Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL
Thursday October 13 2016
We did visit the V&A about a year ago but for a special exhibition so it was time to appreciate the substantive collections – plus we both needed to be in the nearby Paddington area at lunch-time.
On the whole the collections within this Museum of the Decorative Arts (as they tend to call them overseas) are arranged by type of artefact, so fashion/ textiles/ sculpture/ furniture/ theatre and so on – within which there are galleries devoted to the arts of the different continents, mainly of the Old World. Today we played close to home and decided to indulge ourselves and plumped for the ‘handy near the main entrance’ Medieval and Renaissance European Galleries which cover all types of exhibits. There are three beautifully arranged and captioned galleries covering the period from approximately 1000 – 1600.
I would advise visitors to do things properly and go down to the basement in order to cover things chronologically, but we were of course lured into the middle floor by the large and arresting marble artefacts and the quiet plashing of a fountain. For us the other attraction of these galleries was the reminiscence factor as we remembered various earlier trips to visit the art hotspots of Europe, mainly in Italy, Germany and France. The UK is sorely underrepresented but more of that later… To be honest the collection is good enough to give the experience of an art culture mini-break.
For once our photos are acceptable (I won’t say good because they are rarely good) and many of the exhibits speak for themselves. The influence of the church is enormous and the wealth lay pretty much divided between them and the nobility – only towards the end of this period, late 1500s, do we see the manufacture and owning of costly for-ornamentation artefacts dropping down the social scale to the newly emerging merchant and middle classes.
Broadly speaking the different parts of Europe are represented by works they are best at – so for Italy stonework, sculptures and Madonnas; for Germany and the Low Countries tapestries and woodwork of all kinds, later printing. Each piece represents complex skills and mastery of their craft and for the earliest works the craftsmen’s names long lost. What the museum displays particularly well is stained glass where you can get much closer to see the detail and with a constant light than in their original church settings – the same could be said for altar pieces. The details can be scrutinised from the inclusion of the donor in a crucifixion scene to noting the Virgin’s rather nifty red pointy shoes. Whilst in the religious section there was ample opportunity to recap the various saints’ lives, be they spotting St Anthony Abbott with his pig
or St Margaret fighting off the dragon. St. Roch too has a familiar – a dog who brought him bread when he had been ostracized because of the plague – sadly a story that still finds its echoes today.
Still on animals but rather more creepily I was surprised to see that on (1) the Palissy plate, probably ordered by French royalty or nobility, the animals had been suffocated in vinegar or urine to preserve them and then crafted and painted over turning this from a thing of beauty to one of horror… Best of all is the ‘Palmesel’ or small portable statue of Christ riding on a donkey – we had seen examples of this appealing rural but well executed work in Germany but had not realized that some villages in Southern Germany still dress up the Christ figure so that he plus donkey can be carried into church or chapel, as shown on the accompanying video.
Artefacts from the UK are few: Henry VIII’s reformatory zeal and greed did for the wealth of the churches which merely got re-cycled amongst the King and favoured nobility and if anything even faintly decorative remained Cromwell’s followers made sure it did not. The cathedrals were more or less unscathed but smaller churches and abbeys left to run to ruins. The exhibits on the third level include some copies/casts of stone head sculptures from Salisbury cathedral and the whole wooden front of a nobleman’s house demolished to make way for the railway out of Liverpool Street.
Interestingly there is a pair of angels destined originally for Wolsey’s tomb then taken over by Henry VIII but never used for his either. Very ‘Wolf Hall’. The workmanship here falls short of the German woodcarver Riemenschneider,