CETLD design audios
CETLD and the V&A
The Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning Through Design (CETLD) is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for five years, and is one of 74 national Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs).
The partnership between the V&A, University of Brighton, RCA and RIBA aims to:
- Embed the use and understanding of archives and museum collections in the experience of design students
- Explore ways of using technologies to enhance learning and teaching
- Share ideas, expertise and resources
- Contribute to pedagogic research
- Support staff and students
CETLD activities at the V&A include:
- Audios for HE students to use at the V&A (see below)
- A book 'Looking to Learn, Learning to See: Museums and Design Education' published by Ashgate in 2010
- Research into 'behind the scenes' visits to museums
- A series of student placements at the V&A, RIBA, the RCA and the University of Brighton Design Archives
Further information is available on the CETLD website
How well do you know the V&A's permanent galleries? On these audios you can hear curators, design tutors, students and others talking about the Jewellery Gallery, the British Galleries, the Silver Galleries and the Cast Courts.
You can listen to them online or download them to use them before, during or after a visit. For example, you could try one on the way to the V&A to prepare for visiting.
A Silver Lining
The V&A Silver Galleries are three richly-decorated rooms crammed full of objects from religious and secular contexts here and abroad. They include Victorian dining ware, silver from the Jazz Age and objects used by children.
Are the Galleries splendid or suffocating? Hear from curator Eric Turner and from artist Anne Brodie, who designed an installation for the Galleries. We also speak to V&A information assistant James Cross, who lives and works at the Brompton Oratory, the Catholic church next door. There, objects such as those in the Silver Galleries are regularly used in services.
"Hello and welcome to this podcast series, in which different people from the design world give their perspectives on galleries at the V&A. I’m Rebecca Reynolds, Higher Education Officer for the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning through Design, based at the V&A.
The V&A Silver Galleries are three richly-decorated rooms crammed full of objects from religious and secular contexts here and abroad. You can investigate Victorian dining silver, look at silver from the Jazz Age and see silver objects used by children.
In these interviews, three people give their take on the galleries: curator in the Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass Department Eric Turner, who has been at the V&A since 1976 ; one of the longest serving V&A information assistants James Cross; and finally artist Anne Brodie, who made an installation in the galleries for a V&A late-night opening.
First, curator Eric Turner talked to me about why the gallery and the displays look the way they do. Soon after the Second World War, he said, the Victorian decoration was painted over and they became 'bland white boxes with fluorescent lighting', staying this way until the arrival of a sponsor one day in the early 90s."
(Eric Turner:) … nothing might have happened except for the arrival quite out of the blue one day of a sponsor who came through the galleries on a very dull, wet, cold February afternoon where they did look at their dingiest and grimmest and said something must be done in the classic tones, how can I help. From that point on the Silver Galleries redevelopment started.
(Rebecca Reynolds:) And how was the silver display redeveloped then after this?
(ET:) Well we had a great deal of discussion about this and indeed some visitor surveys taken over a period of several months. What we decided was that the layout of the galleries should in some extent retain the traditional way in which we’d put it out. That is to say that there was a series of sequential masterpieces done in a chronological sequence. But at the same time what we wanted running parallel along the sides of the galleries was a much more thematic approach and this you’ll see most particularly in the first gallery, which we describe as the first phase of the Silver Galleries, where you’ll see things for example as tea, coffee and chocolate wares.
Dining, an important theme insofar as how silver was used in the domestic context, as it still is to this day. And that is a pendant, if you like, to the main island cases that you see down the centre of the gallery either side of the centre line where there is a straightforward chronological development of stylistic development throughout the period from the late Middle Ages until 1800.
One must explain of course, which is perhaps immediately obvious once you’re in the galleries yourself, is that there are two entrances to these galleries. People, of course, can come through from either end, and it’s pitched so that the pinnacle if you like, the latest silver where the story is not just ending but developing into the future, is more or less in the centre of the galleries, the fulcrum, and you’ve got it balanced by the historic collections either side.
(RR:) What do you think it gives the visitor today to see a huge amount of silver in one space?
(ET:) Well let me answer that with reference to the decoration as well as the silver collections that we see before us. There has been reservation expressed by some about such a huge concentration of silver but we are the National Collection of English Silver for example. We are obliged to put out as much as we can of the collections that we hold and do justifiably get criticism if we don’t.
In the nineteenth century the object was to cram as many objects into a case as possible, and there are photographs taken of nineteenth century displays where they are immensely crowded, and arguably overcrowded, with limited label information and so on although at least it was deemed to be acceptable at the time. The twentieth century for much of it reversed that tendency.
But we decided that actually really the time had come and the fashion was actually swinging back in the opposite direction, if you like, the pendulum was coming back again. That people actually did like rich interiors and did in fact like rich displays and the rich Victorian interior perfectly complemented the concentration of the displays that we were intending to put in."
