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Friday, February 7, 2020

Seven Wonders of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London England You Must See to Believe

With a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. You would need many years – maybe a lifetime – to look through this unequalled treasure trove so what better solution than plan a docent tour to select and explain some of the exceptional artifacts on display.

When it was established in 1857 the Museum was called the South Kensington Museum. It was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899 when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of new buildings for the Museum.  It's no surprise that Queen Victoria really wanted to call the V&A the 'Albert Museum'.  

RxTIP:  Admission is free, except for special exhibits and check for free docent tours that occur throughout the day.  Even consider taking more than one docent tour if you can because different guides will show you different things! Walk to the V&A to stay fit.  We walked 2.5 miles each way from the Langham where we stayed

1.  The Virgin with the Laughing Child (Room 64a)

Located in an obscure corner of the Renaissance section (room 64a) is our number one thing to see at the V&A:  “The Virgin with the Laughing Child”. 

Leonardo da Vinci was rumored to have made sculptures, but until now there has been no existing three-dimensional work identified as his. Now, scholars believe that a sculpture formerly attributed to Antonio Rossellino was misattributed, and is likely a work from the Renaissance painter.   Similarities to da Vinci’s paintings are apparent and we recognized some of them right away.. The smile of the Virgin in the sculpture, for instance, is reminiscent of the smile of St. Anne in da Vinci’s painting The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. The way the robes drape over the figure’s knees in the sculpture have the same type of movement.  If this is in fact a sculpture by the master painter,  draftsman, engineer, sketch artist and muralist, it would be the only da Vinci sculpture in existence.  

2. Raphael Cartoons (Raphael Court)

The Raphael Cartoons are a set of seven full-scale designs for tapestry painted by Raphael (1483 – 1520), and are considered one of the greatest treasures of the Renaissance. They were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X for the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and depict the lives of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul – Fathers of the Christian church. They are part of the Royal Collection and were loaned to the South Kensington Museum – now the V&A – by Queen Victoria in 1865 in memory of Prince Albert, where they have been on public display ever since.

The Healing of the Lame Man

LTD chose to visit the Raphael Cartoons before the planned renovations of the Raphael Court began January 27, 2020, the year that will mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death. The Raphael Court – home to the Cartoons – will be refurbished by award-winning practice Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and with an innovative new lighting scheme by designers ZNA, that will increase the visibility of the works.  The day we visited, a fashion show by Norwegian designer Fredrik Tjaerandsen, who created another iconic fashion moment when he debuted his bubbly collection at the V&A in the Raphael Court. Models walked onto the runway encapsulated in massive balloons that, once deflated, were actually full-on rubber outfits.  We couldn't help but think "What would Raphael think?"  Raphael was a was a trendsetter in terms of realism, form, and technique, so maybe he would appreciate the artistry of Tjaerandsen.  You decide what you think by viewing this video of our time in the Raphael Court!

3. The Great Bed of Ware (Room 57)

Every bed has a story but the Great Bed of Ware has rather more than most. Originally housed at an inn in Ware, it is thought to have been created as a tourist attraction for travellers on the pilgrim route from London to Walsingham or to Cambridge University. It was publicized as being able to sleep 12 travelers...

The bed has attracted the attention of visitors for generations - not to mention over 20 instances of graffiti - only discovered when the bed was dismantled by the V&A team. They found that people had carved their initials in the wood such as 'DL' and 'WC' next to a date of 1729. Others even left wax seals by dropping molten wax onto the wood and imprinting their signet rings into it.

However, it also has a rather more literary history and was even referenced by Shakespeare's Toby Belch in Twelfth Night who described a large piece of paper as 'big enough for the Bed of Ware'. 

Supposedly there is a replica of this bed in Beverly Hills but we have not been able to verify this tidbit of information!  


