Posted by: christinelaennec | April 30, 2012

A visit to the Victoria & Albert museum

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:

The Ironwork section, Victoria & Albert museum

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.

Examples of needlework that were shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Victoria & Albert Museum.

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:

Tile design by Lewis Day

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:

Michael overlooking a room with, amongst other things, Trajan's column!

To give you some of the idea of the scale involved, here is what we were looking down at:

The scale of the room below.

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:

The tea room at the V&A. You can imagine the tinkling of the piano!

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:

Me in the courtyard of the V&A. (The Dafter: "You look like Mary Poppins. And that is NOT a compliment!")

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).

The courtyard of the Victoria & Albert museum.

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:

Amazing tiles in the (unisex) loos at the V&A. Note that the initials V & A are in the tile design!

As we left, we were a bit taken aback by this reminder of more recent historical events, namely the London blitz:

Historical evidence....

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!



  1. What an interesting visit! Thank you so much for sharing. And I agree with you, I can’t imagine the fear of being in the middle of a war! Seeing war damage to buildings does really bring that home.

  2. Thank you for these glimpses. I’ve only visited a tiny part of the V&A – children were small, so the Natural History Museum was more compelling. I don’t think you look like Mary Poppins (is it the spacious bag?), but I can sympathise with the stage you’re at. Several more years to come of ‘truth’ from your daughter. Mine now just has to raise an eyebrow and I rush off to change.
    The damage is sobering, and the examples of civilisation in the museum so precious when set beside the threat of modern warfare. I made the mistake at the weekend of watching ‘Threads’ on Youtube, and now find myself appreciating even the most irksome aspects of the life we take for granted.

  3. To my shame I have never visited. Like your previous commentator the Natural History Museum took precedence. So thank you for sharing your visit.

  4. I visited the V&A once years ago and remember being in awe of the scale of giant artefacts. What distresses me about this post, however, is that I don’t remember the tearoom! It looks magnificent and I feel I must visit it. Great post Christine, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  5. So much to see! When my kids were small we used to go and draw the netsuke. As for Mary Poppins… maybe you need to do a “what’s in my bag” blog post. A hatstand…?

  6. I love the V&A! Himself and I spent a few lovely hours there on our first trip to London. The place is immense, and we only saw a portion of its delights. We did visit the cast room, though. I spent most of my time in the history of England section. We missed the tea room and the loo, unfortunately! If I recall correctly, we had to leave due to closing time, and we did not return. Like you, I must visit again!

    BTW, the girls and I were just reading about the Great Exhibition this past week; I’m going to have them look at your post and photos as a supplement.
    (You look lovely in your photo! I have to tell you, my almost-teen is quite open with her criticism of my appearance, dress, weight, etc. Ack!)

  7. Thank you for taking us all with you, what a fascinating place! 🙂

  8. Your photo of the tea room awoke an old memory of having a snack there and admiring those same quotations.

    It’s amazing to think about how those massive paster casts were made of ancient monuments. I’m curious about the logistics of copying Trajan’s column, for example.

    P.S. You look stunning in that sweater.

  9. You know, a visit to the V&A is on my bucket list. Lucky you.

  10. It is always a pleasure to see the sights in your beautiful part of the world and this museum is surely a treasure for you all living there! That tea room is so beautiful, and I would be afraid of looking a little loopy if I were sitting there, as my head would be swiveling around to take it all in. Even the bathroom is lovely. I do like the tile design by Lewis Day the best.
    The Dafter’s comment brings me back to my days as Mother of 4 teenagers and the scathing critique of my appearance on a daily basis. I did remind them they would be in my shoes someday if they were ‘lucky’. You do look lovely in your new sweater!
    Thank you for the tour! xx

  11. Thank you, everyone! I love reading your comments (and of course compliments).

    Suzy, I’m glad you enjoyed the visit. I think they were right to leave some reminders of war to jog us a bit.

    Linda, Karen and Ellen, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the Dafter is a scathing critic of my appearance. It’s quite rare for her to comment on how I look, and any potentially hurtful remarks are prefaced by “I wouldn’t want to offend you, but…” Perhaps it’s because neither of us is interested in following fashion? I will say that she convinced me to give up wearing lipstick to work – not by criticising but by artful flattery and cunning truthfulness. Of course things may yet change!! It’s a running joke between us that I look like a Victorian (Edwardian actually), and it’s the coat that, if I turn my toes out, transforms me into my style icon, Mary Poppins.

    Jill, I’m glad you enjoyed the tour!

    Lorna, I thought of you when we were in the tearoom! The V&A’s tearoom is surely in a class of its own, and probably would need an entire book of its own. Half of it is run in a kind of cafeteria style (you queue at a counter to order your things), so perhaps it wouldn’t qualify as a proper tearoom?

    Roobeedoo – ha ha! Until reading these comments, I hadn’t seen how Poppins-like my knitting bag is. Excellent!

    Ellen, I’m so chuffed you’ve pointed your girls towards my post. There is a whole section about the Great Exhibition in the museum, it was really good. To add to your itinerary?

    Tina, I think you would enjoy all the domestic detail of lives in the past! Thank goodness for modern appliances, I say.

    Sigrid, those plaster casts really are quite incredible. I have no idea how they made them – a lot of them were done in Italy, I believe. Thanks for the thumbs-up on the stripy cardigan! It’s dreamy to wear, so soft on the arms.

    Relyn, I bet you actually write out your bucket list, don’t you? I hope you get to go to the V&A someday. You have such an eye for beauty, you would love it.

    Karen, I’m glad you enjoyed the tour, and thanks for liking the cardigan! I think I *did* look pretty loopy, standing there taking photographs of the loos. Nevermind, I wasn’t arrested and it was for a good cause.

  12. Definitely a place I’d like to visit! Wonderful pics capturing the beauty of it all and even the somber reminder of a horrendous time in the stone walls.

    Love the pic of you too and you do not look like Mary Poppins! 😉

  13. The V&A is one of my preferred museums in London. Beautiful collections and so well curated. Regarding the bombing marks on the walls, I felt just like you when I saw the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. They are a good reminder of how valuable times of peace are.

  14. Dear Dianne and Luciana,
    I’m glad you enjoyed the V&A post, including the reminder to enjoy peace! Dianne, Mary Poppins is my style icon so I was very complimented.

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