diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 28, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 9: Victoria & Albert Museum

Location: Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL [map]
Open: 10am - 5:45pm (late opening Wednesdays)
Admission: free
5-word summary: a temple to grand designs
Website: www.vam.ac.uk
Time to set aside: at least a day

Vast & Arty
Next time you're in South Kensington, if you're tired of natural history and sick of science, try art and design instead. The Victoria & Albert Museum is Britain's national repository of the decorative arts, a bit like a giant historical bazaar but without the price labels. The building dates back to 1852, built just after the Great Exhibition, and boasts an extensive network of interconnecting galleries on several levels (i.e. it's very easy to get lost). On the ground floor, for example, you can wander at length amongst artefacts from South and East Asia, or pause to ponder Renaissance religious relics, or study statues close up in the refitted long gallery. And that's just for starters.

Varied & Amazing
I was unprepared for the vast scale of the Cast Courts. Given that most of the world's great sculptural masterpieces aren't located in London, the Victorians created life-sized plaster casts of some of the best and dumped them all in two great halls so that Londoners could view them anyway. A fake Michaelangelo's David stands proud in one corner, with a keen crowd of amateur artists sat sketching on stools before him. Elsewhere are Italian monuments, a German cloister, Gaelic stone crosses and medieval tomb effigies. But most dramatic of all is the towering plaster cast of Trajan's Column, copied from the 30m-high Roman original. They've had to chop it in two so that each half fits beneath the skylights, but it's hard not to be impressed by the detailed tableaux carved in a spiral around the circumference.

Visionary & Atmospheric
One large corner of the museum is home to the British Galleries - a history of British interior design and craftsmanship from Tudor times to the end of the 19th century. The displays showcase the development of our nation's aesthetic aspiration, and it's easy to to imagine modern designers coming along for inspiration. Exhibits include original William Morris block-printed wallpaper, the notorious Great Bed of Ware (a Herts hostelry's oversize overnight accommodation) and some splendid Georgian Chippendales. I was particularly taken by the Bromley-by-Bow Room, a complete 1606 wood-panelled interior rescued from the Jacobean mansion which once stood just over the road from my house.

Valuable & Attractive
Elsewhere in the museum the emphasis shifts more towards materials and techniques. Upstairs are two long galleries devoted to silver (think 'Sothebys') and to ironwork (think 'garden centre'). There are semi-deserted rear chambers given over to tapestries (think 'Bayeux-ish') and to textiles (think 'Whitechapel market'). There are shelves packed with glassware (think 'John Lewis') and rooms full of 20th century design classics (think 'car boot sale'). There's even a room full of shiny, gaudy, over-priced, over-styled trinkets and accoutrements (think 'museum shop'), but there's so much else to see you probably won't have time to explore it.

Visit & Admire
by tube: South Kensington  by bus: 14, 74, 414, C1

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