Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The V&A

I find the V&A entrancing and infuriating in almost equal measure. I’ve been visiting it for the best part of twenty years yet its layout is still a total mystery to me. There was a whole run of rooms devoted to furniture that I saw in 1995 and have never found again, also a staircase with a scale model of (I think) Ranelagh Gardens at the top – it was a big model so I wonder what happened to it. I know I didn’t imagine these things because I was with twenty other History of Art students at the time – we had quite a lecture on the garden model.

It’s maddening but it’s also part of what makes the V&A so magical – rather like Hogwarts perhaps. The cast court is pretty amazing as well – some of the casts are just mind bogglingly huge, it was a real pleasure to be able to introduce the Scottish one to it; like discovering it for the first time all over again. At this point I have to say if you don’t know the V&A or haven’t bothered with the cast court then do check it out – it’s amazing (as I’m sure Rachel from Book Snob will confirm if she reads this), although to be fair the whole place is just the most amazing collection of stuff ever – truly one of the world’s great museums.

The reason for being at the V&A was for the ‘Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill’ exhibition (6th march to 4th July). I’ve wanted to visit actual Strawberry Hill ever since the same professor who guided us around the V&A lectured on it, my ambition should finally be realised this autumn when it re-opens. In preparation I mean to read ‘The Castle of Otranto’. I was going to read it before the exhibition only to discover that I’ve never acquired a copy, a situation now fixed (I’m pleased and a little impressed to report that the V&A bookshop stocks the Oxford World Classics edition of ‘The Castle of Otranto’ which happens to be the cheapest...)

I will admit that it’s the sort of book that I read, if not actually out of a sense of duty, at least partly as a box ticking exercise in an attempt to get as complete a picture as possible of whatever is currently interesting me. Having seen the exhibition I’m keener to read it for itself. Horace Walpole is a fascinating character; if I was having the fantasy dinner party he would certainly be on the guest list (I wonder what he would make of Vita Sackville-West who would also be at the table.) and he pops up in the most unexpected places; for example first encountered by me in Georgette Heyer, which isn’t so unexpected given her level of research, but still seems a little unlikely. I wonder also what Walpole would have made of that – his portrait, at least the Reynolds versions, show a shy looking man, which he seems to have been. On the other hand he loved to show off his ‘little gothic castle’ so maybe he would have enjoyed his guest appearances in historical romances, and he would have been delighted to know how much admired Strawberry Hill still is, and that it's still a source of inspiration to artists like the wonderful Claire Dalby (who's woodcut has pride of place on my wall).


  1. Sounds wonderful... I am in London next week and will go take a look. Your fantasy dinner party sounds great too...

    thanks for sharing


  2. The V&A = tardis. I have worked here for well over a year and still come across galleries I never knew existed on my travels. The Furniture Galleries are closed which is why you've never found them again - they're being refurbished and should be open again next year I think. No idea about the Ranelagh Gardens model - I'll have a look for you! So glad you enjoyed the exhibition and the Cast Courts. My personal favourite gallery is the top of the British Galleries where the 19th century stuff is - amazing William Morris collection! I also love the Leighton Galleries which is where the paintings are. Many more big changes are planned in the next 5 or so years - Fashion and Textiles especially are going to have a massive overhaul which I can't wait for.

  3. I can beat Rachel on this one - I have worked at the V&A for over 2 years and am still finding new pockets. There are so many wonderful galleries - I love the Jewellery gallery and the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries.
    Perhaps Rachel and I should do a tour for book bloggers!

  4. I think a bookish tour round the V&A would be a terribly good idea. It really is my favorite museum anywhere. I love all the reliquaries too, and I did once see a chess set there that corrasponded exactly to the chess set that Peter Wimsey gives Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night. Only ever managed to find that once as well. I do envy you for working there.

  5. I know that model of Ranaleigh Gardens! I remember discovering it one day when my feet were so tired, I had to sit for a few minutes, and there it was! I must have studied it for 20 minutes or so, until it came alive for me.

  6. The V&A is my favourite museum and this is precisely why. You can never find what you remembered seeing the last time as it seems to have disappeared. Hogwarts is a good description for it but I also feel that the advice in Alice in Wonderland comes in handy when you are looking for something - just walk in the opposite direction for where you want to go and you will end up there!

  7. Elaine, you are spot on, and I'll try that next time. We had some interesting debates about map reading when we were trying to find our way out. I wanted to navigate by instinct (and a series of marble bottoms which looked familier) my other half was convinced that reason and logic would get us out. Bottoms won.