(Rebecca Reynolds:) As well as working at the V&A, Information Assistant James Cross lives and works at the Brompton Oratory, the Catholic church next door. There he helps to make the services run smoothly and trains servers to carry out activities involved in the Catholic masses such as serving the priests, moving sensors and holding candles. I walked around the Silver Galleries with him.
(Rebecca Reynolds:) So, James, what do you do at the V&A and how long have you been here?
(James Cross:) I’ve been here about 26 years and I work on the Information Desk really giving out information to people who want to know a myriad of different and very often extremely obscure questions, and so I have to know it very well in order to be able to help them find what it is they’re looking for.
(RR:) You live and work in the Brompton Oratory, the Catholic church next door. Do you ever see any similarities between the church and the museum here?
(JC:) Very much so. The Oratory is by definition very traditional, that’s why I’m there. And the ceremonial there is of a very traditional nature and, indeed, a lot of the objects I see in here the same objects from seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth Centuries is in normal use there all the time. I see ewers and basins and chalices and beautiful cruet sets and gorgeous silver and gold things and we are using them all the time next door so I look at it in a case here, go next door and see it in use. It’s a wonderful connection between the two definitely, yes.
(RR:) We’re in the Silver Galleries now, James, what do you think of these galleries?
(JC:) I think these galleries are really beautiful. I love walking through these galleries because since their restoration of the ceilings to their Victorian splendour in this Pompeiian-style, I find it’s like a beautiful jewellery box showing the objects off. The objects to my mind can sing.
(RR:) So just looking at the card here, what we’re looking at here is an eighteenth-century Italian chalice which would have been used in church services I suppose.
(JC:) Mass, yes. It would have been used at Mass by the priest
(RR:) Tell me a bit more about how you see this chalice.
(JC:) I love this chalice because it is completely bonkers. It is of no practical use for the priest to use at Mass, it’s too heavy for him to lift physically. Also the priest at Mass needs to lift the chalice with one hand at various points in the Mass and he simply cannot do it. The vases around the bottom that are sticking up would poke into his hands as he held it! But bonkers things can be wonderful because it incorporates all the classical symbols, all the beautiful restraint of Neo-classicism despite the fact that it is completely unrestrained, the way everything has been flung at it, every Neo-classical design, leaves, vases, beading, grapes. So bonkers definitely, beautiful definitely.
(RR:) It’s actually more like a piece of furniture than a cup that you’d use isn’t it James?
(JC:) Yes. In fact I would go farther and say that it’s more than a piece of furniture, it’s almost like architecture. The design at the bottom looks like terraces with garden vases along it, you expect people to start walking along it any minute.
(RR:) What about this large, I don’t even know what it’s for, this large object in the middle of that case James?
(JC:) Yes, I presume it’s some sort of silver centre piece that was very fashionable at this period. I think it is really nasty. The foot, the Neo-classical foot, is very beautiful, yes, with the acanthus leaves scrolling above it but then this hideous great silver egg shoved on top makes it looks like a sort of Easter present gone wrong kind of thing."
(Rebecca Reynolds:) "When artist Anne Brodie first saw the Silver Galleries, it reminded her of Antarctica, where she had spent three months at the British Antarctic Survey base on an Arts Council-funded fellowship. A parallel between the two places inspired an installation for a V&A late-night opening. Anne talked to me about this."
(RR:) So, Anne, when you were talking about the installation you made for the Silver Galleries, you commented that, when you first went into the galleries, it was ‘too much; too beautiful; too impossibly bright and shiny.’ And you said it stopped you from looking. Can you say a bit more about that, please?
(Anne Brodie:) The minute I walked into the Silver Galleries, it just completely hit me. I mean, it was just so sparkly and just ridiculously bright. And it stopped me from looking because there was, literally, too much; I couldn’t focus; I couldn’t land my eyes on any one thing. It was a bit like how I might imagine Elton John and Versace to design a Silver Gallery, to be totally honest: it was too, too much. And it was also, in that respect, quite exciting to have that much glare. And I just … It totally did take me back on board – particularly – the journey to Antarctica… coming into the Antarctic Peninsula, sailing down, really gradually, through increasingly fantastic, jaw-dropping scenery, where, in actual fact, I kind of retreated inside at one point because I couldn’t make sense of just how much there was. And it was assaulting lots of my senses; it was visually and aurally and emotionally too much. And, also, the light – it was very, very, very bright; you couldn’t look at it without sunglasses. And I just didn’t know where to rest my eyes. It was just an excess. And I just kind of made that very quick connection.
(RR:) And can you tell us a bit more about what you did to the Galleries to respond to that feeling please?
