Somehow I spent almost 6 hours in the Victoria & Albert today. Two coffee breaks, a guided tour and lots of looking and getting side-tracked.
I sat upstairs on the bus to Exhibition Road, then walked along to the Albert Memorial in homage to the man whose efforts led to the collection that I was going to visit. It’s a tremendous monument: pretty hideous, I think, and the quaint notions of its time aren’t in harmony with today’s Zeitgeist, but the design and workmanship are brilliant.
So, from my notes scribbled on the museum plan:
The tour started with the giant Ardabil carpet (Persian, 1539-40), and you could see the swirling tendrils and serrated leaves reflected in fabrics and carpets produced by the Victorians three centuries later. Adoption and adaptation of other cultures’ motifs can lead to some odd juxtapositions – e.g. Paisley’s fame for weaving shawls featuring an Indo-Persian design.
In the ironwork gallery there was a wrought-iron window grille designed by Hector Guimard in 1899. I do like the Art Nouveau whiplash, but the nasty little jags at the top are a reminder that this is also designed to tear your flesh.
There was also a gallery – actually an external space covered over and converted to a gallery – that housed, amongst other things, a couple of wooden façades from old houses. It was astonishing that they had survived so long – particularly the façade from Brittany with an external stair. The façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house (ca. 1600) from near what is now Liverpool Street Station was particularly interesting because it was accompanied by a Victorian photo showing it before demolition:
I noted innovations in Victorian manufacturing techniques, such as pressed glass (molten glass forced into a mould) replacing expensive cut glass (hand cut with very sharp edges). The ability to mass produce led to the creation of loads of ugly stuff! However, there was one object – “Bashaw, the faithful friend of man” – that proved you can hand-craft costly hideousness too. Even the cushion is marble.
The Jacquard loom works on a punch card system.
In the chair gallery (how did I get there?!), there was a 17th-century Welsh chair made from turned spindles. I recalled I’d seen one last week in the Lady Lever Gallery. There was also a Hoffmann Sitzmaschine – this time without cushions, so it looked like a skeleton. Lots of Marcel Breuer and Eames chairs. Also Thonet steam-bent beechwood chairs, which were quickly assembled and are still the archetypal café chair even after 150 years. My destination was actually an Art Nouveau cabinet made in Nancy by Louis Majorelle, but somehow that wasn’t as interesting as the objects that I saw on my way there.
I’m coming across more and more pottery from the Della Robbia factory in Birkenhead – or, perhaps, I’ve just started noticing it. It’s Arts and Crafts mixed with Art Nouveau, with lots of blues, greens and yellows. It looks rather clunky to me, but it is distinctive. Also in the ceramics galleries were some pieces from Manises near Valencia – all blue, cream and copper and much more attractive.
My big discovery was sculptor Gilbert Bayes (1872-1953): I just liked his designs. One other find was Charles Sergeant Jagger; I think I’ve come across his war memorials before, but this fireplace is very different: it was commissioned by Henry and Gwen Mond (second Lord Melchett) for their house in Smith Square (with murals by Glyn Philpot) in 1930. The bronze relief above the fireplace is called Scandal and refers to their early years together. The iron fire basket below has a couple of feline faces behind female profiles – referring to the cattiness that the couple were the subject of. Close up, you can really admire the detail and the mood of the piece: the embracing lovers surrounded by horrified busybodies:
I’d actually gone to the V&A to look at their small Christopher Dresser collection, but my experience of that was overshadowed by these serendipitous discoveries.