barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham




Antwerp, about 1620. Oil on wood

Purchased 1944 (Inv. No. 44.11)


‘If I were giving [this] a title, I would call it Caught in the Act because someone unseen by us has just appeared in the right foreground and the startled thieves freeze in alarm, taking their eyes off the knot they are tying and twisting their heads to anxiously stare at their discoverer. Who knows, perhaps the sudden arrival is nobody of importance and they will, after all, get away with their pathetic treasure – a bundle of twigs to keep them warm on a cold winter’s night. The composition of this work is brilliantly contrived, it is almost as if you, the viewer, are a security camera recording a petty misdemeanour.’

Desmond Morris, eminent zoologist, sociobiologist, surrealist artist and University of Birmingham alumnus (1951)

As winter and Christmas approach and our thoughts may turn to spending comfortable evenings in front of a welcoming fire, it is a timely moment to focus on this small, but popular, painting showing two peasants binding faggots. Some art historians have suggested the two peasants represent gluttony and lechery – owing to the corpulent body of the peasant on the left and the conspicuous codpiece of his partner in crime, whilst others have inferred that the picture may relate to some, now long-lost, proverb. Whatever the case, Brueghel gives us a very human insight into an aspect of the world around him.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger came from a famous dynasty of artists. His father, Pieter Brueghel [sic] the Elder, and his brother, Jan Brueghel, were both highly accomplished painters (and Jan’s daughter, Anna, married the successful artist David Teniers). The younger Pieter’s works may not have the depth of those of his father, which he frequently copied, or the refinement of his brother’s paintings, but his own compositions are often highly original. The Barber’s small panel is one such gem, and has inspired playwrights and poets to respond to its enigmatic charm.


Dr Sophie Bostock, Assistant Curator

June 2013

Etienne Aubry (1745-1781)

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MAY 2013

James Jebusa Shannon (1862–1923)

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Pieter Breughel the younger (1564/5 – about 1638)

Two Peasants Binding Faggots

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German School

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