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Nothing quite prepared us for the treasure-chest-Grandma’s-Attic-“extremely-capacious-handbag” (as one wag of the day put it) that is the Victoria and Albert Museum. Billed as “The world’s greatest museum of art and design”, the V&A is filled to the brim with vast collections of fascinating textiles, sculpture, jewelry, metalwork, glass, ceramics, furniture, painting, books, – all the things Man fashions with his own two hands to make his world more beautiful and meaningful. We’ll let this video set the mood for you.
The intent from the beginning was to create a space that would “make works of art available to all, to educate working people and to inspire British designers and manufacturers.” Its origins lie in The Great Exhibition of 1851 – that enduring symbol of the Victorian Age’s absolute mania for design – organized by Prince Albert and the man who would become the museum’s first director, Sir Henry Cole.
Proceeds from the Exhibition paid for the creation of The Museum of Manufactures which was expanded later into the much larger complex opened and rechristened the V&A by Queen Victoria in 1899. For us, the Museum was an eye-opener: a present day incarnation of that tipping point in British history where empire, discovery, mechanization, reform and education intersected. The world was an English oyster and the V&A overflows with the resulting pearls.
For the Victorians, art and craft, design and manufacturing were inseparable – the making of the exquisite a lofty goal – and, in the case of mosaics at least, the very act of making a spiritual experience. We were aided in this realization by a stellar lecture by Dr. Heike Zech, Curator of The Gilbert Collection at the V&A, presented during the BAMM conference we attended in October. (A link to a video of Dr. Zech’s presentation can be found in Resources below.)
Mosaics were very much a part of the design of the new Victoria & Albert and Sir Henry was a great advocate for the art form. While the exterior of the building has many extraordinary mosaics, we’ll concentrate on what we found roaming the hallways inside.
The South Kensington Valhalla
Our first mosaic discovery was the “The South Kensington Valhalla” panels found in a hallway just off the main entrance. The five “great men in the history of art” you see here were part of a set of 35 commissioned for the museum’s South Court. (Apologies for the poor photographs – the lighting and reflection from the gold smalti gave our camera fits.)
The mosaics were designed by a number of male artists of the day. The panels in this hallway were fabricated by either the Italian firm Salviati & Co. or by the British firm of Harland and Fisher. The detail work is quite extraordinary. Here we see Apelles, renowned painter of ancient Greece whom Pliny the Elder said surpassed all painters who came before or after him. High praise, indeed.
Apelle’s painting of Aphrodite – lost to the ages – is said to have inspired countless depictions of that goddess all the way into the Renaissance; Boticelli believed he was the reincarnation of Apelles.
The detail work is quite extraordinary.
Elsewhere in the museum, we came upon a series of the original paintings for the mosaics. It really is quite odd that they look so much alike. Why go to the trouble to ask a number of different artists to create designs when there is no way to distinguish one painter from another in the final product?
Equally curious, why did the artists go to the trouble to cartoon the andamento for the gold background and nothing else?
Meanwhile, back in the Valhalla hallway, another mystery. We were quite surprised to discover that in some of the mosaics the central figure was made of what looked like unglazed ceramic. We’re afraid we can’t recall which Great Man In The History of Art the feet below belong to, but, as you can see, they are definitely made of clay – not smalti.
Dr. Zech’s lecture explained all. At the same time the V&A was being built, a great effort was made to create a new genre for the mosaic art form that would be distinctly British. How to do that? Given that nation’s great history in ceramic production, it is no surprise that the distinction would be in the materials. The Collin Minton Campbell company (whom we will hear more of later) developed a special vitrified ceramic to be used as tesserae. In the photo above, one can even see ceramic millefiori. A particularly zealous proponent of this new technique actually gave it a name: Opus Anglicanum.
And, here is where the “spirituality in making” we referred to earlier comes in. Dr. Zech also told us that many of the 35 Valhalla panels were actually fabricated by English women. The Women’s Mosaic Class was established as part of the art school attached to the museum. The making of mosaics was deemed by the men responsible for commissioning and designing them as a “gentile exercise”, an act of virtue as it were. Hmmm. Spinning also comes to mind.
In this slide from Dr. Zech’s lecture, on the left you have a mosaic made by the Salviati Company and on the right, an Opus Anglicanum mosaic completed by the Women’s Mosaic Class.
The Ladies Class really did become quite proficient and their membership included Sir Henry Cole’s own niece, Florence Cole. It was she who was responsible for the ceramic portrait of her uncle which can be found in the Ceramic Staircase, our next stop in the V&A.
The Ceramic Staircase
Here, luscious Della Robia is combined with ceramic panels that resemble paintings. Gods and goddesses frolic, muses toss inspiration hither, thither and yon. The Ceramic Staircase is a heady experience whether you are going up or down.
Actually, those illustrations are paintings . . . sort of. The ceramic panels, like Opus Anglicanum, were another British innovation and, again, the technique and materials was developed by Collin, Minton Campbell. They called it “fictile vitrification” and the goal was to create permanent paintings without the need for a craftsman to interpret them in different materials. The honeycomb-shaped ceramic panels were painted by the artists offsite and then fitted together in situ.
Like Opus Anglicanum, fictile vitrification went the way of the dodo bird. But, it is another fascinating example of the unfettered creative exuberance of the period.
We’re not certain who exactly bestowed this latin classification on the work, but many of the mosaic floors at the V&A were made by the “lady criminals” of Woking Prison.
Given what we know about the Victorian thinking regarding the making of mosaics as a “virtuous” pursuit and the great movement towards social reform that ruled the day, we have to believe that there was some notion that the activity would be somehow redemptive for the ladies. And, of course, it was also a very fine way to get the work done in, shall we say, a cost-effective manner.
The V&A wasn’t the only institution to take advantage of the free labor. The infamous Constance Kent, who in 1865 confessed to the murder of her 3 year old step-brother, was responsible for the mosaic floor in the Crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
The Gilbert Collection
The V&A is justifiably famous in the mosaic world as the home of the most extensive collection of micro mosaics outside of the Vatican and The Hermitage – The Gilbert Collection.
With some tesserae no wider than a fingernail, these panels, inlaid tables, snuff boxes, jewelry and bonbonniéres were highly prized by the wealthy of Europe. Depending upon the design of the work and the quality of the workmanship, there could be anywhere between 250 and 2500 tesserae in a square inch. This “View of Rome” is said to have taken 25 years to complete.
It really was fun to watch people walk through this collection and suddenly realize what they were looking at. The two young ladies from Russia we bumped into were absolutely enthralled with the mosaics – until they turned around and saw the jeweled snuff boxes. Sometimes glass just can’t compete with diamonds.
There was much, much more that inspired us at the V&A. 16th century ball gowns. Tiles from a moghul’s tomb. Medieval painted glass. And this tableau featuring a knock-off of Arne Jacobsen’s iconic “Stacking Chair 3107”. Photographer Lewis Morley bought it and used in his famous portrait (below) of model Christine Keeler, the femme fatale who was the downfall of John Profumo. Lovely bit of curator cheek, this. We’ll be back for more.
Enjoy – Nancie