07.04.2015
14:42

Victoria & Albert Museum

Address:

Cromwell Road, South Kensington, SW7 2RL

Phone:

020-7942 2000

Website:

www.vam.ac.uk

Opening times:

Daily 10:00–17:45. Also Fri 10:00–22:00

How to get there:

Tube: South Kensington

Entry fee:

Free

Additional information:

Cafés and shops

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is one of the world’s outstanding museums of applied arts. Its collection spans several centuries and encompasses sculpture, furniture, ceramics, glass, silver and metalwork, dress, textiles and jewellery. In addition, the V&A houses the National Art Library; an architectural collection which has recently been joined by that of the Royal Institute of British Architects; a collection of paintings which has, as its core, what in the 19th-century was intended as the embryonic National Gallery of British Art; and a vast prints, drawings and photography collection. The museum also has a distinguished collection of British portrait miniatures, and is home to the national collection of British watercolours.

The museum and its collections are enormous. Stretched over a 12-acre site, the building itself is often said to be a work of art, competing with the exhibits. Neither can possibly be seen in one visit; below is a brief outline of the V&A’s history, its remarkable interiors and its collection highlights.

 

History of the Museum

The museum’s origins lie in the School of Design, which opened in 1837 at Somerset House, established for the instruction of the application of art to industry. Works of ornamental art were collected by the School as instructional aids: plaster casts, electrotypes, modern pieces from Minton’s; and medieval and Renaissance porcelain, majolica, glass and metalwork from the important Bernal collection, which came up for sale in 1855. In 1852 the School and its collection (now the Museum of Manufactures) had moved to Marlborough House and was under the control of the government Department of Science and Art, headed by the mighty figure of Henry Cole (1808–82). Cole, with the Prince Consort, had masterminded the Great Exhibition of 1851, a phenomenally popular success: almost 100 thousand visitors mobbed it on one of the days, flocking to view the raw and manufactured products of the nations of the world, many of the chief exhibits being purchased for the Museum. With the Exhibition’s profits a plot of land was purchased in South Kensington (then known as Brompton) for the establishment of a cultural complex, crossed and bordered by four new roads (Cromwell Road, Exhibition Road, Kensington Gore and Queen’s Gate). The Royal Albert Hall (begun 1868) and the Natural History Museum were to become part of this development but first, on the site of what is now the V&A, the South Kensington Museum was established, an accumulation of collections, schools and departments housed in an assortment of buildings. The School of Design and the Museum of Manufactures (which in 1853 had been renamed the Museum of Ornamental Art) moved to the site in 1857, accommodated in hastily built wooden huts and the supposedly temporary Iron Building. The latter, constructed by Charles Young and Company, specialists in ‘iron structures for Home and Abroad’, was quickly nicknamed the ‘Brompton Boilers’. Clad in corrugated iron, striped green and white and given a portico with iron pillars to improve its appearance, the three-span iron frame structure leaked, caused condensation and wild temperature fluctuations. It was not until 1866 that it was partially dismantled (parts were re-erected for the Bethnal Green Museum), and in 1899 the remainder was demolished. Thus were displayed the V&A’s first objects, a miscellaneous collection of sculpture, architecture, ‘animal products’ (fur, feathers, bristles, human hair etc), ‘patented inventions’ and construction and building materials, jostling for space alongside items of Ornamental Art, brought together to encourage excellence in contemporary British design and its application to industry, through a knowledge of the best examples.

 

The Building

The museum’s earliest permanent buildings were those that surround the central garden quadrangle, at the heart of the V&A. Built between 1857 and the early 1880s, they demonstrate what was to become known as the ‘South Kensington style’, its trademark being the use of ornamental terracotta. The South Kensington Museum’s Construction and Building Materials section contained samples of building stones and bricks, ceramic tiles and terracotta, and the museum itself was a demonstration of how these materials could be put to effective and skilled use. The museum’s architect, Captain Fowke, and Godfrey Sykes, who was responsible for much of the early interior embellishment, were assisted by a band of pupils from the museum’s Art Schools (now the Royal College of Art). The first building was the 1857 Sheepshanks gallery, half of the east range of the central quadrangle, built to house the Sheepshanks collection of pictures, intended as the core of a National Gallery of British Art. Abutting the north end of the Boilers, externally it had terracotta ornamentation with sgraffito medallion portraits of famous British artists. Internally it had gas illumination (South Kensington was the first museum in the world to be lit) which made evening opening possible. The latter, more convenient for working men and women, was a cherished wish of Cole’s who saw museums as ‘antidotes to brutality and vice’. The Sheepshanks gallery was soon joined by the Turner and Vernon gallery, which completed the east range, built to house National Gallery pictures for which there was no space at Trafalgar Square. In 1861–63 the North and South Courts were built behind the east range. The North Court (1861–62) was spanned by a great iron and glass roof designed by Fowke (which can be seen from Galleries 103–106, level 4). In 1863 it staged an exhibition of the wedding presents given to the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra, the first of the South Kensington loan exhibitions.

 

The South Court

The South Court (opened 1862) was a great deal more lavish, again of iron and glass but with highly decorated walls and elaborate cast and wrought ironwork designed by Sykes. Around the side walls, in niches, was the ‘Kensington Valhalla’: full-length mosaic portraits of famous artists such as Apelles, Giorgione, Raphael, Inigo Jones and Sir Joshua Reynolds, each holding items from the museum’s collection. Designed by well known artists—G.F. Watts, Sir Edward Poynter, Frederic, Lord Leighton—they were executed in ceramic or glass mosaic by students of the Art Schools. An arcaded corridor, with the Prince Consort’s Gallery above it, divided the South Court into two. On either side, below the roof, were balconies with large lunettes filled by frescoes by Leighton: Industrial Arts as Applied to War (1878–80; northeast) and Industrial Arts as Applied to Peace, completed in 1886 (southeast). Today, the former magnificence of the South Court is hidden from view behind false walls but the Leighton frescoes, and the highly decorated soffits above them, can be viewed on level 3, between Galleries 102 and 99 and Gallery 107 (marked on the plan on p. 323). Openings cut in the false walls give views onto the roof’s iron structure and the decaying magnificence of the decorations. The original designs for the Valhalla figures are distributed throughout the museum, on the upper levels of the staircase leading to the British Galleries, the staircase leading to the National Art Library, and in the Lecture Theatre. Leighton’s Cimabue and Pisano are displayed next to the southeast fresco. The complete restoration of the South Court is planned.

 

The Lecture Theatre Range

The museum’s ornamentation reached a peak of elaboration in Fowke’s Lecture Theatre range, the north side of the central quadrangle, completed after Fowke’s death (1865) in 1868. Internally and externally it is a showpiece of complex decoration. Its façade includes terracotta columns with figurative ornament, designed by Sykes and completed after his death by his former pupils and successors, James Gamble and Reuben Townroe. A mosaic representation of the Great Exhibition (different countries presenting exhibits to a central Victoria) fills the pediment. Inside, the Ceramic Staircase is an ornamental masterpiece. Entirely encased in majolica and ceramic mosaic, it led up to what was then the Ceramics gallery. Designed and modelled by Frank Moody, with students from the Art Schools, in Italian Renaissance style, and executed by Minton in the new process of vitrified ceramic painting, its theme was the Arts, with stained glass windows representing Art and Science. The mosaic portrait of Cole, in a majolica frame, marks Cole’s retirement from South Kensington in 1873. The Ceramics Gallery (now the Silver Galleries, Galleries 65–69), a long vista flanked by majolica-clad columns with elaborate ceilings designed by Moody, was equally lavish but between 1914 and the 1950s was stripped of its columns and stained glass windows and was whitewashed. The space was restored to its former magnificence as far as possible in 1995–96. The staircase off the gallery leads up to the Lecture Theatre.

