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February 2016

Vol. 158 / No. 1355

The new Europe 1600–1815 Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum



IN RECENT YEARS the Victoria and Albert Museum has experienced a Renaissance. Since its nadir in the early 1990s, the Museum has recovered its confidence and sparkle, manifest not only in its successful temporary exhibitions but also, more fundamentally, in its new permanent galleries, of which those devoted to Europe 1600–1815 opened before Christmas.


Polished displays like these are the outcome of years of teamwork. Those who only see the end result tend to forget the time and effort spent on working out the conceptual framework, undertaking research, planning, fundraising, contract letting, project management, conservation and display, all involving innumerable meetings and countless decisions. But key to attaining morale-boosting momentum and regaining control over the Museum’s sprawling 12.5-acre estate was the adoption in 2002 of a master plan, ‘branded’ the V&A FuturePlan. This phased long-term redevelopment programme, distilled by the design company Metaphor from two years’ dialogue with the Museum, has brought much-needed clarity to the layout of the buildings and presentation of the collections. It has emphasised the quality of the Grade I listed architecture and improved visitor facilities with orientation, shopping and refreshment spaces arranged round the central courtyard garden. Fortified by experience gained on the British Galleries 1500–1900, which opened in 2001, the Museum has renewed major galleries at an impressive rate – Medieval and Renaissance in 2009, ceramics and sculpture in 2010, photographs in 2011, fashion, furniture and the Italian cast courts in 2014. The seven ‘Europe’ Galleries complete restoration of the front wing of the Museum. Their redesign involved removal of all the 1970s interior cladding and reclamation of back space to enlarge the galleries by over a third to 1,550 square metres. They now do justice to Aston Webb’s grand interiors, introducing daylight into what had previously seemed like a dark pit.


Successful renewal of permanent galleries is in part dependent on luck in timing. Although less attractive to many potential sponsors than the quick fix of temporary exhibitions and certainly more expensive, since the mid-1990s they have been rescued throughout the country from decaying into oblivion by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Besides granting sums which it would have seemed impossible to raise a decade earlier, the Fund has served as a catalyst for matching donations, reassuring public foundations and private patrons alike that ambitious capital projects will be carefully monitored and reasonably well managed.


Again, although new technologies have a regrettable tendency to be superseded the moment they are commissioned, in the last ten years they have enabled displays to be designed with greater efficiency, flexibility and neatness than was hitherto possible. It is always difficult creating ambient light in very high, architecturally imposing spaces. In the V. & A.’s British Galleries, the floors had to be raised to accommodate underfloor services, while the top lighting cast down from suspended panels makes some of the spaces now seem dim and boxed in.


By using the latest advances in LED lighting for the ‘Europe’ Galleries, not only will there be an energy saving of 75 per cent compared with tungsten, but the cost and potential hazards of maintenance in high-ceilinged galleries, working above precious objects, are considerably reduced. The fittings are small, unobtrusive and allow for the precise warmth in white light to be specified and tightly focused. Those attached to halos of tracking suspended from the ceiling still appear somewhat over-assertive, but many are hidden in cases or behind labels. Advances in hard- and software design have also facilitated the production of sophisticated audio-visual installations, now included as a matter of course rather than being of doubtful reliability and value.


The ‘Europe’ galleries, designed by the architectural practice ZMMA, are colour-coded by period style, from Papal plum for Baroque to Bourbon blue for the era of Louis XIV, apple green for the Rococo and pale grey for Neo-classicism. New materials adopted are in sober corporate mode – dark figured stone, walnut and leather. Deceptively simple cases, elegantly framed in bronze, have been produced by Glasbau Hahn. With many masterworks on open display there is a welcome feeling of spaciousness for unrestricted contemplation. The three panelled interiors – a seventeenth-century French painted panel bedchamber, and two Neo-classical rooms, one from Paris and the other from Italy – are accommodated to the side of the main enfilade, behind fluted enclosures.


That the 1,100 objects on show rarely appear crowded may in part be due to the relative lack of material from which to make a choice, compared with the great royal and imperial collections of continental Europe, or indeed, the V. & A.’s own British holdings. After all, the Museum only started acquiring works in the 1850s and at first had to justify its purchases on utilitarian rather than aesthetic grounds – to explain the principles of design to artisans as producers and, more broadly, to elevate the taste of the public as consumers. But Henry Cole, the Museum’s first Director, and his first Curator, the young connoisseur John Charles Robinson, were soon ‘ransacking’ (Cole’s word) Europe for wholesale purchases of the decorative arts, more from an antiquarian love of the rare and the beautiful than to fulfil any educational end. Dates of accession traced through the acquisition numbers – commendably retained in the labels, despite pressure to produce ever shorter texts – provide a sotto voce guide to the Museum’s collecting history (if not to the prices paid, which were included in Cole’s original labels). Despite their concentration on medieval and Renaissance art, Cole and Robinson were responsible for acquiring an impressive number of pieces in these Galleries, from the bust of Pope Innocent X of around 1690 by Domenico Guidi to the Jacob lit à l’imperiale of the early 1780s.