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4. Bust of Henry VII (Room 58)

This may look a little creepy to you but is one of the most accurate depictions of this king who ushered in the rule of the house of Tudor effectively ending the Wars of the Roses. The sculptor,  Pietro Torrigiano, was talented and one of the first artists of the Italian Renaissance to work outside Italy. But why he worked outside of Italy is what he is most famous for! He broke Michelangelo's nose during a fight while they trained together as youths and it is clearly reflected in every portrait of Michelangelo. Michelangelo's friend Vasari said that Torrigiano instigated the fight because he was motivated by jealousy, and that he was forced to flee from Florence as a result of his act. Torrigiano seems to have arrived in England in 1507 and was immediately commissioned to do work for King Henry VII, his first task being a tomb in Westminster Abbey for Margaret Beaufort, the King's mother.  Henry VII is not only famous for ending the war of the roses but also for being father to the infamous King Henry VIII.  Interestingly, this bust combines a face probably cast from a mould taken from the cadaver of Henry VII who died in 1527, with modeled shoulders and chest.  Two companion busts of Henry VIII and Cardinal Fisher are located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  


5. Tipu's Tiger (Room 41)

This is an almost life-size model of a tiger mauling a European solider. It was made for Tipu Sultan, who ruled Mysore in South India from 1782 to 1799. Tipu had two great passions, a fascination for tigers and a hatred of the British. The tiger was created for Tipu and makes use of his personal emblem of the tiger and clearly expresses his hatred of his enemy, the British of the East India Company. ... From the moment it arrived in London in 1799 to the present day, Tipu's Tiger has been a popular attraction to the public.  Concealed inside the tiger’s body, behind a hinged flap, is an organ which can be operated by turning the handle next to it. This simultaneously makes the man’s arm lift up and down and produces noises intended to imitate his dying moans.

6. Wolsey's Angels (Room 63)

Like some divine miracle, these four angels designed for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey, and then lost for over three centuries, have been reunited at the V&A, bearing witness to significant British history.

In 1524, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was one of the most powerful men in Europe. Having risen from humble origins to become Henry VIII’s chief advisor, he desired a lasting monument for himself, and commissioned the Florentine sculptor, Benedetto da Rovezanno, to build a tomb. It was to outshine Henry VII’s, with a black touchstone sarcophagus and four bronze angels. Six years later, Wolsey’s fortunes had turned, and he died while under arrest for treason. The tomb parts were seized by King Henry VIII for his own monument but never completed, and parts were eventually sold off during England's Civil War. Wolsey’s angels disappeared, presumed lost, for over 300 years.

It wasn’t until 1994 that two sculptures ‘in Italian Renaissance style’ turned up at auction. Their true provenance remained a mystery until the Italian scholar, Francesco Caglioti, identified them in a paper he gave in 2007, and the hunt for their fellows began in earnest. It led to a golf club in Northamptonshire where, until the theft of the auctioned pair in the 1980s, all four angels had stood on gateposts.  Previously struggling financially, the golf club now has adequate funds! 

Another interesting fact regarding the angels is that the black sarcophagus which the angels would have decorated now entombs Admiral Horatio Nelson in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. 

7.  The Cast Courts

The Cast Courts comprise two large halls. Unusual for a museum, the Cast Courts house a collection not of originals, but copies. Here are to be found reproductions of some of the most famous sculptures in the world.  Why did the Victorians  create stupendous replicas of full-size casts of everything from the ceremonial doors of Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral to Michelangelo’s David? The answer is clear when you roam these see, and most of all to understand the cultural heritage of Europe: to bring the continent’s artistic jewels to their rainy shores.  Our favorite was Trajan's Column.  In Rome you can see the soaring original while straining your neck and eyes to see the details, and at the V&A it is in two pieces to fit in the room.  However, we never dreamed of being so close to "Trajan's Column" to see the detail so well!  AND because these were cast in the 19th century, much detail can be seen that is not visible on the original today due to weathering! 

Bottom Line:  

The Victoria and Albert museum in London, England is huge and admission is free except for special exhibits.  Plan for a whole day if you can, but if time is limited, pop in and use our guide to see our highlights!  Take a free docent tour or two if you have time to take a deeper dive into the history of the museum and the objects on display!

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