The Barber Institute at Birmingham University


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Barber Institute Of Fine Arts, University Of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TS


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Statutory Address:
Barber Institute Of Fine Arts, University Of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TS

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Birmingham (Metropolitan Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, of 1935–1939 by Robert Atkinson, extended in the 1960s and 1980s. Sculptural work by George Atkinson.

Reasons for Designation

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, of 1935–1939 by Robert Atkinson, extended in the 1960s and 1980s, with sculptural work by George Atkinson, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* the Barber is a building of exquisite architectural quality, with a sophisticated design which follows logically from its plan, arranged around the central auditorium; * for the set-piece interiors, particularly the auditorium, which express the sophisticated style of the 1930s; * for the remarkable quality of the detailing throughout, with even the smallest features contributing to the thoughtfulness of the overall design. * for its survival with relatively little alteration.

Historic interest:

* as what is thought to be one of, if not the first integrated facility of its type for the teaching of music and the arts, with gallery and exhibition space; * for the association with its primary female founder and benefactor, Lady Barber, and her husband, Sir William, and their associations with the University of Birmingham; * for its place in the development history of the University of Birmingham.

Group value:

* with the numerous other listed buildings on the campus of the University of Birmingham.


The origin of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts came in the early 1930s, with the University of Birmingham having become aware in 1932 that Lady Barber intended to endow an institute at the university ‘to serve as both an art gallery or museum and a music room’. The idea, design and collection of the Institute evolved over the following years until its eventual opening in July 1939 by Queen Mary.

Martha Christie Hattie Onions was born in Earls Croome in Worcestershire in 1869, the daughter of Simon and Harriet Onions of the Onions bellow manufacturing family. She married William Henry Barber, a solicitor and property developer born in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, who was to retire in his mid-30s and was knighted in 1924. Together, they became avid collectors of art and it became their wish, before Sir William’s death in 1927, to endow an Institute at Birmingham. A Deed of Settlement in 1932 was to establish the Henry Barber Trust and the Barber Institute itself. Lady Barber’s desire to join both art and music within the facility was clear from the outset. As she wrote to Sir Gilbert Baring, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, “my husband and I always shared the wish that we might build, equip and endow, and present to the University, such building or buildings, as would create a neuclus [sic] for an Art museum or Gallery, and so form an Art Centre for the University; - and to be incorporated with this, I always wished to include a moderate sized Concert Room.” The Barber is thought to be the first example of an integrated art, music and higher education facility of this type. Lady Barber died just a few months after her bequest to the University.

The Trustees of the Barber chose as architect Robert Atkinson, who was known to them through his previous positions as Principal Director of Education at the Architecture Association. Atkinson was born in 1883 in Wigton, Cumbria, and trained as an architect in Nottingham and Newcastle before entering practice in 1907. He was well-known for his cinema designs, notably at Brighton’s Regent Cinema (1919-1921), numerous flat developments in London, and had recently designed the entrance to the Daily Express Building on Fleet Street (1931-1932). His architectural designs drew from a wide frame of reference, and he did not restrict his work to a particular style, working as he did with Art Deco, neo-Georgian, Beaux Arts and various eclectic mixtures.

At the Barber, Atkinson worked closely with Thomas Bodkin, the first Director of the Barber Institute, in preparing the designs for the building. Bodkin was keen that the Institute would have a library and lecture room for the teaching of art history. Together, Bodkin and Atkinson visited various European galleries, including the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, the Boymans in Rotterdam and the Gemeentenmuseum at the Hague as part of their research for the Barber. The final design incorporated music and teaching facilities on the basement and ground floors, organised around the central auditorium, and exhibition space on the first floor.

The local Birmingham firm of Maddocks and Walford took on the building contract, and the sculptor George Atkinson (no relation to the architect) was chosen to design the sculptural work around the exterior, which was then executed by George Hericx of Birmingham Sculptors in Moseley.

On opening in 1939, the Barber housed a collection of 16 paintings, 31 drawings and watercolours, 19 prints and 3 sculptures. Following the end of the Second World War, the building was awarded an Architecture Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1946.

An extension to the Barber was built, in much the same style as the original, at its north-western corner in the 1960s by Robert Atkinson & Partners, successors to Atkinson. The glass roof extension over the building was added in the 1980s by Bickerdicke Allen, who also converted the first floor tapestry gallery to additional exhibition space for paintings.


The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, of 1935–1939 by Robert Atknison, extended in the 1960s and 1980s. Sculptural work by George Atkinson.

MATERIALS: the building is built of brick with steel beams supporting a concrete floor, faced in Himley brick and Darley Dale stone, with a glass roof covering of the 1980s.

