May 28, 2018
Margaret Raffin gave us designer tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Beginning at the gardens known as the John Madejski Garden and designed by Kim Wilkie, she said the large concrete planters had originally houses hollies in winter and lemon trees in summer but had recently been replaced by small topiaries. The entire west side of the gardens is lined with hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla). They have season displays of echium, foxtails, irises, and lilies. Margaret believed the hydrangeas were heirloom but that doesn’t seem to be documented. A wading pool was in abundant use by families and folks who sat on the grass enjoying the unseasonably warm day in London.
The V & A began with the 1851 Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park. It generated profits. On the top of the original V & A building, a black silhouette of the Crystal palace, focal point of the exhibition, depicted Queen Victoria distributing laurel wreaths to the winners of the exhibition.
The 1851 Exhibition was the first international exhibit ever. Prince Albert was genuinely worried that Great Britain was lagging behind other countries in the science and arts and wanted to focus heavily in education.
The right wing built in 1857 had a fire proof first floor. Left wing built in 1863 housed the directors. In 1865 the lecture theatre was added. A Romanesque type Revival style, a great deal of brick and terracotta style was used. The technique of the masons was to dip the bricks in the mortar utilizing terra cotta, which meant the figurines could be duplicated easily as molds. In 1884 the library was added.
Margaret quipped that the numerous windows were essential for the Victorians for ventilation and air flow of necessity.
Better It is to Get Wisdom Than Gold appears engraved over the door!
Henry Cole at the Great Exhibition planned three refreshment rooms for the space. This was an unheard of practice but he theorized that attendees to the Exhibition needed a place to rest and refresh before trekking through the exhibits. The refreshment rooms were divided into the first, second and third class areas. The third class room was lovely with delft paintings on the wall and original tile floors and the original cooking stove as an antique relic where one could see the steaks were grilled for guests. On the floor, black tile had been added to where the gold ventilation areas had been replaced with remodeling, but one could envision the ornate pieces on the floor. Another of the refreshment rooms was designed by William Morris and showed lovely gold etchings and three-dimensional embossed green wallpaper that depicted olive trees and their intricate branches. Spectacular stained glass windows let in subdued lighting.
Flamboyant, Exuberant and Over the Top…Victorian! exclaimed Margaret Raffin, our guide…perhaps to regain our attention.
The stair case was designed by Fred Moody one of the teachers at the museum. We visited the remnants of the large halls and received an orientation to the various buildings
Next we met Rita Gauhill for the objects tour. With limited time, our goal was to get a feeling for some of the precious objects of the Victoria and Albert Museum. She also gave us a brief history of the building and mentioned the second building was completed in 1897.
To acquaint us with sections of the vast museum, Rita selected some sample objects, we suspected they might have been some of her favorites!
The Ardabil Carpet in the Jannece Gallery of Islamic Art shows it off! It is one of a pair of famous Azerbaijan carpets composed of a foundation of silk and wool pile with a knot density of 300 knots per inch, giving it 26 million knots. It dates to 1539 and was used for 300 years. It was purchased by William Morris at an art auction and its twin carpet was obtained by J. Paul Getty for the LA County Museum of Art. Rita explained that the carpet may have an imperfection (asymmetrical lanterns) which reflects the Ecclesiastical concept that only perfection can come from God. At 10.5 by 5 meters, it is huge and the natural dyes are well preserved.
Next we saw the painting of tapestry of Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Raphael. It is in the V & A Cartoon Gallery and it dates to 1513. Rita explained that the cartoons are seven original patterns that were painted for patterns for tapestries and belong to the Royal collection. There are the only surviving ones from a set of ten and show scenes from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. Charles I purchased seven of the ten. In the one we viewed, we noted that St. Paul at the Sea of Galilee with Jesus extending his left hand out which Rita explained was the pattern for the tapestry in reverse as she explained that Jesus is always depicted extending his right hand, so the tapestry would have reflected that. Cranes were depicted for their vigilance and honor and ravens are included in the sky as the threats.
Next Rita showed us the white jade cup made for the Emperor Shah Jahan in 1628. In the shape of a gourd with a handle like the head of a ram, it is made of nephrite jade and is from the Court of Mughal dynasty. Delicate and elegant, our guide said it was a symbol of purity. Nearby were three turban headdress pins that would have been worn by Maharajas. Rita explained the unique methods of development for each of the three jewelry pieces.
Coincidentally, Rita shared that several of the collections at the museum were the property of noble families with cherished collections who chose to house the jewelry and other valuables at the museum, often for insurance purposes. When they seek to wear the jewelry, they give the V & A an 48 hour notice and then wear the object and return them later to the museum.
The Tipu Tiger was perhaps the most unusual of the objects chosen for review. Constructed for the Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in South India, the British discovered it in the palace at Tipu’s Sultan’s capital in 1799. Carved and painted, the object is a wooden tier attacking a British man and dates to 1795. The mechanical organ creates a kind of harmony as the item is activated and the tiger simulates an attack on the man. The museum acquired the unusual object via the British East India Company.
A Japanese chest known as the Mazarin Chest was made in Kyoto in 1630 between 1630-34 from gold, silver and black lacquer. It has scenes from the Tale of Genji and landscape in gold and silver lacquer, gold and mother of pearl.
Next was a table from the Ming Dynasty, Xuande region, 1426-1435, carved red lacquer in the Carira collection. The sap was made from the wild trees (Toxicodendron vernicifluum)with manganese added to create the red color. From the dried treatment carvings were made that included the symbol for the emperor: imperial dragon and the symbol for the empress: phoenix. our guide noted that one claw was broken on the dragon on the design of the chest and she theorized that the chest might have been stolen or resold as the use of the five claw dragon was only allowed for the emperor. Anyone would be punished severely, perhaps by death, if in possession of a five clawed dragon image. When collecting, when one encounters a three claw dragon of a four claw dragon, one knows that this is an item that was not owned by the emperor.
To close our tour, Rita showed us the contemporary 1,800 pound chandelier designed by Dale Chilhuly of colored, mould blown glass and steel. Made in 2001, it came from Seattle, Washington, and reflected the contemporary collections at the V & A.
Interesting that we saw a piece by Dale Chilhuly at the Garden of Thought in France on the NACCA tour as well!