On the ground floor of the wing are the old Refreshment Rooms (the museum was the first to have such a facility). The Morris Room (originally the Green Dining Room) was entirely decorated by Morris, Marshall and Faulkner, the firm established by William Morris in 1861, with painted panels by Burne-Jones, and stained glass designed by Burne-Jones and Philip Webb. The Gamble Room (the Centre Refreshment Room) has walls of ceramic tiles and mirrors, stained glass windows designed by Gamble, and paired ceramic-clad columns divide the room from its apse. The upper ceramic frieze reads: ‘There is nothing better for a man that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labour’ (Ecclesiasticus 2:24). The chimneypiece, from Dorchester House, Park Lane, is by Alfred Stevens. The Poynter Room (Grill Room, or Dutch Kitchen), with its blue and white tiles, retains its original grill, designed by Poynter, who also designed the stained glass window (made by Crace & Co.) and the panels of the Months and Seasons.

 

The Cast Courts and Art Library Range

Also dating from this period of the museum’s development are the Cast Courts (Galleries 46a and b), or Architectural Courts, built in 1870–73 on part of the site of the Boilers. Intended for the collection of large-scale casts of the most famous examples of sculpture in the world, these vast spaces were then and still are one of the museum’s most extraordinary sites. Gallery 46a, decorated in the original scheme of olive green and red, is a jungle of sculpture, dominated by Trajan’s Column towering towards the ceiling. Along the north wall is the Portico de la Gloria of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The dramatic spectacle is continued in Gallery 46b. On the north wall is the vast central doorway of San Petronio, Bologna, with an electrotype after one of the gilt bronze Baptistery doors of San Giovanni, Florence, Ghiberti’s ‘Porta del Paradiso’. The cast of Michaelangelo’s David, a gift from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was presented by Queen Victoria in 1857. A plaster fig leaf was made to hide his shocking nudity from visiting royal ladies; it can be seen in a case on the back of the plinth.

The Art Library range (early 1880s), which still houses the handsome National Art Library on the third floor (ticket holders only, though it can be viewed through the glass doors), closed the south side of the central quadrangle. Its ground floor (Galleries 22–24) has recently been restored and its black and white mosaic floor revealed. Tall windows overlook the quadrangle Garden. At the time of writing the latter was being relandscaped (Kim Wilkie Associates), but eventually it will have a pool of water, bordered by bands of light in the evenings, with fountain jets.

 

Foundation of the Victoria & Albert Museum

In 1890 Aston Webb won an architectural competition to bring sense and order to the museum’s odd complex. Regular, grand façades along Cromwell Road and Exhibition Road would be the new public face of the museum, with additional gallery space behind, joined to the existing buildings. After years of delays, on 17th May 1899, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone, at the same time announcing that henceforth the museum would be known as the Victoria & Albert Museum. Her last official public ceremony, the occasion was captured on a moving picture device, the Mutocsope (in the photography collection). By 1906 the works were largely complete. The Cromwell Road central tower, in the shape of an Imperial crown, is topped by a statue of Fame. Queen Victoria stands above the great arched entrance, flanked by St George and St Michael. Prince Albert stands directly above the doors with representations of Inspiration and Imagination to either side. In a procession of niches along the façade, between the windows, are sculpture figures of great British artists. The grand, airy, domed Entrance Hall (with a modern chandelier by the Seattle artist Dale Chihuly, a 5m drop of massed blue and green glass balls and spiralling tendrils) has to either side of its vestibule two noble staircases, with walls of pavonazzo marble, columns of violet breccia, and piastraccia steps. The new museum was officially opened by Edward VII in 1909.

 

The Collection

Before the 1909 opening, in order to fill, in an orderly fashion, the vast new acres of space, a Committee of Rearrangement was formed, a situation which half echoes the situation at the museum today, which is undergoing a 10-year programme of reorganisation and refurbishment. Already completed, up the stairs to the left of the Hall, are the flagship British Galleries. The stairs on the right will lead to the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, due for completion in 2009 (for the time being the collection occupies the ground floor galleries surrounding the west, north and east sides of the central quadrangle). Other projects are underway throughout the museum; for the duration of works visitors should expect gallery closures and disruption to or displacement of displays.

The collection is displayed through two gallery types: the Period Galleries (e.g. Asia; British Galleries), which bring prime objects from different departments together to explore the development of art and design in different geographical and cultural contexts; and the Materials and Techniques Galleries (e.g. Sculpture; Ceramics), which show the V&A’s extraordinary depth and breadth of holdings in specific departments.

 

Materials & Techniques Galleries

 

NB: Works executed in the materials and techniques covered below are also exhibited throughout the Period Galleries. Gallery numbers given refer to specific collections of a particular material or technique.

 

Sculpture (Gallery 50a; Gallery 111)

The excellent and comprehensive post-classical sculpture collection includes outstanding masterpieces, from highly important medieval ivory carvings to large-scale monuments. The Italian Renaissance collection is especially rich, being the best outside Italy, from which star exhibits are shown in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Many of the items came to the museum under the important curatorship of Sir J.C. Robinson (1824–1913), the first Curator of the Museum of Ornamental Art.

The Gherardini collection of terracotta models (purchased 1854) included a wax model by Michelangelo, and the Gigli-Campana collection (purchased 1861) included key works by Donatello and Luca della Robbia. Major examples of German and Netherlandish wood carving include the 14th-century carved oak figures from the altarpiece in the Johanneskirche, Lüneberg.

There are pre-eminent examples of British sculpture, from medieval alabaster altarpiece panels, mainly scenes of the Passion and the Life of the Virgin, to excellent works of the 18th and 19th centuries by Rysbrack, Roubiliac, Flaxman, Wilton and Banks. As well as portrait busts there are terracotta sketch models, such as Rysbrack’s for Newton’s monument in Westminster Abbey, and Flaxman’s youthful Self-Portrait roundel (1778). Many of the principal items are shown in the British Galleries.

As well as in the Cast Courts, where reproductions of monumental European masterpieces are shown, large-scale items from the collection are shown in Gallery 50a, Webb’s top-lit East Court. In the centre, spanning its width, is the massive roodloft from the Cathedral of St John, ’s-Hertogenbosch, acquired in 1871, the removal of which sparked outcry in the Netherlands and the establishment of a nat-ional policy for the protection of ancient monuments. The recumbent effigies of Sir Moyle and Lady Finch (c. 1630) are by Nicholas Stone, removed from St Mary, Eastwell, Kent. The massive Cappella Maggiore from Santa Chiara, Florence (c. 1493–1500), 1,110cm high, was acquired following the church’s deconsecration in 1842.

Gallery 111, level 3, an open corridor with magnificent vistas over both the Cast Courts, has smaller pieces, the displays emphasising the various materials and techniques of craftsmanship.

 

Silver & Metalwork (Galleries 65–69; Galleries 114 a–e)

The museum’s fine collection of silver and gold objects is spread throughout the museum, but also in the sumptuous Silver Galleries (Galleries 65–69, level 3), one of the most lavish interiors of the 19th-century museum. As well as contemporary tour-de-force works, exhibited at the 19th-century International Exhibitions, 19th-century interest concentrated on heavily decorated 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century European pieces. It was not until the 20th century that the museum started collecting English silver with any seriousness, but its collection is now unrivalled.