Justice to one of the major themes – the rise to pre-eminence of French taste – is made possible principally through the spectacular 1882 bequest of the businessman John Jones. His posthumous bust by John Lawlor overlooks a large case of eighteenth-century French fine and decorative art, which echoes in arrangement the rooms of his London home, 95 Piccadilly, as illustrated in the handbook to the Jones collection produced by the Museum in 1883. Other pieces from the bequest are incorporated in the gallery devoted to Louis XIV and the section on luxury shopping, where the display of furniture, piled up against the wall, suggests the premises of Parisian marchands-merciers.


Despite this strong French accent, the curators have taken care to be as representative of the rest of Europe as the collections permit. Naturally, Italy dominates the Baroque, introduced by Bernini’s marble Neptune and Triton and a gigantic late seventeenth-century scrolled mirror and table. The extravagance of German Rococo is epitomised in the writing cabinet made for August III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony in the early 1750s, probably by Michael Kimmel, bought by the Museum at the Mentmore sale in 1977. Meissen porcelain receives its due with the display of Count von Brühl’s table fountain of 1745, acquired partly in fragments in 1869, as well as tureens and condiment stands from the 685-piece dinner service made for Frederick II of Prussia and the Kändler series of commedia dell’arte characters collected by one of the Museum warders, Oswald James Finney, and donated by his widow in his memory in 1984. A Tula steel fireplace, complete with perfume burner, urns and an elaborate fender, given to the Museum in 1953, provides a peculiarly Russian take on the international language of Neoclassicism. Short silent films accompanying the displays (and on the V. & A.’s website) give additional layers of information – the lengthy process involved in piecing together the Brühl centrepiece, digitally remodelling the missing parts for new moulds, or the mechanism controlling the hidden drawers in the Roentgen pictorial marquetry commode. Films exploring the architectural settings in which such masterpieces were displayed feature Het Loo, Amalienburg and Cameron’s additions to Tsarskoe Selo, rather than Versailles.


One legacy of the Museum’s heterogeneous foundation is its capacity, in the primary galleries, to range across the arts – from paintings, drawings and prints, to musical instruments, arms and armour, costume and tapestries. Along the way it has picked up its share of novelties, among them the glass virginal, acquired in 1872, tentatively related in the label to the workshops established by Archduke Ferdinand II at Schloss Ambras, and the marble head of an ox with an exposed brain set on a tree trunk, evidently made in Padua in the second half of the seventeenth century. They now find themselves, appropriately, in the gallery devoted to the collector’s private cabinet of wonders. More unexpected is the case covering ‘local traditions’ – Greek island embroideries, a Bohemian bridal head band, Norwegian wooden spoons and assorted earthenware – vernacular examples of material culture more usually found in an ethnographic museum, but here possibly as a sop to counter accusations of elitism while stopping short of engagement with social history.


The ‘Europe’ Galleries raise again the question of how much historical context is needed to understand the collections. In this respect they follow the guiding principles established for the British Galleries, determined by style, leaders of taste, fashionable living and what was new. The obligatory contemporary installation is a beechwood cage, The Globe, designed by the Cuban artist collective Los Carpinteros. It is intended to evoke the eighteenth-century Salon, a hemispherical map of the world, a universal library or even a panopticon, and to serve as a place for reflection, meeting and discussion. But as a means of bringing alive the Enlightenment, it fails, casting the busts of luminaries and a perfunctory display on the Encyclopédie into its shadow. Messerschmidt’s character study of Strong Smell seems to wrinkle his nose and close his eyes at having to confront such banality.


More positively, it is hoped that the Galleries will make a timely contribution to the debate over what constitutes Europe. The earliest gallery, ‘Europe and the World’, includes works illustrative of conquest, colonial and trading activity in lacquer and mother-of-pearl, tropical hardwoods, ivory and silk. Recent acquisitions – including a Venetian table inlaid with scenes of battles against the Ottoman Turks, a pristine banyan in Chinese silk damask and a medal cabinet designed by Charles Percier around 1810 in the form of an Egyptian temple pylon – reinforce this message. A series of ‘salons’, available as podcasts, is being staged at the Museum on ‘What was Europe?’, sponsored by the British Academy. The first, ‘Where was Europe’, or rather, what counted as Europe, took place on 15th December 2015 and emphasised networks of communication and exchange despite a lack of fixed boundaries. The second, in January 2016, focused on the relationship between continental Europe and the British Isles, a partition visibly reinforced by displays in British museums, including the V. & A. The third, taking place this month, concentrates on Europe as seen through non-European eyes and the fourth, in March, is devoted to ‘Ephemeral Europe’, or theatrical spectacles. An international conference on the creation of these new Galleries will take place at the Museum on 8th April.