I’m very keen on museums, and the Victoria and Albert was one I’d never visited. So this time, the V&A was on the agenda.
The Victoria and Albert is just over 150 years old--it was established in 1852 as the South Kensington Museum (it was given its present name in 1899). Originally housing a collection of art and science exhibits, the museum shifted its focus to the arts in 1913, and since then has been one of the world’s most respected art collections.
Being short of time, we couldn’t see each of the 145 galleries in the 11-acre museum. But among the most awesome exhibits we saw were:
1. The Raphael Cartoons, preliminary `sketches’ of Biblical scenes, by Raphael. Each was between 40 and 50 square feet in area, and all served as the bases for Flemish tapestries.
2. The English Galleries, crowded with amazingly well-preserved and interesting items from medieval England. There are embroidered jackets; the wedding attire of James II; lace collars, gloves and bedspreads- and a section dedicated to the exquisite embroideries of a certain 17th century maiden called Martha Edlin, whose major work was executed when she was about 12 years old!
Also part of these galleries are musical instruments and pieces of intricately carved furniture, such as the Great Bed of Ware, first mentioned in the 15th century as being at an inn in Ware (Hertfordshire). Shakespeare refers to the bed in Twelfth Night.
3. The Chinese Gallery, bursting with paintings, imperial robes, jade ornaments and utensils, and splendid porcelain, including a curvy Ming vase that you can touch. Another highlight of the gallery is a stunning imperial throne made of finely carved, lacquered wood. Lovely!
4. The Japanese Gallery, which, although it’s dominated by samurai swords and costumes, has some beautiful porcelain and woodwork (there’s a foot-long tiger carved from wood, its stripes lightly polished while the rest of its body had a matte finish. Exquisite.) Best of all were the netsuke, tiny and perfect carvings of birds, animals, and so on, that were used as counterbalances for items slung on a cord and looped through the obi of a kimono.
5. The two Cast Courts, massive glass-covered pavilions that contain plaster casts of the best classical European sculpture. Among the casts are Michelangelo’s David; an Irish cross; the pulpit of Pisa Cathedral; Trajan’s Column; and various friezes and statues.
The Cast Courts are about 150 years old- David, in fact, was gifted to Queen Victoria in 1856. The gallery between the two Cast Courts contains religious works, enameled reliquaries, carved ivory crucifixes, diptychs, and triptychs. Among the latter, a 9th-century Carolingian triptych is particularly lovely.
My verdict: a museum that’s hard to beat. If you like arts and crafts, do visit.
The V&A’s open from 10 till 5.45 daily, and till 10 on Wednesday and the last Friday of the month except in December. Entry is free. There’s a café, a shop, and free daily tours and talks. Check at the entrance of the museum for details on tours.