The displays include important items (although some key works are shown in the British Galleries) but emphasise the history of silversmithing and the ceremonial and domestic use of objects. Ceremonial salts are on show; examples of lavish post-Restoration goldsmith’s work; the c. 1680 ‘Sizergh Toilet Service’; and a vast wine cistern by Thomas Jenkins (1677–78). Eighteenth-century works include elaborate candelabra; presentation cups and works by celebrated masters such as Paul de Lamerie, Charles Kandler and Matthew Boulton. The Ashburnham Centrepiece, or epergne, by Nicolas Sprimont (1747) is a major example of English Rococo silver. In the centre of the gallery is an electrotype copy of the celebrated and enormous 1737 Jerningham Wine Cooler, made by Kandler over four years, with Bacchanalian scenes modelled by Rysbrack (the original is in the Hermitage).

European silver 1400–1800 is also on show, with items from France, Spain, Italy and Scandinavia, and an outstanding collection from Southern Germany, one of the greatest centres of European silversmithing. At the end of the gallery are three electrotype lions by Elkington & Co, copies of the 17th-century silver lions which protect the Throne Room at Rosenborg Castle, Denmark. The gallery includes displays of contemporary silver commissioned by the museum.

As well as silver, the museum has a large collection of flatware, brass, pewter and cast and wrought iron (the museum’s first recorded purchase was a pair of 17th-century German hinges). The long Metalwork Gallery is on level 3, Galleries 114a–e, famously described by H.G. Wells in his 1900 novel Love and Mrs Lewisham: ‘As one goes into the South Kensington Art Museum from the Brompton Road, the Gallery of Old Iron is overhead to the right. But the way thither is exceedingly devious and not to be revealed to anybody … the gallery is long and narrow … and set with iron gates, iron-bound chests, locks, bolts and bars, fantastic great keys, lamps and the like’. One of the major works is the ‘Hereford Screen’. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, it was hailed as ‘the grandest, most triumphant achievement of modern architectural art’ at the International Exhibition of 1862. It has recently undergone an £800,000 restoration.

 

Ceramics (Level 6, Galleries 132–145)

NB: At the time of writing, the Ceramics Galleries were closed until further notice.

Ceramics have been an important component of the museum since its foundation. The Ceramics Galleries occupy the entire top floor, making immediately apparent the astonishing range, depth and sheer magnitude of the collection. Key examples are shown in the various period galleries, but it is here that the history of pottery and porcelain manufacture can be studied uninterrupted. The collection is truly international, ranging from the Far East and Imperial China to the Ottoman Empire and Europe. Among the outstanding examples are nine pieces of Medici porcelain, the first European attempts at copying Chinese blue and white porcelain, which reached Europe in the 16th century. Made in the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s workshops in the Boboli Gardens, Florence, only 60 of these rare and precious pieces are known.

As well as grand Exhibition pieces, the 19th-century collections concentrated on Italian majolica, French Renaissance pieces and Limoges, important examples of which came from the collection of Ralph Bernal (sold through Christie’s over 32 days); the Soulages collection; and that of George Salting, whose astonishing collection, covering several areas, came to the museum in 1910.

Much 18th-century European porcelain came with the Jones collection in the 19th century, and excellent British pieces from the collection of Lady Charlotte Schreiber. The British collection includes medieval pottery, English delft and comprehensive collections of the great potteries and porcelain manufacturers, well known names such as Lowestoft, Coalport, Wedgwood, Chelsea, Worcester and Bow.

Twentieth-century pieces include British studio pottery, works by Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie, and European works such as Picasso’s c. 1954 vase, An Artist at his Easel.

 

Glass (Level 4, Galleries 129 & 131)

The excellent glass collection ranges from ancient Egyptian items to contemporary pieces, including commercial glass as well as works of art. Fifteenth- and 16th-century Venetian goblets, decorated with coloured enamels; 17th-century engraved glass, German goblets, early English glass, including pieces by Jacopo Verzelini, who taught the art of glassmaking in Elizabethan England; 18th-century drinking glasses, high Victorian pieces and 20th-century and contemporary items are shown in the split-level Glass Gallery (level 4), with a staircase and balcony balustrade in rippling green glass by the glass artist Danny Lane. Of particular significance is the Luck of Edenhall, an exceptionally fine and pristinely preserved 13th-century Syrian beaker.

 

Jewellery (Galleries 91–93 & 109)

The V&A’s splendid and large collection of jewellery is especially rich in Renaissance pieces. It includes precious masterpieces such as the Canning Jewel, an exceptional item of gold, enamelled and set with large Indian rubies, in the form of a triton, his body a great baroque pearl; and the Heneage Jewel, an enamelled gold locket set with diamonds and rubies with a gold medallion portrait of the Elizabeth I, with inside a portrait miniature of the Queen by Nicholas Hilliard. Important 15th–18th-century pieces came from the collection of Dame Joan Evans (d. 1977), who gave her exceptional collection to the museum, while 19th-century items include the head-band, brooch and necklace designed by Pugin, in medieval style, for Helen Lumsden, but given to his eventual wife Jane Mill.

 

Textiles & Dress (Gallery 94; Galleries 95–101; Gallery 40)

The South Kensington Museum’s collection of textiles was administered by the Department of Animal Products. Samples of silk and wool woven textiles, 18th-century Spitalfields silks, Genoese velvets and embroideries, upholstery fabrics etc, were purely a learning resource. William Morris appears to have studied the collection, elements of his designs being traceable to the specimens exhibited in the museum’s early days. The serious collection of textiles began in the 1860s, but the department also encompasses costume, tapestry and carpets.

Silks and brocades from the Middle Ages include ecclesiastical vestments, for example an early 14th-century cope which belonged to the Bridgettine Convent of Syon. There are excellent examples of Indian and Persian carpets and textiles; an excellent lace collection, the largest in the world; and tapestries, including the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (Gallery 94, level 3), a group of four magnificent and enormous mid-15th-century Flemish pieces formerly in the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire.

Items from the Dress Collection are displayed throughout the period galleries, as well as in the Fashion Gallery (Gallery 40, level 1). Historic costumes span all periods and include examples of royal and noble dress, as well as that of ordinary people, as well as shoes, boots, hats and gloves. The European collection from Stuart times to the present day is particularly strong and includes Elizabethan gloves; an unusual 17th-century Venetian jacket, of knitted silk with silver-gilt thread; 18th-century English court dress; 19th-century wedding dresses and ball gowns with elaborate silver-gilt lace; elegant designs by famous 20th-century names such as Givenchy evening wear and ‘New Look’ Dior; and more modern pieces such as Mary Quant yellow plastic ankle boots, and Vivienne Westwood’s blue ‘mock-croc’ platform shoes (1993–94).

