The V&A run a whole programme of free tours covering everything from the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries to LGBTQ related objects that are found within its collections. The introductory tour runs four times a day from the meeting point in the Grand Entrance of the museum (current times are 10.30, 12.30, 13.30 & 15.30 but do check online).
I went on the 15.30 tour primarily as I guessed there would be less people on it. This proved to be true. There were 4 of us on this tour, all regular visitors to the museum with 3 of us being members. Apparently the 13.30 tour had 13 on it so I think I made the right decision! Our tour guide was Miriam, and it can be worth doing the tour more than once (one of our group was on her 4th introductory tour) as each tour guide has different favourites to share, and Miriam was very flexible as to what we were interested in.
We started on the 6th floor at the top of the museum in the Ceramics section. In all of my visits to the museum I had never made it as far as this floor and was pleasantly surprised. There are artefacts here that date back to 2500BC, showing the progression of techniques through the ages. For example, I had no idea that the technique for creating porcelain was developed in China by around the 3rd Century AD, yet in Europe it took until the 18th Century for the secret to be discovered.
Making our way down with a brief stop off at the British Galleries, we arrived at the Hereford Screen, a huge choir screen designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and dating from 1862. The metalwork screen was designed for Hereford Cathedral but was firstly a major exhibit at the 1862 International Exhibition in London and won a medal for progress, elegance of design and excellent workmanship. Unfortunately, by the 1960s this Gothic style was seen as ugly and it was dismantled and sold to the Herbert Museum in Coventry. The museum had neither the room to store it nor the funds to restore it and in 1983 the piece arrived at the V&A, taking 13 months to reconstruct from the thousands of rusty pieces. It is certainly an impressive piece.
Our last stop was one of the museum’s greatest treasures, the Raphael Cartoons. These are full-size designs for a set of tapestries commissioned to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel back in 1515. I had no idea of the process so find it fascinating. Each cartoon is constructed from many small sheets of paper stuck together with a flour-and-water paste to make one large expanse. The design was then drawn out and painted with distemper, a mixture of water, glue and pigment. These cartoons are unusual in that the colours were carefully applied. Usually, since the weavers were tasked with choosing exact colours, cartoons are less detailed than these. Because of their uniqueness, these cartoons are considered works of art in their own right. The future Charles I bought the cartoons in 1623 and they have belonged to the royal family ever since, being loaned to the V&A since 1865 courtesy of Victoria.
And there our tour ended, an hour that seemed much shorter. I’ll definitely be going back next month to try on of the more specialised tours and will blog on that afterwards.