Visiting London for a few days to see family, I made time to go see the fantastic Victoria and Albert Museum. I had visited it a few times before, but always with limited time to go see some special exhibition. Now I wanted to see the permanent collections of global and historical design, arts and fashion. And it was glorious! You could spend a whole day at the V&A, exploring the galleries, and I only covered a small part of it.
It’s such a large museum, with 4.5 million objects (!), so it’s best to choose a special era or perhaps art form to focus on, such as ceramics or glass. I mainly focused on 18th and 19th century Britain, but had time for a quick visit to the Japan exhibition as well, due to my recent travels there.
The building is impressive, with grand staircases, arched doorways and more marble than you have ever seen. It’s a bit of a maze, though, and finding staircases, elevators and toilets proved near impossible. No matter, there’s something wonderful to see at every turn.
There’s too much to describe it all, so I will focus on a few things that made the biggest impression on me. The building and especially the ceramic staircase was magnificent. It was designed in Italian Renaissance style, and features glorious round ceiling paintings. The other major staircase was angular, with wide marble stairs, decorated on one side by portraits of important men, including Holbein who I recognized immediately by the painting of Henry VIII that he was holding. As a self-admitted lover of archways and doors, I loved walking around the museum and seeing glimpses of the following rooms through the varied openings.
The rotunda near the main entrance was fabulous. It had a walkway encircling it two stories above the ground floor from where you could see into a collection of 16th century sculptures, with one very modern tower of tangling limbs that somehow still fitted into the space.
“399 steps” by Rachel Kneebone looked at first glance like a small scale model of the tower of Pisa, all gleaming white marble. But it was made of small panels with wildly kicking legs and .. other body parts. Near the top, which was best seen from the balcony overlooking the space, one panel had delicate marble curtains revealing a round gleaming pearl. It was that that convinced me that it was indeed a modern sculpture when I saw it from above.
As parts of the museum were arranged thematically, you could pick a time period and sort of skim and browse your way across the collections. There were large parts dedicated to British design and arts, though, arranged in historical time blocks, so if you have a favorite period of British history, that’s a good place to start. On the sixth floor there was a large gallery of furniture that covers the full breadth and width of different historical eras, construction and decoration techniques and different cultures which is fantastic. One of my favorite chairs is up in the slide show, a whacky and wonderful Indian chair with six legs.
The Japanese collection was also wonderful. The collection was downstairs and you won’t be surprised to hear that the kimonos were my favorite. But I had already delightedly recognized a streetscape in a 19th painting of historical Edo street I encountered earlier in the museum. Why, it looked just like the preserved streets I had seen in Kanazawa and Kyoto!
There were also collections of little cases, called inro, which were made of two fitting halves that were tied together with a silk cord. These fashionable male purses were tiny, most smaller than the palm of my hand and I couldn’t imagine what they kept in them. The wiki page mentions things like tobacco (my first guess) and writing implements. Alas, I don’t have good photos of them as they were behind glass, but if you are in the V&A, don’t miss them!
Leaving the museum, I used the underground tunnels that lead from the museum to the nearby South Kensington tube station. A welcome passage on a rainy day. London is full of great museums and most have free entry to the general collections, with donations much appreciated. If you have a favorite museum, you can also join as a member, and get free entry to all special exhibitions. Right now the two main special exhibitions are about Pink Lloyd and Balenciaga. I skipped them due to time, but having visited some special exhibitions there before, I’m sure they are well worth the time.