Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Victoria & Albert Museum

Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
Thursday December 10 2015



We should really stop going to all the special exhibitions but it is difficult to avoid when the end dates approach and time runs out. Talking of time – we badly misjudged our meeting today standing effectively at opposite ends of the South Kensington tunnels so were a bit later into the Museum than intended. Fortunately, this is an exhibition with mainly large objects and the Museum had provided good clear labelling which could be read from afar.

The V&A, as it’s often known, is the UK’s premier arts and crafts museum housed in one of Albertopolis’s most exuberant and fitting buildings. The substantive collection is arranged variously by country, type (the sculpture galleries surrounding the central enclosed garden, for example, but also ceramics, furniture, fashion etc) and era – the ‘Art of the Renaissance’ and the most recently opened galleries ‘Europe 1700-1815’ which brings together all the artefacts of particular movements. Past special exhibitions have looked at themes such as ‘Gothic’. Photography is often featured – Julia Margaret Cameron for one but we had seen her work very recently down the road at the Science Museum!

Today it was the turn of the textiles to shine as indeed some of them did.


We really approved of the first part of the special  exhibition, 'The Fabric of India'
which looked closely at the constituent elements  of what goes into fabrics and the skills needed to produce the wealth of colour and show that India – taken here in its historic sense as a continent including the now separate or contested bits of Pakistan and Bangla Desh and Kashmir. In this section each exhibit was accompanied by a small map of the area of provenance and where possible a short subtitled film showing the different skills and processes involved in the largely hand-made production of different fabrics.

Naturally there was no photography allowed so I have looked at the Indian fabrics I have at home and tried to link them with the appropriate headings bearing in mind that what was on display was old valuable heritage work whereas what I have is pretty standard Indian handicrafts for tourism and export.


As what we associate most with India is colour the exhibition starts with a clear exposition of where the various natural dyes come from, including Indigo which needs no ‘fixer’ as long as the cloth is fully submerged during the dying process. Indigo is a derivative of India.  Pomegranate skin, rather surprisingly turns cloth a somewhat drab khaki (also a sub-continent word) and you need the likes of beetles and other root plants to achieve a more credible red colour. As the plants are not native to the UK you will need to imagine them – turmeric being the easiest to find in your spice cupboard. Tying cloth –  ‘bandhani’ means to tie – will achieve pattern and designs a lot more sophisticated then the Sixties 'tie-dye' we all attempted. 


Another way of putting different colours together is to use a plain background and add applique cut-outs and there was a beautiful example of elephants marching round a room on a wall hanging.
How the colours look and ‘take’ depends in turn on the fabrics used.  Though some wool is produced/used/worn in the cooler northern parts, India is most known for  its home grown cotton and silk, and there were numerous examples of each. Muslin (as worn by Muslims, its derivation) was also described as ‘woven wind’ so light is its texture and anyone who has experienced the tropics will know how welcome the lighter fabrics are to wear. Different species of silk worm produce different grades of silk and there was clear film of the cocoons being steamed open and the silk unravelled and spun.
Here is a short film which explains but strangely I could only find 1920 film or ones showing Chinese producers whereas this one is very English.

Once you have your basic fabric the exhibition goes on to look at embellishment – this covers everything from the subtle interweaving of gold or silver thread to embroidery (Gujerat being the area for this), complex weaving to produce patterned cloth, or of course printing.

The weaving of brocade produced cloth of such magnificence it was no surprise to see it mainly used for holy garments or wall hangings (the same is true in Europe if you think about it) and there are magnificent examples of each. This includes a whole moveable tent (when the rulers moved round their lands they took everything with them). Some of these wall hangings include story-telling and there are skilled embroidered or woven parts of the Mabaratha to instruct and entertain. 
Equally there is no shortage of ‘princely garments’, those clothes worn by the ruling classes of course demonstrate both power and wealth through the richness of the cloth and embellishment.

Printing on fabrics at its simplest is not a costly process – again the method for this is carefully explained – block printing starts with a hand carved wooden block which can be re-used in different orientations and different colours to increasing complexity and effect. 



The second part of the exhibition (special exhibitions in the V&A are arranged in some ground floor rooms but there is always a hiatus when you cross the corridor then cross back?) looks at fabric as part of the trade, industry and identity of the producing country. There is evidence to show that Indian cottons have been traded for over 2000 years though few scraps survive. Wool lasts longer. India always exported much cloth fabric to the UK until the Industrial Revolution when mass mechanisation meant spinning, weaving and dying all happened on a more industrial scale so that from the 1780s the UK exported cotton back to India where it eventually became increasingly hard for the traditional hand-made and ‘cottage’ workshops to compete with the industrialised factories so colonised India fell onto hard times. Ghandi was a key figure in trying to reverse this trend and exemplified reclaiming traditional garments (the Khadi in fine cotton) for the Indians.


Post-war the Bollywood industry which showcases  beautiful fabrics of all kinds has been one of the ‘drivers’ for a renewed growth in the manufacturing of fabrics, and there is a strong fashion industry also – we were less interested in the various modern versions of the sari etc. but conceded they were stylish.  With the exception to the references to Ghandi and his promotion of the Indian worker there seemed little space devoted  to working conditions of the millions thus employed – working in the cotton fields has never been easy and hand stitching tiny pearls or sequins onto garments can cause eye and back strain… Nor do the poor working conditions get much ‘wall space’. Having said that, this exhibition does offer a good overview of the fabric that makes up India past and present and does what the V&A does best – giving a context for some of the world’s most beautiful objects. Having said that we still have the rest of the museum to catch up with!!


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