I left the Victoria and Albert Museum as a member of staff for the last time yesterday. No longer will I be able to mysteriously disappear through doors marked ‘Staff Only’, or go behind the scenes and get sneak previews of exhibitions and new galleries. I’m going to miss it, enormously. It was an immense privilege to walk through galleries of sculpture on the way to a meeting; to be taken to attic store rooms lined with treasures; to be able to wander around before and after opening hours, and look and linger as long as I wanted to; to attend glamorous opening parties; and to have the company of colleagues passionate and knowledgable about their work, from whom I learned an awful lot. It was a magical one year and nine months, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone to work in a museum for a while – it’s an unforgettable experience!
I’m going to take you on a little ‘insider’s’ tour of the V&A now…my favourite gallery is the Cast Courts (or gallery 46a, to us!), which is the first picture at the top. These two galleries were purpose built in the 1870s to display the V&A’s now unrivalled collection of Victorian casts of famous world monuments. These casts, made of plaster and painted to resemble stone or iron or whatever the original monument was made from, are colossal in their size and include Michaelangelo’s David and Trajan’s Column (in the top picture – in two halves). The casts are mostly hollow and double up as useful storage receptacles – last time I popped my head into the space underneath the bottom half of Trajan’s Column, which looks like a big brick chimney from the inside, it was storing a massive gold Menorah!
Casts went out of fashion in the 20th century and all museums apart from the V&A and the Ashmolean in Oxford got rid of their collections. The sheer size of them makes them impractical to display, and technically, as they are not original works of art and merely copies, they are considered by many academics to be not worthy of being displayed as objects of architectural and design history in their own right. The V&A took a different attitude, however; the casts are an integral part of the V&A’s history as an art and design school, and as we had the space for them, the casts stayed. Now they are the most comprehensive collection of architectural casts anywhere in the world, and due to pollution and damage inflicted during both world wars, in some cases, the casts have provided vital evidence of original details and carving that has been lost over the past one hundred years from the originals. They are currently having a resurgence in importance in the art and architectural worlds, and there is nothing like them anywhere else. They are not widely known about, but they are so impressive in the flesh, and if you are ever in London, they are well worth a visit. Sadly, you can no longer access the gallery that runs along the top for health and safety reasons; I’ve been up there, and it’s an incredible view, though there are a lot of uncatalogued boxes of small casts up there so it’s probably best the public doesn’t see that bit!
Next up, is my favourite object. The painting above is a typical portrait of the Aesthetic period, and is by Sir William Blake Richmond. The sitter is Mrs Luke Ionides, born Elfrida Bird, wife of a wealthy Greek trading magnate and art patron. I adore everything about the Victorian period; the literature, the art, the design, the tastes, the history; and I especially love the Arts and Crafts movement. This painting is a perfect distillation of everything wonderful about Victorian Britain; sumptuous colours, ridiculous fashion, the interest in exoticism and the natural world, and the innovation and idealism practised by many. In the flesh, it is an absolute feast for the eyes. I used to go and just look at it on my lunch break, in awe of how lovely it is. It’s situated in the paintings galleries, which again, not a lot of people seem to know the V&A has. There is a magnificent collection of paintings on permanent show that are typical of the Victorian era; another favourite of mine is Rosetti’s The Day Dream. The collection is well worth a look, and is a real hidden gem amongst the colossal range of the Museum’s holdings.
Finally, above is my favourite space in the V&A; the Morris room in the Museum cafe. There are three rooms that make up the cafe; the Morris, Gamble and Poynter rooms, all named after the men who designed them. They are beautiful rooms with tiled walls, stained glass and painted murals, all original survivals from the Victorian period when they were designed specifically as the first museum cafeteria in the world. William Morris’ design is stunning; it creates the effect of being in a forest glade, with the rich green walls and dappled light coming through the stained glass. Up close you can see the delicate paintwork on the walls, and the intricate ceiling design; it’s a perfect example of the decadence and earthiness of Morris’ designs. As a lover of everything Victorian, it is heaven in four walls to me. What could be a better place to sit down with a cup of tea and a slice of cake after a few hours wandering through the halls of magnificent objects?
I hope you enjoyed this whistlestop tour, and that it will encourage many of you who have never been before to take a trip to the beautiful Victoria and Albert Museum, otherwise known as the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I will leave you with a haunting poem from the sculpture that topped the grave of Countess Emily Georgiana of Winchelsea and Nottingham, and which I passed every day on my way to and from my office; she wrote it herself before she died to give her husband comfort once she was dead:
When the knell rung for the dying
soundeth for me
and my corpse coldly is lying
neath the green tree
When the turf strangers are heaping
covers my breast
Come not to gaze on me weeping
I am at rest
All my life coldly and sadly
The days have gone by
I who dreamed wildly and madly
am happy to die
Long since my heart has been breaking
Its pain is past
A time has been set to its aching
Peace comes at last.