 

Paintings, Prints & Drawings (Gallery 48a; Galleries 81–82 & 87–88a; Galleries 90 & 90a)

Among the V&A’s most celebrated possessions are the Raphael Cartoons (Gallery 48a), seven of the ten executed by Raphael in 1515–16 for Pope Leo X as designs for tapestries, woven in Brussels, for the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. Among the most important surviving examples of High Renaissance art, they mark a highpoint in the traditional canon of artistic excellence. Distemper on paper, they were originally cut into strips to enable the weavers to use them as guides. Purchased by Charles I in 1623, tapestries woven after them were produced by the Mortlake Tapestry Works. In 1699 the cartoons were put back together, restored and displayed in the Cartoon Gallery at Hampton Court. Still in royal ownership, they have been on loan to the museum since 1865. The subjects, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, are: Christ’s Charge to Peter: ‘Feed my Sheep’; The Miraculous Draught of Fishes; Elymas the Sorcerer Struck with Blindness; Paul and Barnabas at Lystra; Paul Preaching at Athens; The Death of Ananias; and Peter and John healing the Blind Man. The twisted Solomonic columns in the latter were much imitated by later artists.

The V&A’s Paintings Collection has at its core the Sheepshanks pictures, presented to the South Kensington Museum in 1857. Intended as the nucleus of a National Gallery of British Art, the gift stimulated the erection of the museum’s first permanent building, the Sheepshanks gallery. It was joined by the Turner and Vernon gallery, immediately adjacent, where the pictures are displayed today, in recently refurbished rooms (Galleries 81–82, 87–88a, level 3). John Sheepshanks (1787–1863), a Leeds clothing manufacturer long settled in London, was acquainted with a wide circle of contemporary artists. His collection included fine works by Turner and Constable, including the latter’s famous Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds (1823), but his particular fondness was for early 19th-century genre pictures by Wilkie, Mulready, Landseer, C.R. Leslie, William Collins and others, of which the collection has rich holdings. Chief among them is Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, a dog grieving at its master’s coffin, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837 and considered by Ruskin ‘one of the most perfect poems or pictures which modern times have seen’. The V&A possesses a remarkable collection of oil sketches and works on paper by Constable, the contents of the artist’s studio given to the museum in 1888 by his daughter, Isobel Constable. The 95 oil sketches and 297 drawings and watercolours include plein-air oil sketches, cloud studies and sketches made in and around Flatford and his native Suffolk. In addition, the museum has sketches for two of Constable’s iconic works, The Haywain (National Gallery) and the Leaping Horse.

In 1908 the Tate Gallery was officially recognised as the National Gallery of British Art, but the V&A still retains the national collection of portrait miniatures (shown in the British Galleries and, with Continental examples, in Gallery 90a, level 3). ‘Limning’ was a refined, high-status genre which flourished in England from the reign of Henry VIII. Among the many outstanding highlights by leading artists are Holbein’s Anne of Cleves, with its carved ivory lid in the form of a rose; pre-eminent works by Hilliard, including portraits of Elizabeth I, in enamelled and jewelled lockets, or works with layered symbolism such as Young Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud, and the terribly famous Young Man Among Roses; and key works by Isaac Oliver, such as Unknown Woman, known as Frances Howard. Post-Restoration miniatures include examples by the excellent Samuel Cooper, for example his exceptional Henrietta, Duchess of Orleans, the sister of Charles II, an intimate view with sparkling eyes and bouncing ringlets.

Gallery 90, level 3, shows changing displays from the V&A’s Prints, Drawings and Watercolours Collection, an enormous and important resource. The principal collections are of Italian Old Master drawings; Dutch and Flemish works; and the national collection of British watercolours. The latter extends to the present day, but the bulk of the collection is of 18th- and 19th-century works, the ‘golden age’ of British watercolour. All major watercolourists are represented, including Sandby, J.R. Cozens (famous views of the Roman campagna), Towne (his supremely well known Source of the Arveiron), Girtin and Cotman. In addition there is a vast archive of prints, drawings and illustrations, including decorative arts designs, which can be viewed by appointment in the Study Room in the Henry Cole wing.

 

Photography (Gallery 38a)

The large and important photography collection has its origins in the 19th century. There are over 250 images by Julia Margaret Cameron, over 80 of them having been acquired for the museum in 1865 by Henry Cole, a friend and important patron who made rooms available at South Kensington for her to use as a studio. Portraits of important Victorians include images by Frederick Hollyer of H.G. Wells and William Morris. Annual displays from the collection are shown in Gallery 38a, including works by Man Ray, Bill Brandt, David Bailey and contemporary photographers.

 

Architecture (Level 4, Gallery 128a)

The Architecture Gallery opened in 2004 as the new display space for the museum’s own architecture collection, but also for that of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), a collection of great importance which includes drawings by great names such as Andrea Palladio, Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren and Mies van der Rohe. As well as preliminary designs there are original models for buildings, for example Sydney Smirke’s Domed Reading Room at the British Museum; Gatwick Airport’s ‘beehive’ terminal of 1936; Ernô Goldfinger’s 1963 cinema; and roof shapes for the Sydney Opera House.

 

Period Galleries

 

Medieval & Renaissance Galleries (Galleries 11–20; 21–27; 43, 46, Cast Courts)

With new galleries due to open in 2009, for the moment the museum’s key items from the period c. 300–1600 are on display on level 1, in the galleries on the west, north and east sides of the central quadrangle, to the south of it, and in Gallery 46. The latter contains a selection of pre-eminent objects, including a collection of highly important ivory carvings: the small ‘Symmachi’ carved relief panel (Rome, ad 400), with a priestess sprinkling holy water before an altar; the ‘Basilewsky Situla’, or Holy Water Bucket (c. 980), probably presented to the Emperor Otto II on his visit to Milan in that year, an object of great rarity; and the Byzantine ‘Veroli Casket’ (c. 1000), carved with scenes of classical mythology. The Gloucester Candlestick is an amazing survival of early 12th-century English medieval metalwork, a great masterpiece with men and monkeys clambering through foliage, symbolic of the struggle between good and evil. Alongside Byzantine jasper and bloodstone cameos is an Egyptian rock crystal ewer (late 10th–early 11th-century) carved with foliage and birds of prey. A major treasure is the Becket Casket (c. 1180), made to contain relics of St Thomas à Becket, the earliest, largest and best example in Limoges enamel showing Becket’s martyrdom. The 12th-century Rhenish ‘Eltenburg Reliquary’ is of gilt copper enriched with enamel and set with walrus ivory carvings, in the form of a church.

The Northern Renaissance 1500–1700 fills Galleries 25–27. Of great importance is the silver gilt Burghley Nef, a tour de force of Parisian goldsmiths’ art of 1527. In the form of a ship, its body a nautilus shell balanced on the back of a mermaid, the tiny figures of Tristram and Iseult play chess at the foot of the main mast. Cases contain intricate goldsmiths’ work; shells and hardstones mounted in precious metals; and finely carved German and Southern German religious reliefs. The charming German (Swabian) limewood sculpture Christ Riding on an Ass (c. 1510–20) would have been drawn through the streets on Palm Sunday.

The galleries on the north side of the central quadrangle contain highly important Italian Renaissance items, 1400–1600. Chief among them are works by Donatello, the most important and influential Italian sculptor of the 15th century. His Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (c. 1428–30), from the Palazzo Medici, Florence, is one of the finest surviving examples of rilievo schiacciato (very low relief carving). His mid-15th-century Chellini Madonna is another prized possession. The bronze roundel, the reverse of which can be used for a mould for glass castings, was given to his doctor, Giovanni Chellini, in 1456 but until the museum purchased it in 1976 it had gone unrecognised and had been used as an ashtray. A bust of Chellini, by Rossellino, is nearby as is Rossellino’s The Virgin with the Laughing Child (c. 1465). Of terracotta, probably a sketch model for a larger marble, it is one of the V&A’s most celebrated pieces. Among carved and painted cassone are important medals by Pisanello; Il Riccio’s ‘Shouting Horseman’ (c. 1510–15); the late 15th-century Mantuan small-scale bronze and parcel gilt Meleager, based on an antique original; and enamelled terracottas of the della Robbia workshop: Luca della Robbia’s Labours of the Months (c. 1450–56), a series of 12 roundels, each with the sun in the appropriate House of the Zodiac, commissioned for the ceiling of Piero de’ Medici’s study in the Palazzo Medici, Florence; and Andrea della Robbia’s large Adoration of the Magi (early 16th century) in bold polychrome enamel.