(AB:) Okay. I basically did something very similar to what I did on the boat and at the research station in the Antarctic: I took sheets of transparent tracing paper – great reams of it. I wanted a more subtle shadow cast from the cabinets. I wanted to hold it back in the same way that I was putting the paper up in the windows to hold back the Antarctic. And, in Antarctica, what I actually did was, I put it up at the windows and then I ripped it, ever so … with the edge of a pen and a compass, just to let a little bit in.
(RR:) This was the windows of the boat?
(AB:) Yes, the windows of the boat and at the research station where we were. And it was just a way of making a physical filter. And so, with the galleries, I saw the freestanding cases as lanterns. I wanted to, as I said, hide – hold back – the silver but to let some of the light from the cabinets shine through. Once I had done that, I was able to look around me and I noticed, for the very first time – which I didn’t notice at the very beginning, walking into the Galleries – there are some really beautiful paintings above the cabinets – never mind the Galleries themselves. And they were just lost. So, yes, I covered them up with tracing paper, basically, and put the main lights off – the ceiling lights – in the evening. And, in the course of the evening, it got darker outside and the cabinets acted like projections and the silver glinted off the internal lights of the cabinets and just created subtle glints of the silver going on inside, which I thought was much more exciting.
(RR:) You’ve come to the end of this podcast; thanks very much for listening. Other podcasts in this series look at the British Galleries, the Jewellery Gallery and the Cast Courts.
Best of British
The V&A's British Galleries spread over two floors of the Museum, offering a view of British design from 1500 to 1900. They opened in 2001, born of 'a fervent desire' to display objects from the V&A's collections in new ways which would be meaningful to a wide range of visitors.
Are they successful in this aim? We hear from Professor of Dress and Textile History at the University of Brighton, Lou Taylor, and from Charlotte Austin, a graduate of the Design History MA run by the Royal College of Art and the V&A. We also hear from Sarah Medlam, Deputy Keeper in the V&A's Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, who explains how the objects in the galleries were selected and organised.
Hello and welcome to this podcast series, in which different people from the design world give their perspectives on galleries at the V&A. I’m Rebecca Reynolds, Higher Education Officer for the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning through Design, based at the V&A.
The V&A's British Galleries spread over two floors of the museum. They offer a view of British design from 1500 to 1900, starting with an early 16th century bust taken from a plaster cast of the face of the dead Henry VII, and finishing with furniture and other artefacts made by the Arts and Crafts movement in the nineteenth century. The Galleries opened in 2001, born of 'a fervent desire’ to display objects in new ways which would be meaningful to a wide range of visitors.
Are they successful in this aim? We hear opinions from Professor of Dress and Textile History at the University of Brighton, Lou Taylor, and Design History MA graduate Charlotte Austin. But first Sarah Medlam, Deputy Keeper in the V&A's Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, explains how the objects in the galleries are organised. She starts by talking about how the V&A selected objects for the galleries.
(Sarah Medlam:) "Well, we started by thinking of the stories that you see in the galleries, perhaps the story of the importance of the court of Henry VIII and the court of Elizabeth and the early Stuart court. And we moved on from those to try to marshall those stories into four threads or themes that run through the gallery, because it seemed to us that we were asking those people who visited the gallery completely to make a very long and complex journey and we wanted to give them threads that they could follow. And one of those threads was the question of who was it who decided or pushed taste and decided what people were going to aspire to. And of course in the early period that was the court but in the later period, for instance entrepreneurs like the cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale, were actually forcing the pace just as advertisers force the pace informing taste in the twenty-first century.
(Rebecca Reynolds:) So who led taste was one of the four themes. Can you just say a bit about the other three themes?
(SM:) The other themes that we were interested in was what was new. When were new types of object brought into British society, or when were new patterns of behaviour brought in that required particular new kinds of objects to be created for them, or when was some new technological method invented and those technologies, of course, no sooner invented were exploited, pushed by someone. A third theme we had was fashionable living, which was really to deal with this question of how patterns of behaviour changed in response to political events and also to economic events and to things like exploration. The fourth theme we dealt with in the gallery was style, and we thought that it was useful to our visitors to take them through the procession of formally named styles often only named after the time at which they were fashionable. But the famous names of Baroque, Rococo, Neo Classicism and to show people in detail what it is about an object that makes us tag it with the name of, say, Rococo or Gothic Revival.
(RR:)You mentioned that in designing the British Galleries you were carrying out a campaign against blandness. How does that campaign come across in the galleries?
(SM:) In travelling round many museums and galleries to look at recent installations we had been struck by the fact that many of them were housed in supremely elegant galleries, usually in off-white or pale grey. And although those could look very very beautiful they had a somewhat deadening effect on the objects, and of course what they didn’t do was suggest just how colourful the past was. Of course that depth of colour and saturatedness of colour exists in things like ceramics and glass in some cases but has often completely fled from any of the organic materials, wood or textiles. And so for instance when we came to re-hang the Great Bed of Ware in alternate strips of bright yellow and bright red, it really does reflect what the bed would have looked like when it was first shown.
