Travel: Take a Trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Mercifully it has not yet occurred to anyone to rechristen the Victoria and Albert Museum an Exhibition Center – since the merest ticket office has become a ‘travel center’ one cannot feel totally safe – or, if it has, the temptation has been resisted. Unlovely as such a label would be, though, it would not be wholly undeserved. In the past few years, with the opening of the Henry Cole Wing and the establishment of the Boilerhouse Project in the basement, the Victoria and Albert has so augmented its old exhibition program as to become one of the liveliest and busiest centers for temporary exhibitions in the whole of London – and this without abating at all its attentions to the needs of maintaining and enlivening the permanent collections. The old slogan ‘Spend a day at the V & A’ has never been so constantly justified.

At the moment, for example, there are at least seven temporary exhibitions in various parts of the building, with some just off and more impending. The spread of subject-matter and approach is very satisfying – especially given that where museum exhibitions are concerned we are very difficult to satisfy: if the shows are crowd-pullers we tend to think that such tourism and commercialization should be beneath a national museum’s dignity, while if they are scholarly and somewhat esoteric we also reserve the right to complain.

At present the popular end of the spectrum is represented by English Caricature, 1620 to the Present (until September 1) and Travelling With Style, a tribute to Louis Vuitton and his luggage (until September 29); the scholarly type of record exhibition by the linked shows dedicated to Bonington and His Circle and Samuel Prout (until September 15) and Three English Architects (until October 27); while somewhere in the middle come two shows vaguely connected with the recent American Festival, Lewis Baltz Park City Photographs (until July 28) and Masterworks of Contemporary American Jewellery (until July 25). Not to mention the Boilerhouse, under separate management though the same roof, where National Characteristics in Design has been extended until July 18.

This last may, for all I know, be a crowd-puller, but it emerges as the only really weak show of them all. The idea is bright enough: an inquiry into the question of whether, in 1985, distinct national characteristics of design can still be said to exist. This is done by setting up the show on a grid pattern, so that you can either follow through how one country approaches the design of, say, a bathroom, a telephone, a bicycle (push or motor), etc., then go on to another, or you can follow a particular theme crabwise across the room. Unfortunately, like a number of recent Boilerhouse shows, this one is over-designed and under-illuminating.

Otherwise, there is very little room for complaint. The scholarly shows are, as is becoming increasingly frequent these days, created rather to match and extend recently published books than being themselves the prime object of the exercise, with any allied publication a mere record of what we see. Though we have until recently been more used to the priorities being the second way round, there seems no reason why they should necessarily be so. A museum like the V and A is, among other things, a center of learning and a publisher of its fruits.

At present the museum is embarked on two valuable series of illustrated catalogues of the collection, one, in association with Batsford, covering the holdings of British watercolors in monographs, the other recording, again in monograph form, the holdings of architectural drawings.

The Bonington and Prout shows accompany the monographs on those artists (pounds 4.95 each paperback, pounds 14.95 hardback); Three English Architects makes vivid the insights offered by Alexandra Wedgwood’s book on AWN Pugin and the Pugin Family (pounds 25), Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey’s on Sir John Soane ( pounds 16.95) and Michael Darby’s on John Pollard Seddon (pounds 11.95).

None of these shows, as it happens, is just a passive appendage to the book. Not only does it make a tremendous difference to set eyes on originals, however good the reproductions may be, but, wherever there is an argument to be followed through or a fresh point to be made, pictures are usually better than words to do it, and a combination of the two gives us the best of all possible worlds. The most original point being made is that of the Bonington show, crisply presented in Marcia Pointon’s catalogue and with the background filled, in much greater detail, in her other new book The Bonington Circle (Hendon Press, pounds 8.50).

What she convincingly builds up is a picture of much more Anglo-French interchange in the 1820s than we have ever suspected. Bonington, with his residence in France and extensive acquaintance among the most notable French painters of the day, was undeniably the most talented and original figure, but he was the center of a lot of activity and mutual knowledge going back to the French Revolution and continuing to exert influence up to the middle of the century. Seeing him here in the context of such associates as his teacher Louis Francia and his follower William Wyld is a revelation, not only about Bonington himself but about the whole watercolor tradition, here and abroad, in the early Nineteenth-Century.

The other revelation in what is to be seen comes with John Pollard Seddon. Apart from Aberystwyth’s University College of Wales, a redoubtable Victorian Gothic mass in the middle of the seafront, Seddon is best known for his unbuilt buildings, mostly in London, mostly grandiose public or semi-public schemes like the Law Courts and the Monumental Halls intended to adjoin Westminster Abbey. There are evidences of nearly all his plans among the almost 2,000 designs presented to the museum by his daughter in 1896, and, if Michael Darby’s book handsomely repairs Seddon’s comparative neglect, the drawings on show offer a convincing demonstration of why we should, after all, be interested.

Soane and Pugin have been much more extensively documented in the past, though it is always worthwhile to see JM Gandy’s incomparably atmospheric renderings of Soane’s extraordinary late interiors, or make acquaintance with the recently rediscovered throne by Pugin for the House of Lords. But it must be conceded that the main new revelations here come in Alexandra Wedgwood’s book, which publishes for the first time Pugin’s notes for an unwritten autobiography and his laconic work-diaries, which reveal, among other things, an astonishing amount of travel around Britain through the years.

It is, unfortunately, improbable that this was achieved in anything like the high style indicated by the Vuitton exhibition. This marks the opening of the London branch of Vuitton a century ago, and the earliest piece of luggage shown, a trunk in striped canvas, predates that by just three years. Placed as it is at the entrance to the Costume Court, the show gives off a faint, nostalgic whiff of forgotton elegance and guiltless privilege, celebrating the days when anyone who was anyone of course had to have ample accommodation during even the briefest, most informal trip for his white evening gloves and a variety of stiff collars and bow ties.

For sheer entertainment, though, it would be difficult to beat the English Caricature show. This has been put together with the Yale Center for British Art, and has already been seen there and in Washington and Ottawa. It contains many unfamiliar examples as well as some old favorites, and is amazing in its revelation of the consistency behind the apparent diversity. But the brilliance – the variety of brilliances – of the many draughtsmen shown constantly provokes one to further thought, further desire to know. And it is certainly good to hear the cloistered calm of a museum shattered occasionally by a discreet giggle or an out-and-out belly-laugh. It should happen more often.

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