Although the V&A London is not as big as the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia, it is certainly massive – set in a building covering 12.5 acres divided into 145 galleries. To make any visit into a memorable pleasure, your visit needs forethought and focus. It would be impossible to view and understand all of its contents in one day, so it is best to plan your time by learning what is available and tailoring your personal interests to particular themes. Russia’s Hermitage has three million objects, whereas the V&A has 2.27 million objects, so that gives you an idea of its size and scope. The V&A is a truly glorious place full of fascination – a cornucopia treasure house where time passes quickly as you gasp at one amazing exhibit after the other.
The V&A has many superlatives, for example: it is the world’s largest location for viewing the applied arts; it has the largest collection of Renaissance art outside of Italy. Its collections date from 5000 BCE to the present day. It covers the art of Europe, China, Japan, Islam, Korea, the Americas, Asia, and North Africa. Any visit is a feast of delights. It has a restaurant and outside sitting area and because it is so large, it can be tiring, especially for children, if you try to do too much. It is surrounded by other museums, all of which are tempting – for example, the Natural History and Science Museums.
The V&A as it is lovingly called in Britain, was founded in 1852 and Queen Victoria opened it in 1857. It is located on the Cromwell Road, in Kensington and Chelsea. The Admission prices are advertised as free but with a donation of £5.00 or £10.00 if you wish. The planned access slot times available until 3rd April 2022, are from Wednesday to Sunday 10.00 to 17.45 with last entry at 16.45. There are limits to how big any bag or case may be taken in and Covid masks are required at present but check the website when you book.
If you want to just turn up, then that’s fine but if you want to avoid a queue then book here using this link – select your entry date and time from the calendars:
It really is best to book your time in the museum in advance. What would you like to look at the most? Ceramics, textiles, glass, silver, jewellery, furniture, costumes, medieval life, sculpture, prints, drawings, paintings, and photographs – the most comprehensive collection of these aspects for you to choose from, anywhere in the world? Its full title is the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of Art, and Design for Britain. You may photograph the exhibits. The lighting in some rooms is kept low for conservation purposes.
You can walk, as I did, across London from Charing Cross station, which takes about an hour, going past Harrods and Hyde Park, or travel there much more quickly by bus, taxi or by London Underground (South Kensington – 5-minutes’ walk and Gloucester Road – 10-minutes’ walk). There are many locations where you can hire a bicycle. There is a long but well-lit and popular pedestrian tunnel from the Underground terminal to the Albertopolis museum complex, so-called, because of its links to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who was a great supporter of the arts and sciences but died in 1861 aged only forty-two.
When you arrive, you may have to queue unless you have booked a time slot. There are two bookshops that sell literature but also a range of gifts, bags, and clothing. There are plenty of toilets and a good-size café with hot and cold meals and drinks. In the foyer are maps of the layout of the museum and it is best to consult this if you want to find your way to the viewing area of your choice, set out on several floors, with lifts. There are some places to sit down – but not many. There are human guides too – all extremely helpful and knowledgeable. The museum gets busy at holiday times and is packed before Christmas. You may also encounter large school parties being guided around the exhibit areas they are studying at school or college. You will also come across queues waiting for admission to specialist paying exhibitions such as high value jewellery.
I visited the V&A last Christmas 2021, and here are some of the areas and exhibits I found deeply interesting.
First of all I wanted to see the Tournai limestone carved tomb slab of Gundrada de Warenne, the chatelaine of Lewes Castle in Sussex, who died in 1085 (see image). She was the wife of the Norman knight, William de Warenne, one of King William the Conqueror’s main supporters at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. She was also a mother of several children, and she appreciated the arts and promoted good works through the Cluniac Priories that the Warenne’s developed at Southover, Lewes below their castle – and at Castle Acre in Norfolk. These were sister houses to Cluny in Burgundy. Gundrada was from Flanders and a close friend of Matilda of Flanders, the Conqueror’s wife, and Queen of England. The tomb slab was stolen from her grave on the orders of Henry VIII’s chancellor Thomas Cromwell who was arranging the dissolution and destruction of the monasteries (1536-1541) during the initial stages of the English Reformation. The intricately carved and lettered slab was found upside down on the grave of Henry VIII’s treasury cofferer in Isfield Church and repaired and reinstated on Gundrada’s tomb in the 19th century. This copy of the remarkable slab is in the Cast Room where there are beautiful reproductions of the tomb images of a range of kings and queens. I was interested in this because I am writing a book about Gundrada’s life.