Among the Renaissance 1200–1650 displays are beautiful plaquettes with scenes from the life of Hercules, by Moderno, a plaquette designer and gem engraver active at the courts of Ferrara and Mantua; objects in the manner of Giovanni Bologna (Giambologna), such as small bronzes by the Netherlandish sculptor Hendrick de Keyser, and the impressive gilt bronze Resurrection relief, and statuettes (1581–84) from the memorial altar of Christoph Fugger by Hubert Gerhard, formerly in the Dominican church of St Magdalen, Augsburg. Giambologna’s well-known Samson Slaying the Philistine, another V&A treasure, entered Charles I’s collection in 1623.

 

British Galleries (Galleries 52–58 & Level 4, Galleries 118–125)

The relatively recently refurbished British Galleries house some of the museum’s most prized objects produced in Britain between 1500 and 1900. Their vast chronological scope covers over 400 years of Britain’s visual culture, bringing together the finest, most fashionable and most technically accomplished examples of sculpture, furniture, ceramics, silver, textiles and dress from the court of Henry VIII to the death of Queen Victoria. The incorporation of period interiors salvaged from important historic buildings lends the galleries particular authority and atmosphere. The entrance is via the marble stairs to the left of the entrance hall.

 

1500–1760 (Level 2): One of the earliest objects is on show is Pietro Torrigiano’s famous painted terracotta bust of Henry VII, probably based on a death mask. A writing box of c. 1525, with painted and gilded decoration on leather, bears the arms and devices of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. The important 1525–26 Howard Grace Cup has an ivory bowl in silver-gilt mounts, with bands of Renaissance ornament, but also with Gothic cresting on the foot, set with gemstones and pearls. Objects from the court of Elizabeth I include images of the Queen herself, powerful, carefully contrived images of monarchy, including the Heneage (‘Armada’) Jewel (c. 1600), a profile medallic image of gold and enamel, set with diamonds and rubies. Hilliard’s famous image, A Young Man among Roses, the quintessential image of the Elizabethan court, with its emphasis on complex emblems and symbolism, shows him hand on heart, in devotion to the monarch, surrounded by eglantine roses (sweetbriar), the queen’s symbol. The elaborate ceremonial Mostyn Salt, (1586–87) is of unusual size and weight.

Examples of tapestry—an expensive, luxury item—include one commissioned by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester from the Sheldon workshops, his arms in the centre. Chivalry and heraldry can be further explored in an interactive gallery: visitors can try on a gauntlet, or design coats of arms. The celebrated Great Bed of Ware, from an inn in Ware, Hertfordshire, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is twice the size of any bed of the period known and was famous for the numbers it could hold. A complete panelled interior of 1606 is from a house in Bromley-by-Bow, with elaborately carved Royal Arms above the chimneypiece and a strapwork plasterwork ceiling. A rare duo is the Jacobean portrait of Margaret Laton (c. 1620) and, displayed alongside it, the very jacket she wears in the painting, with elaborate floral embroidery.

Among items from the time of Charles I is a large Mortlake tapestry (1619) designed by Francis Cleyn, one of a set of nine illustrating the story of Mars and Venus, the first tapestries to be woven at Mortlake, based on hangings which had belonged to Henry VIII. Also by Cleyn, probably, is the nearby chair, its back in the form of a scallop shell. A highly important item is the fish dish by the celebrated and innovative Dutch silversmith Christian van Vianen, produced in 1635 when he was in England in the service of Charles I. Another outstanding item is the bust of Thomas Baker by the great Baroque sculptor Bernini. Baker was commissioned to deliver to Bernini in Rome van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I in three positions, from which Bernini would sculpt a bust, but took the opportunity to commission a sculpture of himself. The famous diarist John Evelyn’s cabinet (1644–45), for his rare curiosities, with bronze plaques by Fanelli, stands near Honore Pelle’s flamboyantly Baroque marble bust of Charles II.

An extraordinary survival is the wedding suit of James II, worn at his 1673 marriage to Mary of Modena, heavily embroidered with silver and silver-gilt thread, now slightly tarnished. Excellent examples of marquetry furniture are on display, as well as furniture, upholstery, wall hangings, fabrics and painted mirrors produced in the new French taste imported to Britain by immigrant French Huguenot craftsmen. Most important was the French interior designer, who had settled in Holland, Daniel Marot. A settle, probably commissioned by Lord Coningsby for Hampton Court, Herefordshire, retains its 1690s upholstery; a magnificent japanned cabinet (c. 1690–1700) has a highly elaborate carved and silvered stand in the style of Marot; a blue and white Delft tile (c. 1694), after a Marot design, is from Queen Mary’s Water Gallery at Hampton Court; and behind glass, in its own room, is the exceptional c. 1700 Melville State Bed, from the State Apartments of Melville House, Fife. Its magnificent, theatrical hangings, of crimson Genoa velvet and ivory Chinese damask, are inspired by the work of Marot and attributed to the upholsterer Francis Lapiere. The parlour from 11 Henrietta Street (1727–32), built for the architect James Gibbs, has a plasterwork ceiling by the stuccoists Artari and Bagutti, and paintings by Damini. Nearby is Rysbrack’s excellent bust of Gibbs; and the superb model of Gibbs’ church, St Mary-le-Strand.

Palladianism, the new ‘national’ style from 1715–60, is represented by a table designed by William Kent for Chiswick House, the showpiece of Palladianism built by the style’s champion, Lord Burlington. Examples of Rococo, the light, asymmetric and ornamental style fashionable from the 1740s, include porcelain and silver, Spitalfields silks, and Roubiliac’s extraordinarily famous sculpture of Handel (1738), commissioned by Jonathan Tyers for his pleasure gardens at Vauxhall, with Handel in the guise of Orpheus with Apollo’s lyre. Roubiliac’s important sketch model for the Duke of Argyll’s monument in Westminster Abbey (1745) shows the Duke reclining against an allegorical figure of Fame. Porcelain and silver relating to the polite pastime of tea drinking is on show, as well as the entire white and gold Music Room from Norfolk House, designed by Matthew Brettingham in 1748–56. Furnished and lit, Horace Walpole found it a scene ‘of magnificence and taste’. The c. 1745 Badminton Bed is a supreme example of English Chinoiserie, with its delicate pagoda-shaped canopy and gilded dragons.

 

1760–1900 (level 4): If visitors approach the galleries by lift from 1500–1760 below, directly ahead are items relating to Horace Walpole, the 18th-century art historian and connoisseur, including the Walpole Cabinet (1745) designed by him, possibly with the assistance of Kent, for his collection of medals and miniatures. Three ivory figures, designed by Rysbrack, surmount it: Duquesnoy, flanked by the architects Palladio and Inigo Jones, the two giants of the Palladian style. Nearby is the limewood cravat (c. 1690) carved by the great 17th-century Grinling Gibbons, which Walpole owned and famously wore on one occasion when entertaining guests.

