Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A sunny day at the V&A

We started our visit at the Mediaeval and Renaissance galleries, which display textiles, metalwork, sculpture, enamel, satined glass and ceramics in the context of their time, and trace the evolution of these arts and crafts until the 1400s.

There are exceptional examples of Coptic tapestry, two burial tunics that illustrate both the applied and integral forms of woven decoration in tapestry technique, portrait panels of Adonis and Aphrodite that are superb in their characterisation with faces you feel could be recognised on the street today, and  exquisitely woven medallions full of detailed action that make contemporary efforts pale by comparison

Large cases display examples of English embroidery, a wonderful stitched quilt in "trapunto" technique from the 1300s that pictures a narrative of battle, and the famous Syon cope, magnificently detailed in its execution, combining satin stitch with a border of the minutest petit point.

Other tapestries of interest are a naive German panel that dates from 1490 and believed to be woven by nuns, telling the story of a woman's spiritual journey from fashionable lady to novice nun, and the  beautiful Scenes from the Passion of Christ woven in France between 1400 and 1425. It combines three scenes - the deposition, the burial and the resurrection - into a continuous work. The rendering of the faces, figures, and the transparency of cloth is amazingly sophisticated and exquisite in every detail.

The gallery culminates in the magnificent Boar and Bear Hunt from the Chatsworth Hunts, which occupies the entire back wall of the gallery and is splendid in its execution and detail. An upstairs gallery houses the other three pieces in the suite - Falconry, Swan and Otter Hunt and Deer Huntthe whole measuring 133 feet in length.  Believed to be woven in Arras or Tournai between 1430 and 1450, the designs were inspired by the manuscript attributed to Gaston de Foix (1331 - 1391). For many years the tapestries were housed in Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, home of the Duke of Devonshire, and were thought to have travelled to England with Marguerite of Anjou when she married Henry VI in 1444. This theory has since been disproved through examination of the costumes depicted in the earlier tapestries of the suite.

The weaving devices used to render the most extraordinary richness of silks, velvets and brocades make every tapestry an excuse to enact a costume drama of enormous proportions. The details of the clothing reflect the changing fashions of the two decades in which they were designed and created.

The subject matter is an intricate reflection of the importance of the hunt as court ritual. More than a pastime, hunting skills were highly regarded as an exhibition of ability to perform in conquest, as well as having the practical outcome of contributing game for the dinner tables of the aristocracy.

We had our lunch in the splendid Victorian circular room that serves as a cafeteria - every inch of it is covered in decorated ceramic tiles, so overblown with pattern and colour that it verges on complete decadence. The outside courtyard also beckoned, bathed in bright 25 degree sunshine. A crowd of young children splashed in the shallow pool all day, their exuberance ringing through the serious halls of antique treasures.

Afterwards we viewed the Raphael Cartoons for the Acts of the Apostles, sombre in the vast hall that houses them. Commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, Raphael designed ten tapestries illustrating the Acts of the Apostles to decorate the side walls of the Sistine chapel. The master weaver, Pietr Van Elst, of Brussels, was commissioned to simply copy the paintings without any freedom of interpretation.  Tapestry weavers bowed to the Renaissance domination of painting, finding satisfaction only in flawless reproduction.

The popular success of these tapestries led to the replication of these cartoons in woven form many times over in the following century. One example, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, woven at Mortlake in the 1600s, hangs alongside the cartoons, barely indistinguishable from them except for its swirling Baroque border.

Upstairs, in the British rooms hangs a small William Morris tapestry, Angeli Ministrates, designed by Edward Burne - Jones with a background and border by weaver and designer John Dearle who was Morris' first apprentice. Morris' philosophy allowed the weaver, once again, to make an important visual contribution to tapestry design.

Other delights to be experienced at the V&A were the newly redesigned Fashion and Textiles area and a gorgeous exhibition -  Ballgowns : British Glamour since 1950, which flamboyantly displays sixty years of stylish evening wear. 

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