perspectives on what they’re seeing.’
To try your hand at Jacqui’s treasure hunt and discover new voices in old paintings, you can collect her sequence of poems from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Tea Rooms using the Overhear app . bit.ly/OverhearApp