I was lucky enough to first visit the Victoria & Albert museum as a teenager, when my family went on a European Tour (low budget but life-changing). Even at 13, I adored needlecraft and Victoriana. For some reason, we had a copy of an 1861 Godey’s Ladies’ Book at home, and I used to pore over the instructions for bizarre crocheted and tatted items. (I did learn to tat, though I’ve never mastered crochet.) So you can imagine how much I enjoyed spending time in one of the world’s greatest treasure troves of design.
While we were visiting friends near London over Easter, the Dafter was more than happy for the ‘rents to disappear for an afternoon, and we headed for the V&A. Sadly for me, most of their needlework and textiles were off-limits because they are redoing the display, which will open in 2013. (Michael said, “You’ll just have to come back!” and who knows, maybe I’ll do just that.) But there was plenty else to enjoy. Here for example is a (flash-less, sorry) photo of part of the ironwork collection:
I love that amazing bull, and the swan to the right. I did discover a few pieces of needlework. Here are items that were displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851, including early examples of machine-manufactured knitted goods.
The Victoria & Albert museum was established at the close of the Great Exhibition: the proceeds of the event were used to found the museum dedicated to art and design. Here is a beautiful tile panel by Lewis Day from 1902:
You might think that everything in the V&A is on a domestic scale, but not at all. We were completely amazed to stumble upon this:
To give you some of the idea of the scale involved, here is what we were looking down at:
This room is the Cast Court, and these are not enormous pieces of stonework, but enormous plaster casts. Extraordinary! Some of the pieces cost thousands of pounds even in Victorian times. You can find out more on the V&A blog.
I was interested to read that when the museum first opened, it was thought that collecting historical pieces of design was useless. The focus, many argued, should be on contemporary (Victorian) design. However, eventually the argument for including design from the past was won. And lucky for us, because the V&A’s extraordinary collections have inspired many designers over the years. In the field of needlework, one need only think of Kaffe Fassett, and his books of designs inspired by objects in the V&A.
The fabric of the building itself is as fascinating as what it contains. Here is part of the cafe/tea room. It’s covered with ornate and often gilded tiles, and the windows are of stained glass:
Throughout the museum one sees edifying quotations. This is part of “his soul and enjoy good in his labour” which Madame Google kindly tells me is from the Book of Ecclesiastes (2:24). The word over the mirror is “Truth”! (Is this what I really want, at my age? I didn’t risk looking into it!)
Here am I, happy in the courtyard after a coffee:
To the left of this view of the courtyard, the building has a large frieze with all the countries of the Empire listed, and many more edifying quotations (“Wisdom exalteth her children and layeth hold of them that seek her” – from Ecclesiasticus 4:11).
I just could not resist showing you that even the loos are highly decorated. The tiles have a design of an interwoven V and A:
As we left, we were a bit taken aback by this reminder of more recent historical events, namely the London blitz:
We presumed that this damage from bombs and bullets had been left intentionally as a reminder, as you don’t see a lot of this kind of thing around London. And indeed when I researched it afterwards, found a photograph of this inscription: “The damage to these walls is as a result of enemy bombing… and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict.” Seeing the bomb damage as we left shocked me a bit, made me feel how fortunate we are, and made me think of people in other parts of the world for whom enemy bombing is a current reality. I do hope that the values of the V&A are ones that society will choose to prioritise.
Although our visit ended on a sober note, it was a great afternoon, especially for two parents who don’t really get out much!