David Dimbleby: My V&A

The Question Time chairman and veteran politico picks his V&A favourites

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Video Transcript

Over the last couple of years we’ve been trying to put together this series, The Seven Ages of Britain, which is a way of looking at art to say what does it tell us about the kind of place Britain was when this was made and the kind of people we were.

The curious thing about the V&A I think is that it’s such a treasure trove of so many different things, that here I find it’s like poking around in British life and seeing all sorts of things.

Façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s House: Living with the Past Galler

And I love this – the facade of a city merchant’s house, that for some reason wasn’t burnt in the Great Fire. It’s absolutely extraordinary. You know, you can stand for ten minutes looking at it and just… you’re back in the London streets before Wren had his chance to rebuild the city.

Reliquary casket of St Thomas a’ Becket: c. 1180-1190: Faith and Empires Gallery

This is the Becket Casket and it’s not just very beautiful, it’s a box to carry the relics or the remains, if they were the real remains, of Thomas à Becket. Thomas à Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury quite unexpectedly. He was a courtier, he was a politician, who worked for Henry II, and he wanted to make him Archbishop because he wanted in effect, a patsy as Head of the Church who would do what he wanted.

And the moment he became Archbishop, nobody knows quite why, Becket changed completely. He became rather puritanical; he became a defender of the Church and this led to irritation on Henry’s part, and the famous story of course, which T.S. Elliot and others have told, of the knights going to Canterbury to cut off his head.

Almost instantaneously he became a religious martyr. And not just in England. The pilgrims began coming to Canterbury from all over Europe. The Church and its martyrs were seen as objects of veneration against the power of the State and all that history is contained in this small casket. I just think this is magical.

I think in a way I’ve been helped to look at things carefully because I was taught drawing at school. I was very lucky to have two teachers, one was Howard Hodgkin, the painter, and one was a man called Ian Flemming Williams, who was an expert on Constable. And a when I was at school they taught me how to make that leap from drawing what you know to drawing what you see. You see light and shade and shadow, and it fixes things in my mind. So I just think that drawing is the best way of focusing the imagination.

Portrait Miniatures Gallery

This is the great collection of Nicholas Hilliard’s miniatures, and I like them because they serve a number of purposes.  First of all they are extremely beautiful, fine work. They also tell us quite a lot about the Elizabethan era, because there were many of the Queen herself for instance, which were worn by people as a sort of symbol of their loyalty to the Queen. There were some that were given by the Queen to people whose loyalty or affection she wanted to retain, like the famous Drake Jewel.

But I also like to think that before the photograph this was a way of creating a kind of family album. You had miniatures done of your wife or your son or your brother. These were used as a really intimate way of seeing people’s faces. Much superior to the grand portraits that were being done at the time, because these you could really… you looked to them privately, and often because of the symbolism which the Elizabethan age loved, there would be little gestures in it, or signs, or flowers or something, which would tell a story – a mystery that you’d understand.

Cast Courts

I’ve chosen this room one of the Cast Courts because I think its in a way one of the most intriguing parts of the V&A.

An astonishing array of really beautifully Casts objects from all over Europe. So, if in the Victorian era you couldn’t afford to go as everybody does now to Rome, to Spain, to France, to Germany, you could come here and see some of the essential sculptures.

Over there, there are the Crusader Knights from the Temple Church, which were damaged in the war, but these casts were done before the war so you can actually see the Knights on their tombs as they were originally made. And at the centre of it, this great column, Trajan’s column from Rome, in two halves at it happens. And this was made by the Emperor Trajan to celebrate his victory over the tribes on the Danube.

Now I believe that in years to come when there’s enough money, the nice thing to do would be to put this half back on top of the other half, which is where it should be. And then have a circular staircase so you can go all the way up and actually see what nobody in Rome can see which, is the drawings right up to the top.

I think the excitement for me of making Seven Ageshas been the idea that I’m holding in my hand an object, which Queen Elizabeth I actually gave to Francis Drake, so I’m holding something she held and gave to him, and that brings history alive for me.

Norfolk Music Room: British Galleries

I’m very taken by the British Galleries I love that progression through what is it, three hundred four hundred years, and the way it really takes you into the spirit of each era. I find that very exciting, but the new galleries are terrific I think too. And I think that its just been completely transformed now, and you feel that over the last decade or so there’s been real effort put in to making it look good. It’s a pleasure to walk around it now, and maybe it’s because I’m older and know a bit more about the stories behind things, I just find it more fascinating.


In this special film, David visits some of the V&A places and objects he has grown fond of over the past year or two.

David Dimbleby admits he was bored silly on his childhood visits to the  ‘fusty’ post war V&A. But all that has changed. ‘The V&A has been transformed over the past ten years and it’s a pleasure to walk around it today, he says.The veteran political journalist and Question Time host has got to know the museum through making a series of programmes about British art, the latest of which, The Seven Ages of Britain airs this spring on BBC 1. Among them are the Cast Courts -  in particular Trajan's Column - Beckett's casket from the Medieval & Renaissance wing and the intricate portraits  created by Nicholas Hilliard, Elizabethan master of miniatures.