The Victoria and Albert museum in London is without doubt one of the greatest museums in the world. The original vision was to collect and display the best of contemporary Victorian art and design. Fortunately for us this idea was soon overturned by one of the early directors who decided that the museum should also collect the best artistic objects from history. The museum continues to collect contemporary items; some of its most recent additions being a woman’s 1980’s suit by a designer of haute couture.
Our recent visit was focused only on one of the museum’s greatest collections housed in the newly refurbished Medieval and Renaissance galleries. This multi-million pound refurbishment seeks to present the V&A’s wonderful treasures from this period (roughly AD 300-1600) in renovated galleries covering a huge area near the museum entrance. Whilst one can be critical, the curator has endeavoured to create a journey through this much misunderstood period, revealing it in the best possible light.
The displays range from small, carefully lit galleries containing items from the imperial Roman and Byzantine periods to vast airy halls which include complete Renaissance chapels. You can also find what some say is the greatest collection of Renaissance sculpture outside of Italy including Giambologna’s fantastic statue of Sampson Slaying a Philistine.
Our main interest was on items from, and associated or contemporary with, Byzantium. Given the longevity of the Empire, this spans almost all of the galleries in one way or another, culminating with Gentile Bellini’s portrait of Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople. We were able to see fragments of Byzantine silks, intricately carved ivory triptychs and caskets , a medallion issued to accompany John VIII’s attendance at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, and of course that Bellini which marked the formal end of the Empire.You are permitted to take photographs.
A visit to the complete gallery collection will take up a whole afternoon. Even then one feels that further visits will be needed to view items that have been missed, and to see again the things that one finds most interesting. The Luck of Edenhall is fascinating. It is a luxury drinking glass decorated with painted enamels and gilding, made in Syria in the 13th century. Its early history is untraced, but it may have been brought home by a crusader returning from the Holy Land back to Europe where such a rarity would have been considered the highest form of exotic luxury. It includes its original leather case.
The galleries are by no means perfect; in some areas the lighting is poor, and there are sections where the layout is somewhat cluttered. To a certain extent these problems are due to the physical structure of the building, others are due to a lack of thought. One of my biggest criticisms would be that there is no decent guide book or catalogue which has to be a missed commercial opportunity for the museum at the very least.
The V&A is an essential element on the itinerary of any visitor to London. It is a huge museum and its treasures can never be properly seen in one visit. The same can be said of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries. However, for those who have a passion about Byzantium it has to be on your list of things to see when in London. Giving two to four hours of your time to view the Byzantine treasures will be well worth your while, and they do serve a wide choice of good food in the restaurant.
For an alternative view read the wonderfully ascebic Brian Sewells’ account of his visit. He shows no mercy for a display that he describes as asking “no intelligent questions, answers none, is not encyclopaedic even in the most rudimentary sense, and omits more exhibits than it illustrates.” … I say you should still go!