The British Galleries

Anne Gardom visits a glorious past for free

The Victoria and Albert Museum have spent over thirty million pounds on their new galleries, and the result is impressive. The galleries show the best of their very extensive holdings of British Design, and this is displayed in a manner that is both informative and a delight to the eye. They explore the history of British design along four lines – Style, looking at the form and decoration of things on display; Taste, looking at the people and institutions that formed and affected design; Fashionable Living, how lifestyles and habits affected design; and What was New, innovative designs and manufacturing techniques. To do this any sort of justice you need to spend a whole day in the galleries, and have a sustaining lunch half-way through. The Victoria & Albert have thoughtfully provided collapsible stools hanging from pegs at certain points on the gallery walls.

Far-flung influences

When speaking of British Design, it early becomes clear that design in this country has always responded to and been influenced by what was happening in Europe, particularly France, Holland and Italy, and further afield in such places as India and China. One of the most interesting aspects of this exhibition is the way it shows these influences at work, and how artists and artisans in this country absorbed and adapted ideas from abroad.

The galleries run chronologically, starting with the Tudor period, and running through to the end of the Victorian era. The exhibits are arranged in bays and rooms, showcases and stands with a great deal of computer-delivered information, some excellent hands-on items, and two small cinemas. There are also areas for children where they can, among other things, try on a ruff or a crinoline, and see how they might have looked in another age. A lovely round reading hall halfway through the galleries has quantities of books, some comfortable chairs, and hanging from the dome, Breathless by Cornelia Parker, flattened wind instruments, decoratively arranged, which fill a huge circular space and move gently on suspension wires.

Tudor splendour

The first galleries show an early bust portrait of Henry VII and a portrait of Henry VIII setting the starting point firmly with the Tudors. There is a magnificent chasuble, rose-coloured and sprinkled with Tudor roses, a potent reminder of the linked power of Church and State. The influence of skills from Europe is shown here in the displays of glass, armour, ceramics and embroideries. The development of printing is shown, and an interesting selection of herbals and medical treatises. A photocopy of one of the herbals is on a stand, so you can turn the pages and read the descriptions and properties of the plants.

There is part of a room in a great Tudor house (pulled down in 1894) that used to stand at Bromley-by-Bow with a plaster ceiling and splendid panelling. There are some old friends to be found here too, the Hilliard miniature of Sir Philip Sidney, leaning gracefully against a flowering tree, and the Holbein miniature that almost persuaded Henry VIII to marry Anne of Cleves, with its exquisite ivory frame and lid carved like the petals of a Tudor rose.

However, the Great Bed of Ware is undoubtedly one of the main attractions of this period display, just as vast as we all remember it, and with all its bedding and hangings newly remade. It is hung with red and gold hangings, piled with embroidered quilts and pillows, and, since it was always a tourist attraction, it is covered with graffiti too! There is an excellent information stand, with examples of base-stringing and rush matting, three mattresses, and sheet and blanket samples, so you can almost imagine what it would have been like to sleep in, apart from the dozen or so other people with whom you would be sharing it!

Juxtapositions

As you move through the Stuarts there are some splendid portrait busts, the one of Charles II an astonishing riot of curls, fabric and lace. James I’s silver embroidered wedding suit is there, and an embroidered jacket, remarkable in its state of preservation and displayed in front of the portrait of Margaret Laton wearing it. In this part of the exhibition yet another bed dominates the area, the State Bed from Melville House, which does have all its original red and silver hangings. Unlike the Great Bed of Ware, this bed was a prestige object, a symbol of wealth and achievement, and not at all designed for everyday use.

There is the parlour from a house in Henrietta Street, London, built about 1730, demolished in 1956. It is a charming room, beautifully balanced and designed, intended for pleasant, but not grand, entertaining. The Music room from Norfolk House, which stood in St James’ Square and was pulled down in 1938, is something quite different. This magnificent white and gold rococo interior is a sumptuous room, designed for entertaining and intended to impress with its glittering elegance and richness. These, and the other, interiors bring liveliness and variety to the displays.

The Victoria and Albert has a fine collection of pictures, especially by Victorian artists, and some of these are displayed in a small gallery. Some Constables are there, and a number of Victorian narrative paintings. Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner showing a dog sitting by its master’s coffin. Landseer’s first big success, was printed and reprinted, becoming one of the most popular pictures of its period. It is hardly known now, but finds an appropriate place in the Victorian Section of the exhibition.

Victoriana

There is much to see in the Victorian galleries, but there are also objects, much admired in their time, which seem absurd and exaggerated to our eyes. Among these must surely be the huge coloured model of the Earl of Dudley’s favourite dog, every hair carefully modelled, standing on a venomous black serpent! The Victorian displays are almost bewilderingly rich and varied, reflecting a complex society, with huge trading interests and a world-dominating empire. They are all redolent of an age when Britain was indeed the richest, most successful, nation in the world.

There is a beautifully panelled ante-room from the Grove, Birmingham, 1877–8, which shows that Victorian marquetry could rival that of the seventeenth century. The astonishing furniture designed by the Victorian architect Burgess complements the exuberance of some of his interiors – Knightshayes in Devon, for example. The model of the Crystal Palace makes one marvel at the vision and innovative skill it displays. It was an exciting, forward-looking self-confident period for British design, and it is well represented.

Those galleries must now be as fine as any in the world – the range of beautiful, interesting and peculiar objects on display is vast, the information is well organized and presented – they show what a rich and complex heritage is ours, and, what is more, they are free!

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