• Kath London Culture Tours

Top 10 Highlights of the V&A!

Have you visited the Victoria and Albert Museum post-lockdown?

It’s one of my absolute favourite museums to give tours in, and one of the most eclectic museums in London which truly has something for everyone, with galleries on theatre, tapestry, Buddhism, medieval and renaissance, British history, China, Japan, Korea, the Islamic world, the list goes on.

The museum was Prince Alberts personal project. After the success of the great exhibition, held just up the road in Hyde Park, Albert used the money to fund the founding of a museum dedicated to science and the arts, as he believed the two to be connected. The science part has long since separated into the Science Museum over the road, and the V&A has expanded to take in a number of other collections, including the old East India Company's, and the old Covent Garden Theatre and Performance Museum's, leading to its eclectic nature today.

Not all the galleries are open yet, but many are, and here are the highlights that are on display, to help you get the most out of your visit!

(Images of objects © Victoria and Albert Museum)

1. Neptune and Triton - Gian Lorenzo Bernini - 1622

(Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 1)

The first piece you’ll come to once you enter the museum and take the first set of steps on your right, down into the Europe galleries, is this amazing piece by Bernini. Bernini is credited with the beginning of the Baroque, a movement towards more emotive pieces, something which can be seen in this sculpture, the only large-scale sculpture of his to have left Italy. It’s believed to be based on a scene from the Ovid’s Metamorphosis and shows Neptune striking his trident into the ground to bring forth the floods, and by him his son Triton blowing his conch shell to call back the flood waters.

Originally this statue would have been on top of a fountain, and you can imagine the water swirling around the pair. As you walk around the sculpture you see the twisting and turning of the figures and the energy which characterises the baroque.

2. Samson Slaying a Philistine - Giambologna - 1562

(Medieval & Renaissance, Rooms 50a – 50b)

Another statue it is worth thinking of this piece in context with Bernini’s Neptune and Triton. Giambologna is less well known than Bernini but is often seen as standing just before him in the development of sculpture in Italy. This piece is again to be seen from all angles, and you can walk around the twisting figures and admire Giambologna’s skill in balancing so much stone on just a few small contact points with the earth, and in carving out all the empty space between the figures. Here Samson is slaying a philistine, and the story is that he slew 1000 with the jaw bone of an ass, if you look in Samson’s raised hand you see the jaw bone. Giambologna was actually Flemish, having travelled to Florence to study sculpture, the Medici family kept him so busy with commissioned he never left. This is the only large-scale sculpture of his to ever have left Italy.

3. Cast Courts

Rooms 46 – 46b

In Victorian times when we couldn’t just hope on a plane to visit the works of art and architecture, someone had the genius idea of bringing them to us! Opened in 1873 the cast courts represent an amazing collection of medieval and renaissance replicas, initially the aim was for students to study from them, in recent times they have been used to enable restoration of damaged originals! Marvel at Michelangelo’s David, Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, and the huge Trajan’s column, mounted on an industrial chimney!

4. Imperial Throne - 1780

(China, Room 44)

This Lacquer chair was probably part of the Tuanhe Travelling Palace, a temporary palace of the Qing imperial court. Its red colour comes from cinnabar used to dye the lacquer. If you take a close look you can see lots of symbolism in the design – bats for fortune and longevity, fish for wealth, lotus for purity, clouds for immortality, and the five clawed dragons representing the emperor. There are also images of vassals delivering tribute to the court. You have to imagine this piece with its accompanying screen, and side tables, which it almost certainly would have originally had wen in situ in the palace.