A section devoted to the great furniture designer Thomas Chippendale, and his influence, follows. The 18th-century passion for Neoclassicism was stimulated by Grand Tourists, young aristocrats, artists and connoisseurs who made pilgrimages to Italy to see classical remains. Joseph Wilton’s marble bust of Lord Hastings (1761) shows him in classical garb. A glass case is filled with vases, including Wedgwood, inspired by the antique. A section from the extraordinary Glass Drawing Room, Northumberland House, designed by the great Neoclassical architect and designer Robert Adam, has panels entirely of glass, based on richly ornamented Roman interiors. Sections are backed by coloured pigments and metal shavings to give an illusion of shimmering porphyry, and some have applied decoration in gilt metal. A model of the glittering spectacle in its entirety is nearby, the furniture, ceiling and carpet also designed by Adam. Also by Adam is the complicated plaster ceiling and chimneypiece from 5 Royal Terrace, part of the Adams’ Adelphi development, the home of the great 18th-century actor David Garrick. The sumptuous Kimbolton cabinet, commissioned by the Duchess of Manchester, was designed by Adam, with ormolu mounts by the famous goldsmith Matthew Boulton, and made by Ince & Mayhew.

When not in Edinburgh, Canova’s magnificent Three Graces is on show, the famous marble sculpture commissioned by the Duke of Bedford for Woburn Abbey. It was purchased jointly with the National Museums and Galleries of Scotland after a national appeal in 1994. Examples of the new Regency taste for rich luxuriance, and for Greek, rather than Roman, sources, as well as Egyptian, include an 1804 armchair, after a design by George Smith, a blend of Greek, Roman and Egyptian forms; furniture by the famous firm Gillows; expensive, massy items of silver-gilt sold through the Royal Goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, whose most important customer was the Prince Regent, e.g. an 1809–10 wine cooler by Paul Storr, based on the ‘Medici Krater’; and an 1806 bookcase from the Prince Regent’s luxurious Carlton House, in the Greek style, possibly designed by C.H. Tatham. The famous Rhinoceros Vase (c. 1826) was made to advertise the skill of the Rockingham factory. A classical form, it is painted and encrusted with elaborate naturalistic ornament.

Prominent in the displays is Bashaw (1832–34), a large sculpture by Matthew Cotes Wyatt of the Earl of Dudley’s pet Newfoundland dog. Hugely popular in its day, the ‘Faithful Friend of Man’, shown trampling a poisonous snake, was criticised by Ruskin. Post-1830 Gothic Revival pieces include works by the medievalist Wiliam Burges: the splendid painted, stencilled and gilded ‘Yatman Cabinet’ (1858), based on French medieval armoires, commissioned by one of Burges’ early and important patrons; his 1865–66 decanter, richly ornamented and stylistically eclectic, its glass body encased in silver set with genuine antique coins, intaglios, glass and gemstones. Important items by A.W.N. Pugin, the seminal figure in the history of the Gothic Revival, include a candelabrum made for the House of Lords; and a chalice, silver and parcel-gilt set with enamels and garnets. It was made for the 1851 Great Exhibition, the world’s first large-scale temporary international exhibition. A large (modern) model of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, where the exhibition was held, is on show. The exhibition attracted over 6 million visitors and the profits went towards the establishment of the V&A. Many exhibits, by firms which used the exhibition to display their most innovative techniques, were purchased for the museum. An 1851 table has a stand surrounded by herons in bulrushes, the former of cast plaster, the latter of moulded, gilded leather. Pugin’s excellent cabinet was one of the most important pieces in the Medieval Court.

Purchases from the International Exhibitions which followed the 1851 exhibition include the magnificent cabinet by Alexandre Eugène Prignot, made for the Paris Exposition of 1855. Over 40 craftsmen worked on it, including Minton’s and Elkington’s. The enormous Minton vase was purchased from the 1862 International Exhibition in London. A great technical challenge, its floral body, with handles of gilded coiling snakes, is shouldered by three crouching bone-china cherubs. A Graeco-Roman armchair (1884–86) was designed by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema for an American collector’s Madison Avenue residence. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s large design for the Albert Memorial (1863) is on show, as well as Alfred Stevens’ plaster and wax model for the Duke of Wellington’s memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral (1857), one of his most celebrated works. E.W. Godwin’s sideboard is an important example of Victorian ‘Japonisme’.

Items by the hugely influential interior designer and manufacturer William Morris include wallpaper designs, furniture, tiles and textiles produced by Morris, Marshall and Faulkner, and later Morris & Co: ‘Trellis’, Willow Bough’ and ‘Acanthus’ wallpapers; stained glass panels including Chaucer Asleep, after designs by Burne-Jones; and an 1861–62 cabinet, designed by Paul Webb and painted by Morris. Arts and Crafts objects include a Charles Rennie Mackintosh high-backed armchair; his fireplace from the Willow Tea Room, Glasgow; wallpaper designs by Walter Crane; furniture by the innovative designer C.F.A. Voysey, for example a simple 1896 desk, with applied copper hinges; and silver by Christopher Dresser and Liberty & Co.

 

Europe 1500–1800 (Basement)

Below the British Galleries, at basement level, are excellent examples of European furniture, silver, porcelain and sculpture from 1500–1800, including Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Adriaen de Vries’ bronze portrait bust of the Emperor Rudolf II, 1609, was once in Rudolf’s Cabinet of Curiosities in Prague, before entering the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden as war booty, captured during the Thirty Years War. Small, expensive, finely crafted treasures appropriate for a collector’s cabinet of this date include boxwood carvings, objects of rock crystal, Venetian glass, inlaid silver boxes, enamels and ivories. Also displayed is Dieussart’s bust of Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia (1641).

The early 16th-century Portuguese silver parcel gilt dish is a masterpiece of early Renaissance silver, with embossed scenes of the Siege of Troy. Other items include a lavish 1577 spinet by Annibale Rossi, decorated with nearly 2,000 precious stones; the magnificent Lomellini Ewer and Basin (1621–22), decorated with episodes in the life of Giovanni Grimaldi of Genoa and the Lomellini arms; and the Medici Casket (1609–21), a jewel casket of steel, with chiselled steel figures of Mars and Minerva, made for Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, an excellent example of High Renaissance Florentine architectural decoration.

Fine portrait busts include the terracotta of Cardinal Paolo Emilio Zacchia (c. 1650) by Algardi. Among the terracotta busts, bronze sculptures, embossed and engraved armour, rapiers and pistols and Spanish silver perfume burners are exceptional German ivory carvings, including a tankard by Bernhard Straus, made in Augsburg (1651), an outstanding example of Baroque ivory carving, with Hercules slaying a centaur on the lid, and mythological scenes on its body.

Part of the Meissen service ordered by Frederick II of Prussia for his general, von Möllendorf, as a reward for his services in the Seven Years War, is on show. Designed c. 1762 by the Meissen factory, with some of the figures modelled by Kändler, there were once over 960 pieces, now distributed over various private and public collections. The elaborate writing cabinet (c. 1750–55) was made for Frederick Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, by one of the leading Dresden workshops. It is a celebrated example of German Rococo cabinet making, with wood, mother of pearl, ivory and brass marquetry, and elaborate gilt mounts. It was purchased from the Rothschild collection, Mentmore Towers, in 1977.