Next we hear from Lou Taylor, Professor of Dress and Textile History at the University of Brighton.
(Rebecca Reynolds:) Lou, you've said that there are two specific joys to the British Galleries, could you say a bit more about that?
(Lou Taylor:) Yes, there are many joys of the gallery, but the two that strike me, being a dress historian who's studied in the V&A since I was a student at St Martin's a long time ago, first of all that finally fashion, clothes, textiles have been included alongside furniture painting, ceramics, jewellery and that never happened before. Fashion was always shut away on one side, so where there are garments they're placed in a context, so the contexts in are very carefully themed, I've found in a very readable and exciting way: birth, marriage, death was one, or leaders of taste is another theme that I thought was absolutely clever, so I found the gallery very readable.
(RR:) Could you talk a bit about one or two of your favourite places in the gallery?
(LT:) I absolutely love the Garrick Corner. You have to make sure you find your way up the stairs to the second floor, which quite a lot of people miss. And there in one corner is an absolutely fascinating collection of artefacts that belong to the actor David Garrick and his wife kind of around the 1740s, 50s. And he being a leading actor and theatre director was very, very famous and apparently he had this very, very smart house in the centre of London. And what the V & A have done is put together a series of artefacts that belong to him from the different departments of the museum, that was a thing they never did in the old days. The glass was always in the glass department, the chairs were in furniture and then never the twain should meet but they put them together and it's very, very interesting. If you look really, really closely at the labels to see that some of the artefacts were collected, let's say in 1896, some in the 20s and there's a painting that has been brought specially which shows them in their sitting room, recently, that was bought for the gallery. You also have the most beautiful, the most beautiful, painted Chinese silk dress that Mrs Garrick wore. Sitting next to, if I remember rightly, a porcelain tea service and a bed and a really nice label and accounting of them as leaders of taste in this setting and it thrilled me because it creates the whole atmosphere of a very tasteful, trendy, as we would say avant garde even sort of English Rococo setting. I also love the whole bit around the Victorian period, I love the stuff about the 1851 exhibition, good taste, bad taste that Cole thing, which is very, very interesting and funny. And they've got the only non-glamorous garment in the big case, which is this huge knitted man's vest, which was obviously some new knitting technology for the 1851 exhibition. It won a prize, and of course a lot of stuff came to the V & A, and I thought that was funny that they picked that but that's laid out very, very nicely.
So if we talk about the processes of going round the British Galleries, maybe a very nice idea is to think of Gaynor Kavanagh's words about what museums are. She calls them 'dream spaces’ which I love. So maybe I'm saying that when you go into the British Galleries it needs to become your space to dream, to take slow dream time, looking at…if it's the clothes that fascinate you, how might they be, have been worn, how might they have been made? Or just looking at the beauty of them, I keep using this word beauty and it's somehow in my area of fashion history, nobody talks about beauty anymore but the clothes, the prints, they are absolutely beautiful, so just to spend time swallowing up the beauty of them in a dream space.
Lastly, I spoke to History of Design MA graduate Charlotte Austin.
(Rebecca Reynolds:) So, Charlotte, how did you get to know the Galleries ?
(Charlotte Austin:) Well, I was introduced to the British Galleries when I took the MA History of Design course here at the Museum. We had a number of sessions in the Galleries to learn how to interpret objects. And, in fact, our first essay concentrated on individual objects and many of these were selected by students from the British Galleries. And through this work, we learnt how to interpret objects in relation to the broader context of their manufacture and how they were used.
(RR:) And are there any objects that you’d particularly pick out from the Galleries yourself?
(CA:) Well, for me, the most intriguing pair of objects are Margaret Laton's jacket and the portrait of her wearing it. I found this pair quite moving really because they connect the past and the present. We have this jacket, which exists now, in the present, and then we have a portrait, which shows how it existed and how it was perceived in the past. And, through the jacket, we can connect with Margaret and we can connect with the painter. For instance, we can follow with our eyes – or even sketch – the embroidered patterns in the same way as the painter did all those years ago. And I think there’s something quite magical about that.
(RR:) And what else do you think the galleries particularly offer?
(CA:) Well, the galleries are organised in a chronological fashion and so you can follow paths, depending on your interests, through the Galleries. So, for instance, I used the British Galleries to write a museum trail, which follows how classical styles were popular and then, how medieval styles superseded these. There are displays of various objects which were influenced by both of these styles. For instance, there is a corner of artefacts which shows how people’s fascination with the classical styles went to the extent that they actually went on the Grand Tour to look at them in person. And then you can walk through the galleries to see other objects with a completely different look: the gothic feel – like King René’s cabinet.
