The day after our Springsteen concert, Rosa and I had some hours to kill in the capital before our train home. I’d seen a poster about an exhibition of photojournalist Paul Strand’s work at the Victoria and Albert Museum so we decided to make our way there, sitting outside Imperial in the warm sunshine before opening time.
Despite having always wanted to (and living in London for four years and visiting frequently thereafter), I’d never actually visited the V&A. We entered the grand atrium and deposited our bags at the cloakroom before getting distracted by the Museum’s #Bottishellfie competition in honour of their Botticelli Reimagined exhibition…
Photos done (thanks, Rosa), we decided on how to spend the next couple of hours before we had to leave to catch our train home. For me the Strand exhibition was a little expensive so we parted ways: Rosa to the special exhibition, and me clutching a map and staring wide-eyed at the hallways and collections ahead of me.
A little unsure where to begin, I wandered down the airy corridor to the fashion room. Since my visit to the Shaping the Body exhibition at York Castle Museum I’ve become particularly interested in how and more specifically why fashion has developed over the years, and the impact those developments have had on individual body image and mental wellbeing and our society more generally. Seeing more examples of garments from across time was fascinating, but it wasn’t long before I wanted to move on. As I exited the fashion auditorium something caught my eye in a large room opposite, so I made my way across.
The great hall I’d found myself in was the home of the Raphael Cartoons. These stunning works were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X and originally served as designs for a set of tapestries to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. The ten designs aimed to help guide the weavers of those tapestries, which were to depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul.
According to the V&A’s website, the individual scenes were most likely planned by Leo X with advice from Vatican theologians and Raphael himself and held the aim of emphasising the Roman Catholic Church’s superiority. The Cartoons were completed just over a year after receiving the commission, in part due to the help of Raphael’s assistants, and the designs sent to Brussels to be weaved at the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in 1517. The entire commission cost Leo X more than five times the amount paid to Michelangelo for his Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The Cartoons were cut into strips a yard wide; these strips were then distributed between the weavers to be used as a guide for the weaving. The woven strips were then themselves woven together to complete the final tapestry, in which the design was reversed. Over time, the Cartoons were handed around weaving workshops as numerous monarchs commissioned their own tapestries from them.
Eventually seven of the ten Cartoons were purchased in 1623 by King Charles I, and these have since remained in Britain. After his death they were kept at Whitehall until after the Restoration and were reassembled under the reign of William III, who displayed them in frames designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Extremely fragile, the joins where the strips were placed together are visible in x-rays, but the level of detail and subtlety remains extraordinarily high, a feature unusual for typical cartoons. Over the 18th and 19th centuries the Cartoons became appreciated as exceptional works of art in their own right. In 1865, Queen Victoria sent them on loan to the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A.
They are absolutely stunning pieces of work and I was amazed to stumble upon them so suddenly. Their hall is high-ceilinged but kept dark, presumably to help the preservation of the pieces, though the far end is naturally lit and houses the magnificent Altarpiece of St John. It’s difficult to know whether to look up close at the individual details or step as far back as possible to try and drink in the whole scenes.
From the Raphael Cartoon gallery I wasn’t entirely sure where to go next, so wandered up the stairs and took a look around through some of the British galleries. I’d initially planned to look at the Victorian collections but was distracted by a statue of Handel and found myself wandering the 17th and 18th century galleries instead, and then across the balcony between the two Cast Courts.
I’d not heard of the Cast Courts so they took me completely by surprise. These purpose-built double-light halls are naturally lit and house an enormous collection of casts of post-classical European sculpture: Northern European and Spanish items in the east west court, and Italian in the east. During the mid-to-late-nineteenth century very few people could afford to travel abroad, so plaster cast reproductions of sculptures like the ones in the Courts were created to allow visitors to view and study famous monuments.
Given that many of the originals from which the casts were made have now been lost, collections like those in the Cast Courts are now incredibly important in their own right. They also serve as a depiction of high-Victorian artistic taste. According to the Museum’s website, the Courts are the only public galleries in the V&A which display the same collection of objects as they did when they were first opened. They were carefully restored in 2014, a project which also provided a fantastic research opportunity into the techniques of producing the casts themselves.
From the Cast Courts I headed downstairs and found myself in the first gallery from the tunnel entrance, full of European sculpture; I’d happily stumbled upon the work of one of my favourite sculptors, Auguste Rodin. Rodin’s main focus was the human body and he is generally considered as the first ‘modern’ sculptor.
His first major piece was at first untitled but then given the name The Age of Bronze, depicting a life-size nude male. In Paris Rodin was accused of producing the work from a life-cast of a sitting model; he proved critics otherwise by creating sculptures of similar astounding quality which were larger than life-size, but the comments themselves are also argued to have worked in his favour as so many people wished to see the brilliant sculpture for themselves.
In July 1914 a major exhibition of modern French art was held at Grosvenor House in London. Alongside artists including Monet, Degas, van Gogh and Cézanne was Rodin, the only sculptor. He presented a terracotta piece, a marble work, and sixteen bronzes. Two weeks later, the First World War broke out and the sculptures were left stranded in London. They were initially housed by Rodin’s friend and fellow sculptor John Tweed, but after being viewed by Eric Maclagan, the man in charge of Architecture and Sculpture at the V&A, it was agreed by Cecil Smith, the Museum’s Director, that they could be housed there until they could be safely returned to Paris – despite Smith’s less-than-enthusiastic approach to Rodin’s work.
From his writing it’s very clear that Rodin was deeply affected by the losses and damage which occurred during the War, but he was thrilled by the presentation of his eighteen pieces at the V&A. He was so moved by the display and by the acts of comradeship between the British and French armies on the battlefield that he came to a monumental decision: although he had announced that the works would be gifted to France as a culmination of his life’s work, he instead decided to give all eighteen works to the Museum instead. This decision also served to strengthen the ties between the French and British nations. A plaque now resides on the wall of the gallery stating:
GAVE THESE SCULPTURES
TO THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM
IN HONOUR OF THE BRITISH
SOLDIERS FIGHTING BESIDE
HIS COUNTRYMEN IN FRANCE
My favourite Rodin sculpture isn’t actually in the V&A; instead you can find a cast in the Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Houses of Parliament. It’s called The Burghers of Calais and depicts a moment during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. During the Siege of Calais England’s Edward III offered to spare the city’s people if six of its principal citizens left the city with nooses around their necks and the keys to the city and its castle. Six of the town’s wealthiest leaders volunteered, and Rodin’s sculpture presents their walk to the city gates.
The burghers were then ordered to be beheaded but were spared by the intervention of the English queen, but Rodin’s extraordinary piece shows the men in a conflicting state of despair and victory. In London it is displayed on a plinth but Rodin preferred the barefooted and larger-than-life men to be placed on the same ground as their viewers. The sculpture, with its extraordinarily detailed hands and feet, changes at every angle.
Rosa texted to let me know she was finished and ready to leave, so we met up in the beautiful atrium. My two-hour meander had taken me all over the Museum with no particular plan or direction, and I can’t wait to go back and explore more. It always astonishes me that in London we have access to collections like these, and those at the National Gallery, Natural History Museum, British Museum and so many more, all for free. It’s so important that these incredible galleries and museums remain open and accessible to all: in times like these we need art and access to our own history more than ever.
summer days, summer nights is a temporary series documenting my summertime adventures and exploring areas of East Anglia, London and Cornwall in the process.
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