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Overwhelmed in the galleries of the V&A

12 January 2010

Nicholas Cranfieldfalls for the newly refurbished Victoriaand Albert Museum


THE statistics for the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries at the V&A in South Kensington are little short of remarkable: 1800 artefacts and not a catalogue in sight. It is, of course, easy to be swayed by numbers. The in-flight inventory for a transcontinental aeroplane in­cludes more than 30,000 items, most of them disposable, and Ginette Mathiot's indispensable classic of French cooking (1932) boasts 1400 recipes.

Ten new galleries and a refurbished sculptural hall, however, offer more than a chance to measure several lifetimes in coffee spoons. The price tag exceeded £30 million, little more than the Raphael auxiliary cartoon for the head of a muse sold a week after the opening at a London auction house.


In the past decade, the V&A has returned with confidence to its charter task, to offer the world a museum of decorative arts. After decades of pouring funds into a café-restaurant (of variable quality, to judge from my last two pitstops) and an overblown shop in what had once been prime gallery space (who goes to a public museum to buy clothes anyway?), the reopened galleries successively show off the real gems of this collection with awesome ele­gance and contemporary simplicity.


Upstairs, the change of fortune began with the British galleries 1500-1900 (Arts, 25 January 2002), and the silver galleries already sparkle, astounding us with the craft and skill of the work on show as much as with the sheer volume of bullion. Else­where, the stained-glass win­dows illumine holiness, and even the Is­lamic room (Arts, 29 September 2006) brings an entire civilisation into the span of a single gallery.


The new spaces trace European cultures from 300 to 1600 with the global dimension of the surrounding civilisations. The witty designs of McInnes Usher McKnight Associates (MUMA), an architectural practice that is not even a decade old, allow the story to unfold chronologically while establishing at once a certain equality between all the objects on display.


Where else might you find one of Leonardo's notebooks, a tenth-century cameo of carved jasper of an enkolpion that once adorned the chest of some Byzantine hierarch, the celebrated Limoges "Becket" casket, now sadly lacking its drawer of treasures, a 15th-century Bur­gundian tapestry depicting a boar and bear hunt, or a Valencian tin-glazed earthenware flower vase, shown with exceptional attention to detail?


When I came to the intricately cast Gloucester candlestick (58cm high), with its riot of figures and half-imaginary beasts competing in a game of eternal snakes and ladders which might have been written up by J. R. R. Tolkien, and has suggested to some that it demonstrates the ear1y-12th-century concern about heresy and the struggle of good and evil, it was being carefully photographed and studied by an expert in early-Romanesque carving.


The golden candlestick (it is in fact copper alloy) long since lost to St Peter's Abbey in Gloucester (later the cathedral) had been commissioned between 1104 and 1113, and was in the Cathedral of Le Mans when the latter was consecrated in 1254. From there, it came to South Kensington in 1861.


The photographer became my chance cicerone. As we traded the names of Romanesque churches along the Saône and Rhône, he explained how this piece might show that stone carving was in part influenced by contemporary metal­work. The figures and animals that scarper up and down the foliage are certainly reminiscent of the carved inhabitants of many a church portal or, for that matter, the border of illuminated missals and Books of Hours (a later room).


What fascinated me most, however, was what its purpose might have been. When it was half-hidden in a corri­dor leading to the art library, I had scarcely glanced at it, as it had been almost impossible to see. Now, in its own spectacularly lit vitrine, it poses all sorts of questions. Too short to be a paschal candlestick, although intricate enough, I wondered whether it was the candle carried before a mitred abbot, and later bishop, and placed additionally on the altar when he celebrated mass.



This tally alone reveals a single, long-overlooked fact: the V&A is one of the world's great museums when judged by its proper purpose. The brilliance of the display makes me the hungrier to know what else is kept in storage, frustratingly with­held from view for lack of room; for it is space, not money, that is at issue.


This brings me back to the desirability of having a reasonably priced checklist for each room, and to my concern that the tables of the moneychangers, whether the coffee shop or the boutique, consume much needed exhibition space.


At first sight, the ground-floor sculpture halls are little different from the previous arrange­ment. Indeed, at the opening, several members of the press wondered what all the fuss and cost was about, since it all looked the same.


But where else can you house an entire chapel from the 15th century, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo for Santa Chiara in Florence, with an altar reredos by Benedetto da Maiano? The tabernacle holding the reserved sacra­ment is set high above the mensa of the altar, suggesting that priests ignored all health and safety warnings in order to ensure that it was seen by the Poor Clares from their loft. Behind it, as if in the original ambulatory, is an ec­clesiastical treasury.