(RR:) And is there anything missing from the Galleries for you?
(CA:) One disadvantage of the Galleries is that they’re quite dark, but they have to be like this for conservation reasons. Possibly, now, they feel a bit dated in comparison to the newer galleries in the museum, like the Jewellery Gallery, which is very new and shining. On the other hand though, the Galleries have an amazing atmosphere; it’s very restful and contemplative. They’re a really lovely place, where you can go and sketch or just imagine the past.
You’ve come to the end of this podcast; thanks very much for listening. Other podcasts in this series look at the Silver Galleries, the Jewellery Gallery and the Cast Courts.
What a Jewel
Lockets containing human hair, a gold collar from 700 BC and earrings made with birds' heads are a few of the objects to be found in the V&A's Jewellery Gallery, which opened in 2008, holding jewellery made in the western tradition. We explore the gallery with curator Richard Edgcumbe, artist-jeweller Dorothy Hogg and the gallery's architect Eva Jiricna.
'it fired me with enthusiasm to see the jewellery, it focused me on what I wanted to see... and it offered me lots of information that was new that I didn't have and didn't know, particularly about materials.' (Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics BA student, first year)
Hello and welcome to this podcast series, in which different people from the design world give their perspectives on galleries at the V&A. I’m Rebecca Reynolds, Higher Education Officer for the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning through Design, based at the V&A
Lockets containing human hair, a gold collar from 700 BC and earrings made with birds’ heads are a few of the objects to be found in the V&A's jewellery gallery, which opened in 2008, holding jewellery made in the western tradition. We explore the gallery with Richard Edgcumbe, senior curator in the V&A's department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass. Then artist-jeweller Dorothy Hogg picks out some of her favourite objects from the gallery. Finally, the gallery’s architect Eva Jiricna talks about the challenge of transforming what was, in her words, ‘a sausage-shaped space with awkward walls’ into a jewellery showcase.
First curator Richard Edgcumbe explains what the V&A were aiming to achieve with the gallery:
(Richard Edgcumbe:) We were trying to do two things in the gallery. We wanted to have a visual delight in which the jewellery seems to float within reach and without anything between you and it, sparkling away where it wants to sparkle. And at the same time we wanted to have a really coherent story of the history of jewellery. Those two things were fundamental, and that's about everything we've done.
(Rebecca Reynolds:) And what kind of stories did you want to bring out in the gallery?
(RE:) We wanted to present firstly and foremost a chronology of jewellery. We start back in 1500BC, but in fact we get serious from about 1200AD, and from then on we’re probably producing the most comprehensive showing of jewellery that you can get - western jewellery - which you can get anywhere in the world. So that’s the real strength of the collection, we wanted to tell that story, present it really coherently. We do that in two ways. One, we do it by having a straightforward sequence running round the walls, so you start at one end, work down to the other end, get to 1900AD, come back down and get to the contemporary. But we also have down the middle a series of curved cases, sensational curving cases right at the limits of what you can do with glass technology, so very exciting things in themselves, but in fact they have some of the starry pieces. And in those cases, and there are only about 50 pieces in them, going down the whole length of the gallery, you get the same chronology of jewellery. So if you’ve just got half an hour, if you’re not quite sure what you feel about jewellery, start with them and you can work down those. And if at any point you want to know more about the Middle Ages say, turn to your left and you’ll find more on the Middle Ages in the cases on the wall.
There are jewels that belonged to Catherine the Great, and if you want to see how they work you can go to one of the computers in the gallery and see how the diamond ornaments were worked in with ropes and ropes of garnet, something we didn’t understand until a year or two ago. But that’s exactly where the computers in the gallery really help you. Equally, the computers show you the backs of every jewel. And of course the people making the jewellery are the heroes of the gallery just as much as… more than really, more than the people who commission the stuff. So it’s fantastic to have Catherine the Great, its fantastic to have Elizabeth I, but it’s also fantastic to have the tremendous products of craftsmen through the ages.
Jeweller Dorothy Hogg was artist in residence at the V&A for six months. I walked around the gallery with her, looking at some of the pieces.(Rebecca Reynolds:) Are there any particular pieces you'd pick out of the gallery as being particular favourites?
(Dorothy Hogg:) Yes, there's a beautiful necklace by a lady called Sah Oved, who was born in 1900 and it's called Life Began in Water and that in itself is quite unusual. It's made of various metals, gold, silver, there's agates, jasper and aquamarines. But the agates have inclusions which look like the beginnings of fish and I'm sure that's how she would have got the title - sitting in her workshop, looking through her packets of stones and passing them through her hands and thinking what could I make with this, and the concept would develop.
(RR:) You mentioned this 1850 bodice ornament and looking at it what really attracts me is that it seems to be trembling as you look at it, and that makes the diamonds shine in different ways.
