… was preceded by half a morning at the Natural History Museum. I was at the latter on business, but had the great pleasure of admiring Sophie the Stegosaurus, and also of viewing the stunning Audubon birds, which I later discovered on Twitter had just been put on display in the Bird Gallery.
Eschewing the pleasures of the coral reef exhibit and the butterfly house, I crossed Exhibition Road to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and had lunch in the courtyard garden. It’s been a long time since I last visited with time in hand, and for neither business nor a specific exhibition, like the wonderful ‘Constable: The Making of a Master’ last year. So I had a happy mooch round some of the galleries.
I had forgotten how much the building itself is a work of High Victorian art, from the mosaic and tiling of the floors to the elaborate brickwork and ceramics of the central court (with the pediment listing the countries which took part in the Great Exhibition) to the Leighton lunettes, the story of which now forms a little exhibit of its own. (I never knew that Frederic Leighton was elevated to the peerage (the first painter to be thus ennobled) in the New Year’s Honours only a few days before he died in January 1896: because he’s so often referred to as Lord Leighton, I had assumed that he’d been a lord for some years.)
Another Victorian I bumped into was Chauncy Hare Townshend, who I’d previously encountered as an enthusiast for mesmerism and Buonaparte, mate of Dickens and benefactor of the museum at Wisbech in the Fens. The V&A (the South Kensington Museum as it then was) received in his will ‘186 oil paintings and 177 watercolour drawings, 832 volumes, 390 drawings, 1,815 prints, and gems, precious stones, cameos and intaglios’.
In the jewellery gallery there is a spectacular display of Townshend’s ring collection, dozens of them laid out in a spiral arranged by gemstone, and showing the range of shades (and indeed range of colours) displayed by the different minerals. These were presumably some of the collection which travelled with him in his carriage: the ODNB has a splendid quotation from Dickens describing its interior, ‘perforated in every direction with cupboards, containing every description of physic, old brandy, East India sherry, sandwiches, oranges, cordial waters, newspapers, pocket handkerchiefs, shawls, flannels, telescopes, compasses, repeaters … and finger-rings of great value’.
(One also has to say that they were among the most attractive items in the jewellery gallery: most of the other pieces on display seem to me to be monuments to craftsmanship by the makers and to the appallingly bad taste of the purchasers/owners. One could readily imagine such heavy, elaborately set necklaces and tiaras adorning the bosoms and heads of a gathering of nouveau-riche Victorian ladies of the sort Trollope was wont to skewer so exquisitely. I pass over the more modern stuff in discreet silence…) The V&A has Townshend’s portrait, by John Boaden, son of James, the biographer of so many actors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
It also has many ‘household name’ paintings, given or bequeathed during the nineteenth century by collectors hoping to set an example of philanthropic donation: the Sheepshanks Gift, which included works by Turner and Constable (which their owner thought would do better in the airy spaces of Kensington than in the pollution of central London); material from Isobel Constable, the painter’s last surviving daughter; and the collection of the Anglo-Greek Constantine Ionides, who owned Old Masters but was also a friend and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites (and was a relative of Marie Zambaco, Burne-Jones’ mistress) – hence the presence of the truly gruesome Rossetti painting of Jane Morris, called ‘The Day-Dream’, with added Rossetti poem.
I particularly enjoyed the gallery ‘Europe & America 1800-1900’, with a quirky collection of stuff ranging from the Empress Josephine’s ‘Egyptian’ Sèvres china service (commissioned just before her divorce, and based on images from Vivant Denon’s books on Egypt), which is here because Louis XVIII presented it to the duke of Wellington, to the completely grotesque bookcase – ‘a cathedral in wood’ – designed by Bernardo Bernadis and shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 by the Austrian manufacturer Leistler and Co. It was presented (full of books and albums) by the emperor Franz Joseph II to Queen Victoria, and started out in Buckingham Palace; it was later moved to Holyroodhouse, from whence George V (with some relief, one imagines) donated it to the university of Edinburgh, which (ditto) gave it to the V&A.
It was also handy to be reminded here that Salviati, whose name in Venice is synonymous with mosaic work (including that on the Albert Memorial), in fact also produced glass, some surprising, some quite awful, but hugely popular with the British public – and it’s selfishly cheering to think that in a few days’ time I’ll be going past Salviati’s house on the Grand Canal …
But I’ll definitely be back to the V&A, to revisit some things (the medieval German stained glass, for example) and catch up with things I missed (to say nothing of sampling the offerings of the other café). A Grand Afternoon Out!
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