Here is the pastoral staff of the Aldobrandini Bishop of Gubbio from 1370-75 and a silver chalice from the 1450s from L'Aquila, where St Bernardino of Siena died in May 1444. Canonised by Pope Nicholas V in 1450, his portrait head appears as one of those saints in enamel which surround the stem of the chalice.


Where better, too, to install the seven-metre-high choir screen that came from a cathedral in the South Netherlands, St John's, Hertogen­bosch, and which is dated 1610-13? Ironically, that had been designed by Conrad von Norenberch to replace one mutilated in the Protestant iconoclasm of the 1560s.


Since 1924, it has dominated the sculpture hall, with its columns of red jaspered marble, and decorated with mouldings of black Tournai stone with richly carved English alabaster. The biblical scenes make you think of the much earlier Ghiberti and the golden gates of the Baptistery in Florence for the theatricality of them all.


These delights include the mar­riage at Cana in Galilee, the feeding of the five thousand, the trans­figuration, and the events of the Passion narrative, from the betrayal to the resurrection and ascension, and also the adorations of both pastors and rulers.


Beyond this screen, which was removed in the 1860s when the cathedral authorities felt it blocked the view of the east end from the nave (call me old-fashioned, but I under­stood that this was its inherent purpose) and came to London in 1871, Gothic triptychs and altar­pieces vie with one another in a blaze of glory, recklessly carved with saints now not so well known.


Giambologna's Samson Slaying a Philistine of 1560-62 stands at the opening of the principal gallery where once it surmounted a fountain in Florence designed for the Medici. Within 100 years, it was the most celebrated Italian work of sculpture to be found in Albion. It was the Flemish sculptor's first commission for the Tuscan family, and he proudly blazoned his signature on a strap that runs across Samson's naked chest.


In 1601, the statue was taken from its Florentine herb garden and sent as a diplomatic gift to the Duke of Lerma in Spain; when Charles, Prince of Wales, visited Madrid in 1623 with a view to making the Infanta his bride, a dynastic choice to seal the Anglo-Hispanic treaties of his father James VI and I, it was presented to him. In turn, he gave it to his favourite, the Duke of Buck­ingham.


The V&A obtained it in 1954 and became its eighth owner. There is a fountain near by, so that we hear the lap of falling water; but why is the installation not restored to its earlier function? The smell of rosemary and thyme is long gone, but it commends the opulence of a different era.


The expansion of Liverpool Street Station in 1890 led to the demolition of the last timber-framed Eliza­bethan house to survive the Great Fire of 1666. It was once the home of Sir Paul Pindar, who was born and educated in Welling­borough, and who had acted as consul for the English merchants in Aleppo and had been, from 1611, ambassador at the Sublime Porte; but the fortunes of the house changed after his death in 1650.


What is shown here now is the façade, set at the far end of a new daylit space, with its curving panels of timber spars once tossed on a river of glass, like a miniature Hardwick Hall, but now looking somewhat marooned, skeletal timbers on a bare brick wall with an incongruous statue group (a 19th-century cast of Donatello's Judith and Holofernes) in the foreground. Contemporaries called Pindar's place a palace, and it would not have cost much to install glazing so that it could dazzle once more.



However well you thought that you knew items from the V&A collections, what you now find is beyond imagination and memory, with the scope of the material presented in a way that makes coherent sense. Christ on a donkey, a boyhood favourite of mine, is a carved wooden statue (c.1480) made for a Palm Sunday procession, but looking for all the world like a child's toy. It used to stand alone, dusty and mournful, with other religious arte­facts seemingly randomly disposed around it.


Now it leads a procession of its own, of copes, including the famed Butler Bowdon cope - with all its English em­broidery untimely ripped from the British gallery where it had so recently been installed - and crosiers, thuribles, and candlesticks. Purists like me may jib at the infelicities of dates and styles, but the imagination recreates a breathless medieval pageant from the age of faith.


All of this could risk becoming overwhelming. I was fortunate to have the chief curator, Peta Motture, show me round (with a certain misplaced modesty, I should add, for all she has achieved); but threading one's way through the ten galleries is breathtakingly straightforward. How long it remains so will be a test for future curators, but at the moment all seems set for a fair wind.


At what seems to be a junction, there is an extraordinary hand-coloured German woodcut of 1571, depicting the fallen Ali Pasha, the Muslim commander at the battle of Lepanto who was captured and executed. The Nuremburg artist portrays him in a turban, whereas at the battle he had worn a jewelled helm decorated with verses of the Qur'an. East meets West. Hurrah.


The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, V&A South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London SW7. Phone 020 7942 2000.


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