(DH:) Yes, this is an absolutely huge bodice ornament covered in diamonds and there are little clusters of flowers, which are made on to springs so that as the person moved, these sections would tremble and catch the light. It's called tremblant, using a French word.
(RR:) And you're pulling open a drawer at the side of this interactive display on the top floor.
(DH:) Yes, I think people could easily miss this but this is a complete treasure. There are a number of drawers and inside the one I'm looking at, I'm looking at things which would be affected by the light, the hair jewellery in here, where human hair was incorporated into pieces of jewellery.
(RR:) And there's one here where the hair's formed into a kind of a corn sheaf held together with some kind of jewels and plaited hair around it.
(DH:) Yes, it's probably a locket, maybe inside is a photograph of the person whose hair it was, the deceased person, that makes it all very sad, doesn't it?
(RR:) And then in the third drawer down we have some darker coloured jewellery here.
(DH:) Yes, what we're looking at here is tortoise shell that was inlaid with precious metal, it's called piqué work. And obviously we would not use tortoise shell now, but actually when I was a jeweller starting off in the 60s, we were, we didn't think it was not okay to use natural materials like these, obviously we know much better now but it just gives you an indication of the sort of naivety of the time. They're really beautiful brown pieces, tortoiseshell, little delicate traceries of gold. And the way they did it was to boil the tortoiseshell, make the delicate lattice work of gold and then press it in while the tortoiseshell was soft, let it cool down, dry out and it would clamp the gold in place.
(RR:) And this is a drawer full of jet jewellery.
(DH:) Yes, Queen Victoria was in mourning for such a long time everybody wore black jewellery for ages and jet is a natural fossilised coal-like material, so it's black and it's shiny and it comes from Whitby in Yorkshire mainly. And they were big factories in Whitby where they made a lot of jet jewellery, so it's all black and it's carved. And for example one I'm looking at here is a pendant piece with Lily of the Valley carved into it, and there are other pieces with portrait heads and sentimental pieces with hands holding things, it's very interesting, it's quite fragile.
Lastly, I talked to architect Eva Jiricna about designing the gallery space and displays.(Rebecca Reynolds:) Eva, can you tell me what your role was in the design of the Gallery?
(Eva Jiricna:) As an architect the first issue is how you deal with the space, and when we got the Gallery the Gallery was one tall little sausage, if I may say so, with very awkward walls, a very ugly ceiling and two doors, one for the entry and one for the exit. We knew that we were going to display about 4800 pieces of jewellery, and we knew there was not enough space on the walls to do so, so we knew immediately that we needed a mezzanine floor.
Of course architecture only lives and is visible when you do the right lighting, and that was the most tricky part of the scheme because some of the objects have to have very limited lighting which means sometimes less than 50 lux. Some objects like modern jewellery can take any light and doesn’t sparkle unless you give it really a substantial amount of sparkle. Diamonds need different lighting than gold, some of the precious stones that visitors can see now plenty of also need special lighting. So to resolve the lighting - I think that was the most difficult task I have ever experienced in my architectural practice or my architectural life.
Of course the next task was what the space was going to look like. The Gallery is part of a Victorian building, and of course it was a space which was completely devastated by all the previous conversions. So we wanted to give back something which would give you the basic feeling of being a natural part of that Victorian fabric, of the Victorian idea, of the Victorian feeling. And so we selected a colour which was very much a Victorian colour, which is dark red, which is very close to black. But still it gives you the softness because of course when you display the jewellery and when you have such limited lighting conditions, you try to put it on a black background because otherwise you will see all the shadows. And so this softness of red in connection with the dark black matt surfaces of the other boards, if you call it that way, just gives us a slightly softer impression, which to my mind feels better with the Victorian building.
Also I think we had an opportunity to put a very short history of jewellery into the staircases and what those staircases should look like. It was a question which lasted for a couple of years to be resolved. We had an opportunity to work with extremely bright and capable people who made the glass turn in all kinds of directions and I have never seen such a perfection in production of the glass which is three dimensional rather than just a flat piece of a display cabinet.
You’ve come to the end of this podcast; thanks very much for listening. Other podcasts in this series look at the Silver Galleries, the British Galleries and the Cast Courts.
Thoughts on the Court
Imagine you're an aspiring artist or designer in the 19th century. You're desperate to see great works of sculpture and architecture, but have no money to travel. What would you do? One option might be to visit the V&A's Cast Courts, two huge rooms full of plaster casts of great European works. But what relevance can the Cast Courts have to us today? Here we listen to Catherine Duncumb, V&A + RIBA Architecture Education Officer; Architecture tutor Jos Boys and Interior Architecture graduate Madelyn Fleming.