Also in the Cast Room is a full copy of the Victory Column of the Roman Emperor Trajan. The original in Rome is thirty-five metres high, so the V&A had to make their copy in two sections. The original column celebrates the Emperor’s victory over the Dacians. They were tribes who moved to Scandinavia and became the Vikings. When you see an image of a Viking longboat with what looks like a dragon’s head prow – that is actually a Dacian Wolf head. The sculptor Apollodorus of Damascus made the first marble column. It took him seven years, from 106 to 113 CE. Then in 1860, the Emperor Napoleon III decided to have an exact copy made and this was done using a method called electrotyping. The metal plates for this were obtained in 1864 by the V&A to make their own copy.
Before I moved to see other parts of the V&A, I was surprised to see that they had, in the Cast Room once more, a full-sized copy of Michelangelo’s David. I had been to Florence and see this ‘in the flesh’ and here it was again, in all its perfection without having to fly to Italy.
The replica was a gift from the Grand Duke of Florence to Queen Victoria in 1857. The figure was originally sculpted by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) from a single faulty block of marble abandoned by two other sculptors – Duccio and Rossellino. Michelangelo was still in his twenties when he made this amazing artwork. For the full story of how the copy was made in Italy and shipped to England – use this link:
I left the Cast Room and moved to the galleries of art the see the works of William Blake, the Pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti – and the landscapes of John Constable.
Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest spire in England (404 feet, 123 metres) and having been to see it reality – and also having undertaken a recent study of all John Constable’s work and his life, I felt privileged to be able to see the painting up close. Here it is, carefully framed by the trees. Bishop Fisher (1748-1825) was a good friend of King George III, and this helped Constable move up in society. It was the bishop who commissioned Constable’s great Cathedral paintings after having met him in 1798. Constable completed two full and final paintings of the cathedral and stayed in Salisbury for several weeks in both 1820 and 1829. The artworks were developed from pencil sketches, looking at perspective and direction of view. Bishop Fisher officiated at the marriage of Constable and Maria Bicknell in October 1816 and their friendship developed even further from that occasion. Constable (1776-1837) finished painting the cathedral artwork (see image) – full title Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, in 1823). It took Constable three years to paint it in oils on canvas (87.6x111.8 cms). Constable painted in a dark cloud at first and the bishop asked him to remove it, which he did.
Constable sketched the cathedral again in 1829 but the sketch was only found in 1982. Some notes by his friend Fisher show that the second great painting was to be called ‘Church under a Cloud’ - a joke given the correction of the first great painting - but as we now know, the second wonderfully dramatic painting of the cathedral, arced by a rainbow, was eventually called Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831). In addition to the pencil sketch he made three oil sketches and then began the final work which took him two years to complete.
I moved then to my last viewing – this time in the Whiteley Silver Collection.
The Whiteley Collection has several rooms with a total of 1,500 piece of silver in a remarkable display. Here we can see the fine detail of a saint’s funerary casket with real silver figures carved and embossed using chasing and repoussé techniques (see image).
Thankfully, our Dacians who became Vikings have calmed a great deal, into a sophisticated European society with a King rather than a sword-bearing eye-patched Allfather – and so I left the V&A after viewing the Three Lions (see image). These fine silvery figures are electroplated copies of the Three Lions of Denmark. These sit by the throne of the King of Denmark, Frederick III (1609-1670). Silversmith Ferdinand Kyblich made them, between the years 1665-1670. The original Three Lions sit calmly in throne room of Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen.
Did I enjoy my visit? Greatly! Were there any amusing incidents? Well I can tell you that it was a great relief to me that I was not curated out of the Museum by my ear for eating the sandwiches I had brought in my backpack lunchbox! Here is the great courtyard – a fine place to sit if it is not raining (see image at top).
Please do try and visit the V&A – exhausting but wonderful – education and delight in one great package.
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David EP Dennis BA(Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF is a writer of heritage conservation guides and books about the history of England. He also writes academic papers covering the medieval period, and newspaper features for Hastings Independent Press.