1 February 2011

Wandering the corridors of the V&A

The pretext for my latest visit to the V&A was January's Friday Late on the topic of China Through the Looking Glass; but there was a lot more to it than that.

Rejoicing in the amazing feat of getting out of the office as early as 5pm on a Friday I was able to get to the V&A a good hour before the evening event started, which meant more time to explore. And exploration is what the V&A is all about.

My first destination was the Arts and Crafts section located two floors up on the left-hand side of the main entrance. I had not been to that section for a little while and a visit was long overdue.

Heading slowly and erratically along the corridor and its side rooms presents a succession of pictures, models, statues, posters, fabrics and all sorts of other artifacts that suck you along from one to the next.

Soon the reason for choosing that particular corridor is forgotten and is simply irrelevant.

A pleasant surprise waited at the end of the corridor.

Taking a short-cut revealed a side room in the Gothic style of Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. The fireplace gives you some idea of what to expect but the ceiling is even better.

The V&A is a wonderfully bizarre building and that section occupies just two relatively short sides and from there the staircase down takes you conveniently close to the cafe where English Breakfast tea and carrot cake can be found and consumed in ridiculously resplendent rooms.

Then it was time for the China event which, to be honest, proved to be somewhat less than expected and did not take that long to explore. In, or just off, the main entrance were an installation of Chinese dresses, some moving things, chess games with unusual pieces and, er, karaoke.

But what the China event lacked the rest of the V&A more than made up for with its assembly of unusual rooms containing unexpected objects.


Amongst these is the vast Raphael room containing seven enormous cartoons, i.e. designs for tapestries. I have no idea why these are even in this country let alone collected in a single barn-like room in the V&A rather than a gallery, but it works so well that such thoughts slip away and all the matters is that they are there and you've found them.

And keeping up the curating policy that makes the V&A so magnificently shambolic, leading from this gallery is a short flight of steep steps guarded by four extravagant heraldic figures.

After this the turquoise pottery from Uzbekistan is almost expected. It's certainly welcome.

It's this continual discovery of the unexpected that makes each trip to the V&A different. Each visit has the same excitement as the first.

There is one exception to my rule of unplanned exploration and that is the small but perfectly formed architecture section.

The main display area changes gradually and so has something new to offer each time but the real purpose of going back is for the small side room that holds temporary exhibitions.

Currently on show is Underground Journeys: Charles Holden’s designs for London Transport where we can see how some of the most iconic buildings in London were created.

This rough sketch of Highgate Station shows how just a few simple lines can produce a visually striking building that evokes both pride and purpose.

I had the great pleasure a few years ago to go on a tour of the northern reaches of the Piccadilly Line, organised by the London Transport Museum, and was able to see many of these buildings first-hand. The V&A exhibition reminded me why that was such fun.

Somehow a couple of hours had passed with little effort and little pause and it was time to head home and reflect on just what a great treasure the V&A is and how lucky I am to have it so close by.

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