5. Ardabil Carpet - 1539-40

(Islamic Middle East, Room 42)

One of the most important piece in the whole V&A, this carpet is the oldest dated in the world. If you walk to one end you can see the inscription in Arabic giving the date in the Muslim calendar. It’s also pretty stunning, decorated with an intricate ‘garden of paradise’ design. It was originally commissioned by the court to redecorate the shrine which had become a place of pilgrimage. As you walk around it check out the medallion design and the two hanging lamps embroidered at opposite ends. You’ll notice one lamp is much larger than the other, and it’s still a mystery why, was this a very early understanding of perspective in art? Or is this a way of working imperfection into the piece, as it was made by human hands and not gods? The jury is still out…

6. Netsuke and Inro Collection

(Japan, Room 45)

I love Inro and Netsuke! And the V&A has a great selection. These objects were used when wearing a kimono in Japan, Inro are small containers which would be attached to a string with a netsuke at the other end and then hung through the waist sash of your kimono and act like pockets. They became a real fashion item and a way to show off your personality in the 18th and 19th century. My favourite is the collection of twelve based on the months of the year (the image has six of them), including Lantern’s representing a festival, mulberry leaves for the silk season, gourds for the sake making season. Have a look around to find your favourite!

7. Auguste Rodin's (1840–1917) gift to the V&A

(Sculpture, Room 21)

Rodin’s gift to the V&A of 18 sculptures has to be one of the most significant gifts ever given by an artist to a gallery, at least in their lifetime. Rodin’s pieces had been in Britain in an exhibition when the First World War broke out. With no way to return them to France they were being stored in the studio of a fellow sculpture when he convinced Rodin to consider lending them to the V&A. After being wined and dined in the museum café (apparently, he quite liked the English beer!), he agreed to loan them to the museum. The director of the V&A was careful to include a clause that they took no responsibility for the sculptures if destroyed in any bombing! Luckily, they survived, and after the war Rodin decided to gift them to the V&A in honour of the British soldiers who fought alongside the French. I’ll let you choose your favourite..

8. Tippoo's Tiger - 1780's

(South Asia, Room 41)

“It is far better to live like a tiger for a day than to live like a jackal for a hundred years” so said Tipu Sultan of Mysore and commissioner of this interesting mechanical organ. A panel on the side conceals the organs keys, and turning the handle causes the soldier being mauled by the lion to emit a groaning noise. Tipu had every reason not to be keen on the European soldiers threatening his Sultanate, eventually he was defeated, and his palace looted, this piece amongst the spoils brought back by the East India Company where it found a place in their museum before coming to the V&A.

9. Royal Belt and Pendant Brooch Late 1890's

(South East Asia, Rooms 47a – 47)

This piece isn’t actually owned by the V&A, it’s technically on loan from the Thai Royal family, but it’s been here quite a while! It is an amazingly intricate gold and diamond belt made for Queen Saowabha Pongsri, wife of Chulalongkorn of Thailand (Rama V of the Chakri Dynasty) and worn by her grandson’s wife at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. It’s stunning and very modern design for the late 1800’s. Look carefully at the belt and you can see how the interlaced gold parts enable it to move and be shaped around the waist. Let’s hope they don’t ask for it back anytime soon!

10. Devonshire Hunting Tapestries - 1430-1450

(Tapestries Room 94)

This collection of four large-scale tapestries once graced the walls of Hardwick Hall, a Tudor period mansion of the Dukes of Devonshire, built by Countess of Shrewsbury, known as 'Bess of Hardwick'. Designed to transport the viewer to aristocratic France, hunting scenes were popular for tapestries to decorate the house.

As well as cheering the room these would have been good insulation! Look closely to see details of small vignettes of lords and ladies flirting, and a bare-footed shepherdess. Rare to survive together and in such good condition, these four tapestries were not originally made together and small changes in style can be seen between their designs.

Don’t forget to visit the beautiful Italian style courtyard whilst you are there, a highlight in itself!

Here you can see the original entrance to the museum when it was first built in 1857, where you’ll see the great exhibition itself represented along with all the countries who were in attendance.

Have you visited? Do you have a highlight to share? Let me know in the comments below!

Coming to London? Contact me for tailored private tours.

Happy travels!

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