In the 19th century there was a taste for objects with an historical or romantic connection. The glittering boudoir of the Marquise de Sérilly was in 1874 displayed with a harp in it, said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette, Sérilly having been her Lady of Honour. A display of items from the Jones Collection includes several other pieces with romantic provenances. John Jones (d. 1882), who established a military tailoring firm in London, was an amateur collector of great distinction who bequeathed his entire collection to South Kensington. His great passion was for French 18th-century furniture and porcelain. He owned 89 pieces of Sèvres, including important pieces such as the ‘Tippoo Vase’, painted with scenes after Boucher, supposedly part of the collection sent by Louis XIV to Tipu Sultan in 1788; the bleu de roi vase, made for Gustav III of Sweden; and a pair of vases in brilliant ‘bleu nouveau’ with elaborate ormolu mounts, in the form of snakes, based on a vase in the collection of the Duc de Choiseul. Other Jones items included The Five Orders of Architecture, possibly by Robert Arnould Drais (c. 1780), a precious, elegant object with columns of lapis lazuli set in gold; and distinguished pieces of French furniture by the best names, including Riesener and Boulle. Later 18th-century furniture includes a reading stand by M. Carlin (c. 1785) with a Sèvres porcelain plaque and ormolu mounts, given by Marie Antoinette to Mrs Eden.

 

Europe & America 1800–1900 (Basement, Galleries 8–9)

Of all the galleries in the museum these give the best sense of how the 19th-century museum would have been displayed. Highly decorated and gilded furniture, porcelain and silver from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Russia and Scandinavia is crowded together in a scene of suffocating opulence. The showcases lined down the centre, with their massed displays, are copies of 1877 originals; the lights imitate those used in this part of the museum in 1909; and the security barriers at the sides are derived from those used at the museum in the 1860s.

The rich and dense displays include objects acquired from the great 19th-century International Exhibitions (1851 and beyond), but also earlier pieces. Exhibits include a c. 1800 elaborate cabinet by the great Parisian maker Jacob Frères, who supplied furniture to Napoleon and Josephine; an 1813 Sèvres vase, a copy of the ‘Medici Krater’ in the Uffizi; a great, Gothic oak bookcase, ‘a cathedral in wood’, presented by the Emperor Franz Joseph to Queen Victoria, exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition; a sofa (c. 1856) by John Henry Belter, originally of Hanover but who emigrated to New York, of laminated rosewood with dense, floral carving, one of the most elaborate examples of his work; an amber vase and pedestal by J. & L. Lobmeyr, Vienna (c. 1878), shown at the Paris Exposition of that year; a cabinet by Henri-Auguste Fourdinois, of ebony with inlay of various woods including box, lime, holly and pear, with mahogany and marble plaques, purchased from the Paris Exposition of 1867, where it was awarded the Exhibition Grand Prix; and Henri Fantin-Latour’s gentle paintings of nasturtiums, a rare work of a single plant, as opposed to his usual vases of flowers.

Art Nouveau objects include a Carlo Bugatti armchair (Milan c. 1900); a Richard Riemerschmid dressing table (German, 1899); a firescreen by Emile Gallé, decorated with vine leaves with tendrils wrapping around its legs; and a cabinet by Louis Majorelle, with wrought iron mounts of stylised lotus blossoms. The latter two, along with other Art Nouveau objects, were purchased for the museum from the 1900 Paris Exposition by George Donaldson, a great supporter of the ‘New Movement’, who correctly forecast their hostile reception in London.

 

Twentieth Century (Galleries 70–74; Galleries 103–106)

Twentieth-century art and design is shown in Galleries 70–74, level 3 (the period galleries) and galleries 103–106, the latter rather forlorn and in need of refurbishment. Among early 20th-century items is a Gerrit Rietveld armchair (1918), a design classic by a leading figure of the Dutch De Stijl group; examples from the Omega Workshops, founded in 1913 by Roger Fry with Vanessa Bell; a 1924 table lamp by Wilhelm Wagenfeld, MT8, from the Bauhaus School set up in Weimar in 1919, displaying the influence of Moholy-Nagy and his ethos of beautiful but functional industrial design; and examples of artist books, such as Klänge by Kandinsky (1913).

Product design, and technology as an aesthetic, is further explored in later works: a c. 1934 sleek-lined electric bar heater by Christian Barman produced by HMV; Italian kettles; a 1964 Roberts radio with leopard-skin cover; an Ambrose Heal dressing table (c. 1943); a c. 1949 storage unit by the American team Eames and Eames, designers of modern furniture for mass production; and Ron Arad chairs. British studio pottery includes works by Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie, the latter dating from early works of the 1920s and 30s, produced in her native Vienna, to later works executed in England.

 

Asia (Galleries 41–47g)

On level 1 are the Asia Period Galleries, containing the museum’s best examples of Southeast Asian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Korean art. Southeast Asia includes 11th–13th-century Cambodian bronzes; an early 15th-century double-sided Indonesian altar relief; 7th–13th-century sculptures from Thailand, including the remarkable late 15th–early 16th-century Standing Buddha from the workshops of Ayutthaya, then the Thai capital. A figure of great refinement, with much of its original gilding intact, it represents a high point of Thai art, reflecting the prosperity of the kingdom of Siam.

The Indian Collection has its origins in the 18th-century Asiatic Society of Bengal (established 1784) and the museum of the East India Company, housed at the Company’s headquarters in the City. By 1808 the latter included elephant heads, Persian manuscripts, brass Hindu sculptures and one of the V&A’s most famous works, ‘Tippoo’s Musical Tiger’ (c. 1790). A wooden organ made for Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, in the form of a tiger mauling a British officer (shrieking sounds emanate from it when played), it has been popular since the early 19th century. On the demise of the East India Company in 1858, its museum was transferred first to the new government India Office in Whitehall and then, in the 1870s, to South Kensington.

 

 

Tipu Sultan (1750–99)

The ‘Tiger of Mysore’, scourge of the British in southern central India during the late 18th century, died fighting at the Battle of Seringapatam (modern Srirangapatna) that concluded the last of the four Mysore Wars. The son of Haider Ali, who had successfully contested the first Mysore War against the forces of the East India Company and its allies, Tipu Sultan helped his father and French forces inflict another heavy defeat on the British at the Battle of Pollilur (1780).

Often quoted as saying that he would ‘rather live two days as a tiger than two hundred years as a sheep’, Tipu Sultan ruled Mysore from 1782, with an administrative skill admired, almost 150 years later, by Mahatma Ghandi in Young India, as a model of religious tolerance. Tipu also continued his father’s early experiments in rocket science, equipping specially trained troops with iron-cased rocket launchers deployed to devastating effect. Even so, at the end of the Third Mysore War (1790–92), when Seringapatam had been surrounded by forces under the command of Lord Cornwallis, Tipu Sultan was forced to hand over his second and third eldest sons, Abdul Khaliq and Maiz-Uddin, aged ten and eight, as hostages against full payment of the indemnity. Received with great courtesy and ceremony by Cornwallis, the young princes were often entertained with music and dance during their captivity, and were returned to their father two years later.

Tipu Sultan’s subsequent attempts to ally himself with Napoleon resulted in a final British assault on Seringapatam, where he was shot as he lay wounded after falling from the ramparts.

