The Victoria and Albert Museum is England’s attic. This national museum of art and design has the task of encompassing everything that has been designed and made in the UK, going back to ancient times. The V&A does a fabulous job with this impossible task. For some people the collections may be too crowded and overwhelming. For those interested in the encyclopedic view of all things British, it’s a marvel.
There are all kinds of things here, from the national collection of iron work (yes, that is a thing), all the varieties of pottery and glass a mudlark might find on the shore, the Georgian silver tea sets for which England is famous, and millions of other things. We knew we couldn’t see more than a small slice of the museum in a single visit, so we chose pottery and glass, two categories of objects that we have found on our mudlarking trips. The objects are impressive. Among the blue on white ceramics was a plate about 30 inches in diameter (L above). The other object that surprised me was a decorated ceramic wig stand (R above). Imagine finding a small piece of this and trying to work out what it was!
I found out a bit more about the pieces we’ve collected, and admired the whole examples. For example, every mudlark wants to find a face from the neck of a Bartmann jug like the one below (L). Either of the whole slipware plates (below center) is much more extravagantly decorated than the tiny pieces I found, though they are related. The person depicted (center L) appears to be an ancestor of Homer Simpson.
Many collections at the museum are now in “visible storage”, a response to criticism that museums display less than 1% of their holdings. Floor to ceiling glass cabinets hold hundreds of plates, cups, teapots, platters, and other things. The finest examples in each category are displayed and labeled, while the remainder have an index number that can be looked up in a notebook at the end of each hall. It’s also possible to make an appointment to visit and see an object first hand, though I imagine the museum asks you to have a reason for doing so. The opportunity for close scrutiny is there, and I took advantage of the many examples of 18th century pottery to reconsider some of my finds. For example, pieces of stoneware that I believe to be German, may well have been made in England. I realized that my finds aren’t large enough to determine place of origin.
Walking on hard museum floors is very tiring and it felt like miles before we decided to stop at the cafe. We stepped into the adjacent room to sit down and I was amazed by the elaborate decoration. It was a wonderful, magical cafe space under a dome decorated with sculpture, tile work, painting, and stained glass. I cannot remember when I’ve had a snack in such an ornate place. It added a lot to my carrot cake and fizzy drink.
In addition to all the exhibits we looked at, there were exhibits for different audiences: Beatrix Potter illustrations (children), African fashion (young people, fashion followers?), and Korean contemporary life (the K-pop/anime generation?). The museum currently makes an effort to focus on something other than upper crust memorabilia–though I admit it, I love the teapots. The exhibit at the V&A had a lot in common with the sales display at Fortnum and Mason (table of tea ware at F & M).
On our way in and out, we passed a few pieces that hint at the huge range of the Victoria and Albert, a sculpture of The Three Graces by Canova, one of the world’s great sculptors, and hanging from the ceiling in the entry, a massive multi-story chandelier by Chihuly, the king of blown glass. There’s truly something for everyone, or for many visits.