PLAN: the Institute as originally built is roughly square on plan. The music auditorium is placed at the centre of the building, with rooms and galleries organised around it on each level. The building was extended to the north-west in the 1960s.

EXTERIOR: the building is characterised by the contrasting materials of its facades, with the basement and ground floors of ashlar stone and upper storey of brick. The lower floors have windows which light the rooms within; windows throughout are metal framed casements. The brick upper facades are blind where they conceal the originally top-lit gallery spaces inside. There are four carved panels at the upper floor level, one to each of the west and east facades and two to the south. These have carved motifs showing a laurel branch, a palm leaf, a torch and a lyre which symbolise the arts, merit, education and music.

There are continuous stringcourses around the building between ground and first floors, and again beneath the continuous parapet. The parapet has recessed square panels which are plain with filleted bands between them apart from where they coincide with the carved first floor panels below. At these sections, the detailing is sections of Greek key motif in an Art Deco style.

The principal façade of the building is its entrance front which faces east, looking out across the open space where the adjacent statue of King George I is sited. The main entrance is house in a monumental square arch at the northern end of the building, approached via a wide flight of steps. The steps are flanked by large stone platforms on which stand stone vases with carved chevron detailing. The entrance doors themselves are recessed within the arch; the tall doors have sections of square panels with central roundels, and secondary glazed doors with glazing bars which repeat the Art Deco style Greek key motif. Above the door is an inscription in gold lettering which reads, ‘UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM BARBER INSTITUTE OF FINE ARTS A D MCMXXXV’. The arch is flanked by carved panels with coats of arms. At the upper floor the brickwork is laid in a herringbone pattern, with different shades of brick to highlight the chevrons.

The south-eastern corner of the building has a further carved panel, which curves around the corner itself, with the inscription in gold lettering ‘BARBER INSTITUTE OF FINE ARTS’. The southern elevation has a bowed central projection which denotes the lecture theatre within. To the western, rear side of the building, is the students entrance and rear service yard, and a bowed projection of the main stair in the building. The northern side of the building has continuous windows at ground floor level; the windows at first floor which originally lit the tapestry gallery are now infilled. This section is slightly recessed between small towers which rise above the parapet. At the north-western corner is the 1960s extension, in much the same style as the original.

INTERIOR: the main entrance opens into a long hall, with the main stair closing the vista at the far end. The floor here is of Travertine, as are the door surrounds and the stair itself. This hall is side-lit with full height windows, opposite which are the main doors into the central auditorium. Between these doors is a commemorative plaque beneath a portrait of Lady Barber.

The auditorium doors are of Australian walnut with satin inlaid maple which repeats the Greek key motif. The auditorium itself, which seats 364 people, is panelled throughout in the Australian walnut with crescent festoons around the upper levels. The ceiling steps up, echoing the rake of the floor, towards the stage, and has panels of coffered squares. The proscenium has further panelling and repeats of the Greek key motif. The seating in the auditorium is original, although recovered.

The remainder of the ground floor corridors have original linoleum flooring and oak to the door surrounds. Off these corridors are the bathroom facilities which retain original wall and floor coverings. There are offices and teaching rooms as well as the lecture theatre and library, both of which retain original bespoke furniture and fittings by Gordon Russell.

The basement floor has more offices and what originally was the caretakers’ flat. Music practice rooms here have baize doors. This level is accessed by a secondary stair with simple metal handrail.

The gallery spaces at first floor level are approached via the main stair. This starts with a wide flight filling the width of the main entrance hall, which then narrows as it rises, incorporating a turn-table supporting a sculpture. The stair sweeps in a curve to the first floor with walls clad in Travertine, with another sculpture-supporting turntable at the top.

The galleries are laid in the ranges around the auditorium, with wedge-shaped display spaces in the three original galleries. These have oak flooring laid in a herringbone pattern in central areas, with further oak to the low dados, doors and wide surrounds at the openings between the galleries. These openings also have bands of Travertine. The ceilings are flat down the central section, and rise above each ‘wedge’ where they were originally top-lit. The original tapestry gallery has been altered to provide further space for hanging paintings.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
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Books and journals
Foster, A, Pevsner Architectural Guides: Birmingham, (2005), 249
Wenley, R (Editor), The Barber Institute of Fine Arts: Foundations of a Collection, (2012)
Spencer-Longhurst, P, 'The Barber Institute of Fine Arts' in Spencer-Longhurst, P, Robert Atkinson 1883-1952, (1989), 62-80


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 01 Aug 2000
Reference: IOE01/02460/03
Rights: Copyright IoE Dr John Davis. Source Historic England Archive
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