6 April 2012

British Design at the V&A

No excuse is ever needed to go to the V&A, it's my absolute favourite museum, and the siren call to go there becomes impossible to escape when there is an exhibition like British Design from 1948 on.

The welcoming poster skilfully hints at the delights inside with the usual eclectic mix of objects from the mundane (e.g. road signs) to the high art (e.g. Henry Moore).

As usual, the exhibition consists of a few large rooms that are divided in to a number of smaller themed areas that move you from topic to topic as you try and negotiate your way around the confusing spaces without missing anything.

So, for example, there is a selection of drawings, stained glass and photographs about the building of the new Coventry Cathedral and next to this is a collection of the then new format road signs with their colour coding for road classes.

The expedition takes as it's starting point the immediate aftermath of the World War, a period that included three great events; the London Olympics in 1948, the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the Coronation (1953).

These events are celebrated with posters, models of some of the key buildings, and a few typical artefacts. This would not be a V&A exhibition if it did not have lots of tea pots and chairs.

One section that I spent some time admiring early on in the procession was that on architecture and town planning with the story told through models and plans.

The large model of the University of East Anglia was most impressive though I am sure that the original building (it was conceived as one long teaching wall) has been added to over the years and the original design is probably lost in the resultant jumble.

Street plans for the housing estates showed a strong commitment to large gardens and to communal spaces and the artists' impressions showed the familiar happy people walking around with very few cars to spoil the view. How times change.

Gardens got their own mention too as gardening moved from being a means of producing food to becoming a hobby. Here a looped video showed the prominent use of gardens in British films. 

Fashion gets a fair mention though I failed to see why anybody would ever want to wear an early Mary Quant dress. More exotic are the stage costumes worn by the likes of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Brian Eno. It was called Glam Rock for a reason before the likes of Garry Glitter belittled it to just sequins.

British icons feature throughout. Most memorable for me were the machines like Concorde (sadly, only a model), E-Type Jag, Mini, Moulton bike and Topper dinghy.

Also recognised were the British achievements in computing, such as the Sinclair Spectrum and the multi-coloured Apple iMac.

I liked the section on computer games which showed different versions of Tomb Raider and GTA running alongside each other so that we can see the improvement in gaming technology over the last twenty years or so.

Put simply, we've moved from lumpy graphics with few things moving at any time to almost realistic pictures in which every part of the picture seems to be moving at the same time.

Other favourites from the exhibition include a scale model of the still fabulous LLoyds of London building, a snatch of the film Blow Up, a marvellously silly Alexander McQueen dress, sillier hats, industrial steel doors and a mock-up of Pharmacy (Damien Hirst's restaurant).

I've lost the guide to the events that I picked up so I cannot be forensic and make sure that I give every section a mention but it is suffice to say that I've only given a flavour of the delights on offer.

It took me two hours to get around everything which is a better indication of how much good stuff there is in there.

As always with the V&A there is a lot more to the visit than just the main exhibition and part of that extra includes a little downtime in the splendid cafe.

Refreshed by tea and carrot cake I headed in to the museum proper.

Unusually I had a destination in mind and it was the related display On Eagle's Wings: British adventure comics, 1950-1969.

Here, spread around an atrium were about half a dozen display cases of comics that are a must-see for anybody who has been reading British comics for the last fifty years or so.

Eagle gives the display it's name, and probably it's drawing power, but I already know the Eagle very well (I have every Eagle Annual) so it was the others that I had come to see.

For reasons that I do not understand, there were some large No Photography signs so I had to be careful in taking mine.

That is careful not to use a flash and also careful to avoid one of the many museum staff monitoring the area.

A lot of what was there I had expected to see, and enjoyed seeing it, such as this Thunderbirds spread.

Elsewhere the definition of "adventure comic" stretched a little (then a lot) as we had a copies of Mandy and Bunty, and then a whole cabinet on romance comics like Dinah and Jackie. My sister used to get Jackie and I used to read it (and Bunty before that) so that also rekindled some old memories.

With the main exhibition, tea break and the comics, I was in the V&A for about three hours and that's a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

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