Highlights from the V&A Museum, British Galleries

Exterior of the V&A in the afternoon sun

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London is a triumph of Royal patronage, government foresight and public sponsorship spanning back to it’s inception after the Great Exhibition of 1851.  We recommend the V&A for its scale, privacy (in many galleries), great restaurants and the exhibits.

The Great Exhibition (in London’s Hyde Park) was such a roaring success that it left significant funds to purchase land, provide a permanent home to some of the exhibits and to gather a new collection of items – all celebrating science and arts.  The government of the day was up for it too – the museum would kick start the economy and promote a social policy of ‘education, science and art for everyone’!  Prince Albert and Henry Cole were prime overs in getting the museum going in 1852. There are three phases of architecture of the building, finally completing in 1909.  The whole area is packed with ‘Prince Albert’ inspired museums today (along Exhibition Road) – so much so, that in the late 1800’s the area was nicknamed ‘Albertropolis’. 

Today, the V&A is one of the world’s greatest collections of art and industry, covering 5000 years of history.  There are 2.5 million items in the collection – wear good shows if you intend to see it all as there is over 7 miles of display space.

Here is a taster of your arrival, and a few highlights from the British Galleries.

Stop 1: in the Rotunda in the Grand Entrance hangs a 1 tonne glass sculpture.  Created by the American artist Dale Chihuly in 2001, it contains 1300 hand blown pieces of glass.  Influenced by Murano glass, it was the largest glass sculpture in world when built.  Each piece of glass is coated inside with polyurethane adhesive (to prevent it shattering) and is tied on individually with stainless steel wire.  It took six people 5 days to assemble in situ.

Stop 2: The Bed of Ware.  One of the world’s oldest – and certainly largest – beds was made in the late 1500’s as a tourist attraction!  Not only to see, but to sleep in alongside other travellers.  It was quite a sensation – we can’t think why?  Shakespeare knew of this bed – and featured it in his play ‘12th night’.

Stop 3: The Drake Jewel.  This was a gift by Queen Elisabeth I to Sir Francis Drake, recognising his role of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  Made of pearl (the Queen’s favourite stone) and Onyx.  The Spanish Armada sailed from La Coruña in August 1588, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England – and so freeing the people of England from whom they regarded the evil Queen Elisabeth I.

Stop 4: Lord Melville bed.  With silk from China and velvet from Genoa this is a bed fit for a king.  And indeed that was it’s purpose.  Back in Tudor and Stuart times, every aristocratic seat (c.200) had to have a bed ready for the king – in case he popped in to visit. This one was made by French protestant Huguenots.  It’s short in length – but that’s because you should lie inclined and not flat out – as this would appear you had died!  (In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and in doing so, drove around c.300,000 Huguenots, among its best craftsmen, abroad).  More than a third of British land is still in the hands of aristocrats and the traditional landed gentry.

Stop 5: the Norfolk Music room.  Back in 1750, what did young wealthy ‘men and woman about town’ do to entertain themselves?  They embraced the new idea of a music room.  This is the original music room from the London home of the Duke & Duchess of Norfolk – meticulously reassembled from it original location at 63 St. James’s Square).   The Howard family (spot the large H initial on the side wall) were Catholics and therefore barred from the traditional occupation of aristocrats – politics.  Unable to be in power, they concentrated all their energy on art, using connections in France and Italy to acquire a fine collection.  The room was designed by G. Battista Borra, an architect from Turin – and situated on the first floor of Norfolk House; the ‘piano noble’.  Every year the Duke and Duchess would spend November to May in London socialising before returning to their country seat, Arundel Castle, for a season of hunting and fishing.

That’s just a few highlights from the British Galleries at the V&A.  Enjoy your visit.

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