29 December 2015

The Fabric of India and more at the V&A

There are those exhibitions that I chance upon, those are normally in small art galleries that I discover when walking, and there are a few that I make a determined point of seeing, many of which are on at the Victoria and Albert Museum, probably my favourite place.

The Fabric of India was something that I wanted to see as a coda to my holiday in India in November and also because I like exhibitions at the V&A even when they are on things that I do not know that I am interested in, things like wedding dresses.

Any visit I make to the V&A includes at least some time walking the main galleries for no particular purpose other than to discover, or rediscover, some of the many interesting things there.

This time I started of in the galleries covering recent English history (intentional) before drifting off into ceramics (unintentional). One of the pleasant quirky things about the V&A is its layout (partially caused by the way it has been added to) and so I got from the English gallery on the fourth floor to the ceramics on the sixth (with no fifth along the way) via an almost hidden staircase in the middle of one of the galleries.

The porcelain galleries ran across the long frontage of the V&A and, starting at the west end, the first two rooms had deep shelves running from floor to ceiling that were absolutely stuffed with all sorts of stuff from the useful to the decorative to the pointless.

Here there were more teapots than anybody could ever want. There may have been some changes as I am pretty sure that there was a pile of just red teapots last time that I was up there, or perhaps they were somewhere else.

Moving east I came to the main stairwell next to the Cromwell Road entrance and I think that is far as I went the last time so continuing into the east wing may well have been a first for me. Here the emphasis changed from household objects, cups and ornaments etc., to decorative pieces.

The first to catch my eye was this full-sized picture of a woman painted on tiles (above). I had to trim this picture a little as there was a south-facing window behind it which confused the camera and I did not have time to wait for the sun to move around.

In the final gallery was the biggest and best surprise which confirmed everything that I thought about the magic of the V&A.

In a display of plates based on the famous Willow Pattern there were two based on popular computer games, including this one based on Pok√©mon Yellow a 1998 Game Boy game. I recognised Snorlax immediately.

From there another half-hidden staircase took me down into the architecture section. I often go there on purpose so I was quite happy to find myself there by accident. Most of the displays were the same as last time, as far as I could tell, but there are always temporary exhibitions in a small side room and this time it was on Phillip Webb who worked with William Morris. I like looking at plans of buildings and these were nice plans to look at.

Another of my rules on visiting the V&A is to make at least one trip to the cafe.

This was Christmas week and it looked as though everybody else in London had the same plan and I had to queue for a while to get my curry (on the menu on account of the India exhibitions) then to pay for it and then to find a table. But it all worked out in the end.

Being packed meant sharing a table and I spent some time talking to a couple from Melbourne who were heading off to the Spain the next day with little idea of what their itinerary was, they were not even sure which airport they were flying to though it sounded like Seville.

The curry was followed by a coffee and some cake (more queueing but not quite as bad) and then I was ready for Fabric of India.

This was in the main exhibition space which meant that it would be a long session but I had plenty of time to take it steadily. Being the main exhibition meant that there was a bog book to sell and that meant lots of people around to stop photographs being taken. I expected that and was ready for it but after I had seen everything (it would not matter if they threw me out then) I went back to the beginning partially just to make sure that I had not missed anything (I had) and to take a picture if I could.

The thing I missed was very early on, due a crown of people in the area, was a small room covered in colourful wall hangings. There was a seat for a guard in it but he was away at the time (he came back soon after) and so I took the one picture that I wanted.

What I had also missed on the first time round due to the crowds was the bit explaining why the fabric trade grew up in India in the first place (cloth and dyes). Reading about that on the second time around helped the rest of it to make more sense.

The main message from this starting point was the constant flow of trade and ideas both east and west. Two examples of this were the import of designs from Persia and the export of chintz dresses to the UK where they caused a commentator to remark that it was becoming hard to tell a servant from a lady.

The centre piece of the exhibition was a large tent from around 1750 decorated with large floral patterns and a bench in the middle to sit and appreciate it. Elsewhere there were clothes of all kind, including some very cute outfits for small children and some modern reimaginings of classic themes, and more hangings. Most of it was dyed by hand using wooden presses, as I had seen done in Jaipur, but there was some needlework too.

It was a bold colourful assault on the senses which I was delighted to wallow in for an hour and a half. The V&A does this sort of thing rather well.

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