'I thought a lot more about the space when the architecture students talked about it because that is not something that I think about normally.' (Graphic Design BA student, first year)
'it brought my attention to the upper levels where all the hidden parts are, and all the names along the wall of ... all the interesting historical places…' (Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics BA student, first year)
Imagine you’re an aspiring artist or designer in the nineteenth century. You’re desperate to see great works of sculpture and architecture, but have no money to travel. What would you do? One option might be to visit the V&A’s Cast Courts. First opened in 1873, these two huge rooms are full of plaster casts of works from northern Europe, Spain and Italy. Here copies of Renaissance sculptures rub shoulders with casts of Norwegian doorways and of effigies from thirteenth century Europe.
But what relevance do the Cast Courts have to us today? Founded as they are on the belief that one should copy great works of the past in order to learn, can they still speak to an age which favours originality as a central aim of good art and design? Here we listen to three people with particular interests in the Cast Courts: Catherine Duncumb, V&A + RIBA Architecture Education Officer; Jos Boys, Architecture tutor at the University of Brighton; and Madelyn Fleming, graduate from the Interior Architecture BA at the University of Brighton, who explains a design she developed for the Courts.
First we hear fromV&A + RIBA Architecture Education Officer Catherine Duncumb, who starts by describing what happens when groups visit the Courts:
(Catherine Duncumb:) I often take groups in there and it’s very satisfying to see their reaction when they walk in and they say ‘wow’. And I think for everybody it’s a very instant, physical, emotional response.
First and foremost, the scale of the objects, which are unlike others in the Museum, but also the magnificence of the numbers of these objects populating the space. A sort of jumble collection which you can’t quite work out what it is, what they are, how come they got there, and all sorts of questions pop into your head that you can’t wait to answer, but meanwhile perhaps one’s itching to get in there and have a look around.
It’s quite a different space, the way the objects are curated, you can rummage around, it’s a bit like going into the attic and seeing what you can find – sometimes your vision is blocked by objects and you want to move around and look behind it – there’s a sense of, I don’t know – surprise, discovery. You can meander more, much less controlled than, perhaps, other places in the Museum.
One of the first things I find people want to know is – where did these things come from, and how did they get here. I think first and foremost people generally think that objects were stolen or looted, but of course they weren’t, and the history of the Cast Courts is interesting in that they were founded out of a purely educational ethos so that people could understand, enjoy and appreciate the objects. There was a time when people turned their nose up at something that’s fake, but here fakeness has a value in preserving things – providing access to objects which otherwise are not easy to look at. A time long ago when people didn’t have the funds to travel, this is what they could come to and see – and nowadays of course we don’t have that distinction – we’re more familiar with seeing things either through the internet, television… and also sometimes because the originals have been damaged and may not exist any more – and that’s where people really start to get interested, because it’s what you can’t tell from looking at them.
If you look up, there’s also more to see in terms of details and the names of places of architectural interest running round the top of the room. And also the fragments that if you go to one end of the space, you can see still with their tags on. Again, how did these things get there? Can you find that out?'
Perhaps it’s also worth wondering what types of buildings these fragments are from. Are they of one type, or many different types? Once you start looking more closely, you start to notice that they are associated with spaces of worship, places of worship, largely a church, so one gets a feeling of the power and domination of the church. It doesn’t give you a sense of other cultures, or where these objects are from, these fragments, they’re symbols of worship and reverence. It’s a bit like collecting souvenirs – they’re not necessarily sympathetic to the place of origin – it almost has a sense of empire.
I’ve actually seen the Portico in Santiago di Compostela. You respond to things differently when you’re there on site, in context, and when you see them as a fragment in a museum. They’re quite divorced from reality, and because of the nature of pulling all these pieces together they almost have a unity in that space which they would never have in their actual context, where you’d have different noises, hustle and bustle round, smells, temperature – quite, quite different.
But it does mean you are forced to look at details perhaps more closely than when you’re actually there seeing them in the context.
Next I talked to Architecture tutor Jos Boys, who reflects on the history and structure of the Courts.
(Jos Boys:) I think what I really like about the Cast Courts is that it’s like a little city, there are kind of random assemblies of objects, like lots of buildings put together completely cheek by jowl without any underlying logic, quite randomly, and that means you get this really unexpected relationship between the objects. You get changes in scale, types of surface, material, and it just means you see more than just the individual objects. The other thing I like about it is that it is in daylight, it’s naturally lit. I think that also helps make it feel like it’s a place or a small town. And the way the light comes from above gives just that fantastic quality of being in a very different sort of space to many museums.
(Rebecca Reynolds:) And can you tell us a bit about why the collections were put together?
(JB:) The collections are put together for a very deliberate reason. They were examples of the very best types of noble architectural features and sculptures from different periods and places, and they were there for architects and for stone carvers and others to draw, to copy. It’s a very different notion of education, particularly architectural education, which is that you copy from the past rather than that you ignore it.
