Friday, July 27, 2012

Old Aunt Vicky's attic of treasures

The Victoria and Albert Museum's permanent collection numbers over 4.5 million objects, which should tell you something about what you'll find here. It is officially called a museum of decorative arts and design, which, if you read between the lines, means that it's the world's greatest hoard of stuff.

Rear elevation seen from the garden
The huge pile just north of the South Kensington Tube Station in  London, was opened to the public in 1857 by then Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. The starting collection, and the idea of a museum of decorative arts had been part of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Its goal was to provide public access to objects of excellent design, art and craft, and to promote public industry manufacturing such items.

A bust of the young Victoria
The V & A Collections reverberate with superlatives. It has the largest collection of Italian Renaissance objects outside of Italy; the most comprehensive collection of Asian and South-East Asian art in the Western World. It holds the world's most comprehensive archive of architectural drawings, paper, photos and paraphernalia. There are entire period rooms crated up and reassembled within the museum; there is a column from the Alhambra; Chinese lacquerware furnishings from the 17th century, and an Indian mechanical automaton made for a Sultan in 1795.

Its library houses over 750,000 books, including volumes that belonged to Leonardo da Vinci. The ceramics and porcelain collection is said to be the largest in the world.

All told, it makes a great place to browse.

The Wrought Iron Work Gallery
You can go and just pick a certain corner to explore - who knows what it might be? Cambodian sculpture, the world's largest Persian carpet, Georgian silverware, Arte Nouveau furniture, or wrought-iron railings from 16th century France? Just spent three or four hours exploring whatever you want.

Some things are exquisite, like the collection of furnishings by the 19th Century Aesthetics like William Morris. Here is a swatch of printed cotton fabric in the "Strawberry Thief" pattern, from 1883.

"Bashaw, the Faithful Friend of Man"
Others are just appalling, like this life-size marble and hardstone carved Newfoundland dog by sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt. Commissioned by one Lord Dudley in 1833, it was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, then went unsold when Dudley died and his estate refused to pay for it. It was passed around from noble house to noble house in a kind of Victorian version of "regifting." It was finally sold to the Victoria & Albert in 1960 for only 200 pounds.

The placid dog stands atop a black marble base on a beige marble tasseled cushion. He rather mildly tramples a bronze snake with ruby eyes beneath one white marble paw. His eyes are topaz; He makes you want to give him a doggie treat. That exquisite arbiter of taste, John Ruskin, after seeing 'Bashaw' in a loan exhibition at the South Kensington Museum in 1870, called it
"the most perfectly and roundly ill-done thing I ever saw produced in art...the persons who produced it had seen everything, and practised everything; and misunderstood everything they saw, and misapplied everything they did...and misunderstanding of everything had passed through them as mud does through earthworms, and here at last was their worm-cast of a Production."

Good puppy!

Then there's this - the decorative carving over a door, made in the Italian style for the Great Drawing Room of Norfolk House, in 1758 by the French carver Cuenot. Its decor features the flora and fauna of Southeast Asia - hence the little monkey figures.

This is brocade silk dress fabric dating from 1725 or so. It was made by French Huegenot weavers who emigrated to Spitalfields with their craft, establishing that London neighborhood as a thriving garment district.

Mahogany chair by Macmurdo, 1883

And this side chair with a delicately carved seat-back.

Bergere, circa 1823
Or you could go for a more majestic place to park it, with a Directoire bergere.

Altar screen from Hereford Cathedral
The place is full of people and school groups.

You can view the collection, or you can view the beautifully curated special exhibitions - and the museum helps pull the theme of the exhibits through the entire environment. A solo exhibition on the British Heatherwicke Studios included these fantastic Studio Spun chairs - but instead of confining them to the gallery, they were placed in the lobby and even in the outdoor garden.

Kids loved them.

It was a rare dry and sunny day, and the fine weather brought the school kids out into the central garden to splash in the pond. If your feet are feeling tired, you could splash about, too, or relax among the hydrangeas.

The Gamble Room interior
Then if you are truly exhausted, you can go have some refreshment in the cafe. The Victoria & Albert Museum was the first museum in the world to have a refreshment room and cafe for guests, and this was another opportunity to promote good British design and manufacturing. Noted designers were commissioned for the dining rooms' decor.

We split a lunch of shredded duck and hoisin wrap, served with faro salad, in the stunning Gamble Room. Designed by Godfrey Sykes, James Gamble, and Reuben Townrow, the entire room was intended to be washable, with ceramic tile walls and enameled steel ceilings, in an ornate Italian Renaissance style with ornate stained glass windows.

To one side of the Gamble Room is the Poynter Room, originally intended to be a grill room, where one could get chops and steaks. It's decor features blue-and-white Dutch-style tiles and wooden panelling.

The room on the other side was designed by William Morris, with dado rail paintings by Edward Burne-Jones. What an amazing way to end a day of museum-viewing!

I've always like poking about in piled up hoards of stored away stuff, but crazy old Aunt Vicky's attic is the best in the world!


smalltownme said...

A stuff museum! That's my kind of place.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...


That doggie sculpture just needs a family to love him.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Those fabrics are fantastic! I'll admit that some of that ornate stuff is a bit much for me, but "Old Aunt Vicky's attic" would be a great place to visit. So much to see!

I think that puppy needs a garden where little children can climb on him.