 

 

Important examples of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture include the monumental 11th–12th-century black basalt Buddha Sakyamuri, from Bihar; the c. 900 ad sandstone Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, called the ‘Sanchi Torso’, beautifully carved and exceptionally elegant, from the ruined temple of Sanchi, central India; and the c. 11th-century Chola-period, small gilt copper figure of Buddha offering reassurance, excellently modelled, cast and finished, possibly the finest Buddhist metal sculpture to survive from southern India. The temple sculpture of Nandi, Shiva’s sacred bull, late 16th–17th century, is carved in attractive serpentine.

Sixteenth–18th-century Mughal art contains early Indian painting; gold ornamental jewellery (armlets, necklaces, hair ornaments); and Mughal textile designs, including elaborate tent hangings. Intricately illuminated books illustrate the histories of the dynasty.

The European presence in India, and the export trade, is explored. Furniture includes the ivory table (c. 1785) given to Warren Hastings by Mani Begum. Expensive and finely crafted objects in the centre of the gallery include Shah Jahan’s white jade thumb ring; his exquisite white jade wine cup (1657) in the form of a ram’s head flaring to a wide bowl, perhaps the finest known example of Mughal hardstone carving; and turban ornaments and daggers ornamented with rubies, emeralds and diamonds. The agate cameo portrait of Shah Jahan (c. 1630–40) was carved by a European lapidary at the Mughal court. The golden throne of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, which was shown with other Indian Empire treasures at the 1851 Great Exhibition, was part of the state property taken by the British in 1849 on the annexation of the Punjab.

The Islamic Near East, covering the art of Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, was closed at the time of writing (due to open August 2006), but will contain famous items such as the Ardabil carpet (1539–40), one of the largest and most magnificent Persian carpets in the world, from the shrine of the same name in northwest Iran. Purchased in 1893, to William Morris it was ‘of singular perfection’.

The earliest objects in the China Gallery date from the Han and Tang dynasties. Costly burial goods include the 206 bcad 220 large head and partial torso of a horse, the largest animal carving in jade known; a large and rare tomb model of a standing Arabian horse, 1st–2nd centuries; and a 1st–2nd-century Tang camel and rider, of lead glazed earthenware, elaborately groomed and saddled. A bronze incense burner in the shape of an angry goose, its neck outstretched, dates from the Song-Yuan dynasty (1200–1300). Domestic items include highly decorated and embroidered silk robes, table utensils such as jade cups and ewers, and Ming dynasty furniture such as the important early lacquer table (1426–35), one of the only surviving pieces from the ‘Orchard Workshop’, the Imperial lacquer workshop set up to the northwest of the Forbidden City. The collection is rich in pieces with an Imperial provenance, an association which early collectors particularly sought. The ornate carved polychrome lacquer throne of the Emperor Qianlong was probably commissioned in the 1780s for the Tuanhe Travelling Palace in the Nan Haizi hunting park south of Beijing.

The gallery of Chinese export art (more items are shown in their European setting in the British Galleries) includes a magnificent 9-ft, 17-tier porcelain pagoda (1800–15) of the type that was ordered for the decoration of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. It is one of only ten known to exist.

The Korean Collection includes beautiful examples of pale green celadon ware of the Koryo dynasty (935–1392), and fine examples of porcelain, furniture and decorative objects from the Choson dynasty (1392–1910), when Seoul became the capital.

The acquisition of items from Japan was sporadic until the second half of the 19th century. The emphasis was on contemporary items purchased from the International Exhibitions, demonstrating extreme technical skill. The dramatic hammered iron incense burner in the form of an eagle, for example, was bought in 1875, and the ornamental bronze vase, executed by the noted bronze caster Suzuki Chokichi, was acquired at the Universal Exhibition in Amsterdam in 1883, directly from Kiritsu Koshu Kaisha of Tokyo, a company founded to promote Japanese craft industries. As well as ornamental swords and knife mounts; an excellent collection of Japanese lacquerware; and a collection of over 20,000 woodblock prints, the overwhelming bulk of the collection comprises ceramics. Historic and contemporary examples were purchased for the museum in Japan by Sano Tsunetami in the 1870s, including important late 16th-century tea ceramics.

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.

Latest

National Maritime Museum
Wimbledon Windmill Museum
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum
2 Willow Road (National Trust)
William Morris Gallery
Whitechapel Gallery
Westminster Abbey Museum
Wesley's Chapel
Wellington Arch (English Heritage)
Wallace Collection
Victoria & Albert Museum
Tower Bridge Exhibition
Tower of London (Historic Royal Palaces)
Tate Modern
Tate Britain
Sutton House (National Trust)
Spencer House
Southside House
South London Art Gallery
The Courtauld Institute of Art (Somerset House)
Sir John Soane's Museum
Shakespeare’s Globe
Serpentine Gallery
Science Museum
St Bride’s Crypt Museum
St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum
Saatchi Gallery
Royal Society of Arts
The Royal Mews
Royal London Hospital Museum
The Faraday Museum
Royal Hospital Chelsea
RCM Museum of Music
Royal Academy of Music Museum
Royal Academy of Arts
Red House (National Trust)
Ranger’s House (English Heritage)
Ragged School Museum
The Queen’s Gallery
Prince Henry’s Room
The Photographers’ Gallery
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Osterley Park (National Trust)
Orleans House Gallery
Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret
Natural History Museum
National Portrait Gallery
National Gallery
National Army Museum
Musical Museum
World Rugby Museum
Museum of the Order of St John
Museum No. 1 (Royal Botanic Gardens)
Museum of London
Garden Museum
Museum in Docklands (Museum of London)
The Royal Observatory
The Queen's House
Old Royal Naval College
Marianne North Gallery (Royal Botanic Gardens)
Marble Hill House (English Heritage)
Mall Galleries
Lord’s Tour and MCC Museum
London Transport Museum
London Fire Brigade Museum
London Canal Museum
18 Stafford Terrace – The Sambourne Family Home
Library and Museum of Freemasonry
Leighton House
Kingston Museum
Kew Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
London Museum of Water & Steam
Kenwood House (English Heritage)
Kensington Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
Keats House
Jewish Museum
Jewel Tower (English Heritage)
Jerwood Space
Imperial War Museum
ICA Institute of Contemporary Arts
Hunterian Museum
Horniman Museum
HMS Belfast (Imperial War Museum)
Hayward Gallery
Handel House Museum
Hampton Court Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
Ham House (National Trust)
Guildhall Art Gallery
Guards Museum
Grant Museum of Zoology & Comparative Anatomy
Geffrye Museum of the Home
Fulham Palace
Freud Museum
Foundling Museum
Forty Hall & Estate
Florence Nightingale Museum
Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum
Fenton House (National Trust)
Fashion and Textile Museum
Fan Museum
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
Eltham Palace (English Heritage)
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dr Johnson’s House
Dennis Severs' House
Danson House
Cutty Sark
Contemporary Applied Arts
Chiswick House (English Heritage)
Chelsea Physic Garden
Chartered Insurance Institute Museum
Charles Dickens Museum
Carlyle’s House (National Trust)
Camden Arts Centre
Cabinet War Rooms & Churchill Museum (Imperial War Museum)
Burgh House - The Hampstead Museum
Buckingham Palace
Brunel Engine House
Brunei Gallery SOAS
British Optical Association Museum
The British Museum
The British Library
Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee
Black Cultural Archives
Museum of Childhood (Victoria & Albert Museum)
Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Benjamin Franklin House
Ben Uri Gallery - The London Jewish Museum of Art
Barbican Art Gallery
Banqueting House (Historic Royal Palaces)
Bankside Gallery
Bank of England Museum
All Hallows Undercroft Museum
Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum

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