(RR:) And could you say a bit about the architecture of the Cast Courts?
(JB:) This building was designed in the 1870s as really meant to be two quite simple and bold sheds designed by General Henry Scott. And what’s quite hard for us to see, I think, is that the whole building was using iron construction in a very innovative way. Although it’s clad with more traditional materials, most of the structure is held up through an iron frame, which was very new at the time. Then in terms of the Cast Courts themselves, you get the two big spaces, and then between them there’s this narrow gallery formed by a high level corridor, and that’s actually very decorative. The whole place is meant to be impressive in its simplicity, the way that the colours that are chosen, the kind of plainness of finishes, it’s meant to be sombre. But you also get these mosaic floors, which were laid by women inmates of Woking Prison.
The other thing that’s different to the way that architecture is designed today, and again quite hard to get hold of, is that division between the frame that’s holding everything up, and then the decoration that takes place on top of it. Richard Redgrave, who worked with the V&A founder, Henry Cole, to reform industrial art education, the way that he stated that was ‘our object is to fit a building for use, and then to decorate it afterwards’. Well by the time I was trained in architecture in the 1970s, that division was considered to be unacceptable, buildings had to look like what they contained, so it was a very different notion.
(RR:) And as you say, we’re now living in a time which emphasises innovation and originality more. How would you as a design tutor use the Cast Courts now in teaching?
(JB:) I would really enjoy ways of drawing that so changed the scale that you could imagine that a very small part of one piece was the size of a whole building, or that if you drew two next to each other you were actually exploring the kind of ambiguities and differences between different approaches, particularly say between western architecture and eastern examples.
I think the thing that’s different, is that when those examples were put together they would have been seen as having a really clear hierarchy of which were the best, which were least good, or which were enjoyable and interesting because they were exotic, i.e. non-western. And now I think we’re much more interested in seeing everything, that there isn’t a special kind of good example and then other things that are less interesting. So I wouldn’t want to pick out a particular bit of the Cast Court, or if I did I’d probably pick out something very seemingly banal, because it’s from that that you might be able to think quite laterally and creatively rather than from some of the great masters.
Madelyn Fleming was given a brief to develop a design for one of the Cast Courts in her final year on the University of Brighton’s Interior Architecture BA. She had to design a temporary construction for the Cast Courts which would communicate to others how she saw the space. I talked to her about her design.
(Rebecca Reynolds:) What was your first response to the Cast Courts space?
(Madelyn Fleming:) I felt intimidated by the scale of the space. I immediately looked upwards towards the skylights before I even looked at what was in the room, including the two columns in the centre. Walking round the space I felt claustrophobic, due to the dense content of the space. It felt like a mini city with two skyscrapers in the centre. When I drew a section through the space I divided it into three sections – the floor level with a claustrophobic feel, the middle section with the unused, negative space and the roof which seemed to act as a cage because of the grid of the skylight.
(RR:) So what we’ve got in the design is a kind of skin which you’ve put along one side of the Cast Courts, the side with the side entrances….and the skin forms three tunnels going into the Cast Courts, which a person would go along, and one tunnel is straight and leads up to an object, another tunnel curves round an object, and another tunnel, a bit of a longer one, slants up to Trajan’s column. Is that right?
(MF:) Yeah, basically, it wraps around all the entrances like a skin and goes into the Cast Court and out again, and in and out again, so visitors find themselves in the Cast Court but not being able to see it, apart from the roof.
(RR:) And what’s this skin made of?
(MF:) It’s made of sheet steel, which is 6 metres high, bolted together, and latex is bolted to it, at intervals.
(RR:) So how did you want to alter the Cast Court space?
(MF:) I didn’t want to alter the Cast Court itself; I wanted to change the entrance. What interested me was to translate my initial reaction to the space in the installation, in order to make others react the same way, making them feel claustrophobic before they even entered the space. I also wanted to create a sense of frustration in the visitors by denying access to the Cast Courts until the very end of the archway. As well as denying access I wanted to deny any views into the Cast Court apart from the ceiling, therefore making them look upwards first.
The latex on the sides of the installation would allow people to touch it on either side, creating shapes recalling a baby in a womb, which would emphasize a sense of enclosure. This sense of restriction would increase the visitor’s curiosity about the space.
(RR:) And you said as well you wanted to show the scary side, or negative side of the Cast Courts. Can you say a bit more about that?
(MF:) I thought I had quite a weird reaction to the Cast Courts and I wanted people to see that, because not many people I think would react that way.
(RR:) Did you feel differently towards the Courts by the end of the project?
(MF:) I definitely felt more comfortable towards the end, especially as I sat down in the middle and drew it….at various times I felt more secure within it.
You’ve come to the end of this podcast; thanks very much for listening. Other podcasts in this series look at the Silver Galleries, the Jewellery Gallery and the British Galleries.