The variety of exhibits is astounding. Where else is it possible to view samurai swords, Renaissance sculpture, one of Mick Jagger's stage outfits and a hurdy-gurdy all under one roof? And remarkably it is all interesting. Even the things that sounded hugely dull to me before I visited turned out to be fascinating. For example, a gallery dedicated to ironwork that I expected to walk straight through ended up containing extremely intricate locks with their mechanisms completely visible as well as imposing gates and a rose with petals so delicate they almost looked real.
My most recent visit was this Saturday, and as usual I covered a considerable amount of new territory. Here are some of the objects that I regarded as highlights:
My favourite sculpture in the whole of the museum, this grand piece has recently been moved near the entrance to give it the prominence it deserves. One of the very few works by Giambologna to have left Italy, it was based on an idea of Michelangelo and was his first major commission. It depicts the Old Testament Judge Samson slaying a Philistine with an ass’s jawbone; a common subject but one rarely executed with such skill.
Despite having spent more than three hundred years outside, the marble is still incredibly detailed and we can see clearly the lean muscle of the men, the intricate folding of the cloth and the texture of their hair. Unlike many sculptures this was designed to be viewed from any angle; it does not have a 'front' and so the viewer has to walk all around to appreciate it fully. The cold stone may be immobile but this does not prevent it from having a real sense of movement, of violence and of urgency. The men's faces also tell a tale: the features of the Philistine convey real panic, whereas Samson shows only cool dispassion.
The work of Francis Danby belongs to the school of Romanticism with its towering hills, dazzling sunsets and epic vistas. 'Romantic' scarcely seems like an appropriate word to describe this painting, however. At first it appears simply to be a view of a clearing surrounded by steep-sided mountains; dark, yes, and certainly grand, but nothing too unsettling. A step closer, and everything changes. The man in the foreground who from a distance could be thought simply to be leaning over is revealed to be turning away in disgust and fear, patterns on rocks are resolved into skeletons, all suddenly reeks of death and decay.
The inspiration for this painting came from a poem by Erasmus Darwin, who wrote the following notes:
'There is a poison-tree in the island of Java, which is said by its effluvia to have depopulated the country for twelve or fourteen miles...condemned criminals are sent to the tree...and are pardoned if they bring back a certain quantity of the poison.'
A grim subject indeed. The painting is not without a ray of hope, however. Far away in the distance are the snow-covered peaks of less doom-filled mountains and the stars are still twinkling in the blue-black sky.
The Victoria and Albert Museum contains a great many shiny things, and the highest concentration of these is found in the jewellery section. 'Dazzling' is the only word that can adequately describe this gallery, surely a criminal's dream with so many diamonds and precious gems all lined up together. I personally am not a great jewellery fan and so found many of the items hideous, but it was nonetheless impossible not to admire the skill of the craftsmen who had created such things.
One case in particular stood out to me, being as it was an oasis of light relief in the midst of all that sparkling. There were no jewels to be found here; instead all the pieces were fashioned out of cast iron, giving them a delightfully Tim Burton-esque feel. The comb above is a prime example. Its dark, Gothic decoration makes it seem suited to the graveyard, and yet such items were only worn by women in the very upper echelons of Society. The style is known as 'Berlin iron' and was not widely popular outside Germany. Unfortunately most examples have now rusted away.
The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella by Denis van Alsloot, 1615.
This remarkable oil painting, which shows a grand circus-like procession, is one of the first exhibits to be seen in the Theatre gallery. The above scene is only a tiny portion of the painting, which in turn depicts only one sixth of the entire parade. The whole event, bizarrely held to celebrate the moving of an image of the Virgin Mary across Brussels a long time earlier, must have been truly spectacular!
The style of painting is not the most accomplished and is rather cartoony, but given the subject matter this seems appropriate. Most impressive is the sheer amount of detail that has been crammed in. We can see each individual performer, each crowd member (some of whom appear to be engaged in scuffles), each horse and rider, each banner. It is a scene full of energy, full of excitement, full of spectacle, and as such is a perfect introduction to all the aspects of theatre that are explored later in the gallery.
I will never tire of the cast rooms in the Victoria and Albert Museum, they are quite frankly amazing. Unfortunately one is undergoing work at the moment, but the other is fully available to wander around and gape at. The idea behind them is this:
In most cases if the British wanted something archaeological or cultural from a different country they just took it (see the British Museum for extensive examples of this). However, in some countries, such as most of Europe, this sort of stealing wasn't an option, and so instead plaster casts were taken. These plaster replicas allowed students of architecture, for example, to learn and be inspired by all sorts of objects without having to actually go abroad to see them. Lots of these casts now have ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum, collected together in these huge rooms. Tombs, archways, Tabernacles, pulpits, statues and (most impressively) the enormous Trajan’s column, are all sat there right next to each other. It is completely bonkers. Go and see it.
Once you have got over the sheer wow-factor of the room it is possible to take in and appreciate some of the detail. When looked at closely, the Tomb of St Sebaldus shown above is hard to beat. Little creatures and people are everywhere, playing instruments, arguing with each other, looking bored, looking menacing. No surface is left undecorated, even those too far into the centre to eyeball closely. St Sebaldus himself is something of a mystery. No one seems to really know when he lived or what he actually did; he might have been a hermit and was probably a missionary, but as for anything else, who knows? Regardless of whether it was deserved or not, there's no denying he got a cracking tomb. My favourite thing about it? It's supported by snails!
All pictures are from the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum.