Recently, our office had a planned power cut. Instead of spending the day off grid and in the dark, I suggested spending time at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Unsurprisingly this was met with little resistance and we spent a very happy day looking at numerous beautiful artefacts . We even had time for a delicious lunch across the road at Orsini - a charming, Italian café, which I have dropped into, from time to time, when in South Kensington.
The V & A is, without a doubt, my favourite museum. I enjoy wandering around with no particular purpose, looking at whatever objects catch my eye. Sometimes I find new gems; other times I enjoy returning to familiar pieces. It is perfectly natural that this should be my preferred museum as I see architecture as a form of applied art, on a grand scale, and many of the objects are parts of buildings and so very relevant to our work. This is particularly true of the ironwork, for example, which I have visited with clients to show them the variety of styles and designs that could be made for their houses.
One of the things I love about the V & A is their active encouragement of drawing. I have been to so many museums where sketching is frowned upon or, in the case of the Vatican, completely banned. Over the years I have spent hours sketching in the casts room, which, I feel, is the best education for any artist.
It is a museum where you take what you want depending on your mood and current interest. Objects are displayed without overbearing curators trying to push upon you their restricted and sometimes narrow interpretations.
Below are a few pieces that caught my eye....
Italian Renaissance Capitals
These capitals, despite being Renaissance, follow the earlier gothic convention of all being different from each other. Some have dragons, others have cornucopias or shells or flutes. Like architectural faces, which conform to a basic structure, but each have their own unique individuality. The carving is exquisite and the variety makes you feel that the masons must have had some fun working on each one.
This piece of German 17th century ironwork is flowing and fine, defying the heavy and crude nature of the material to make something appear as delicate as lace. German art in recent times has focused on rather heavy handed artists like Anselm Kiefer, but this is not the whole story as Germany is, after all, the country that gave us Bach.
Perhaps, unfashionably, I've always viewed rococo as a high point in decoration. The work speaks of the joy of life; where waves, branches and invented natural forms unify to produce a coherent style. It is a wholly artificial language that seems to represent the 'Élan vital', that spark of life that set the whole universe going and the helping hand when evolution has lost its way.
This is one for my favourite examples of rinceau. The spiralled branches are unbelievably thin but with very thick and heavy leaves which bring the decoration to life. Carved by the legendary Sansovino and his assistants, the original is in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Though I've been in that church dozens of times to look at the Caravaggios and the Raphael chapel, I am embarrassed to say that I've never noticed this tomb, and it's hardly small. I must look out for it next time.
Flower pyramid base
This is a painting on the base of a Dutch ceramic flower pyramid from the late 17th century, painted in imitation of Ming dynasty china. Despite the age of the object; the line weight, style and composition have a striking similarity to the Tintin cartoons, drawn in neighbouring Belgium hundreds of years later. I ask myself, are they both part of the same tradition?
The V & A never disappoints, wandering round looking at all the beautiful objects that have been made over the millennia gives me renewed faith in humanity. Despite being born at different times and in different places, all artisans speak a common language, with the shared goal of making things with care and attention above and beyond what function requires. This never fails to make me feel happy and like the heroine in Breakfast at Tiffany's, I feel while I'm within those walls, nothing will go wrong.