An anonymous donation and the decision to commission the Sculpture collection’s first contemporary work of art sparked off a series of ideas that resulted in an exciting and fruitful collaboration between the artist Felicity Powell and the V&A’s curators.
The Museum commissioned Felicity Powell to produce a medal to commemorate the 19th-century curator of sculpture, John Charles (later Sir Charles) Robinson (1824–1913). It is largely due to Robinson that the V&A now houses one of the world's foremost collections of Renaissance sculpture. He travelled through Europe during the 1850s and 1860s, pursuing works of art then available on the market as a result of turbulent times in Italy, France and Spain
Robinson acquired two major collections of Italian Renaissance sculpture – the Gherardini collection of artists’ terracotta and wax models in 1854, and the Gigli-Campana collection of sculpture in 1860–61. Many of these works are now on display in the V&A.
Commemorative medals became popular in the Renaissance, appearing first in France about 1402 before being produced more widely in Italy and the rest of Europe. The earliest patrons were kings, queens and courtiers, whose portraits usually appeared on one side of the medal, while an emblem or image alluding to their power, fame or virtue would appear on the other side.
The medals were usually cast in small numbers in gold, silver or bronze. Later, bronze medals were often given a final patination of applied colour or chemical solution. In the 18th and 19th centuries, medals were produced in larger numbers and used widely, sometimes for propaganda purposes. They were made by using metal dies to strike the medal in much the same way that coins are produced today.
The medal designed by Felicity Powell takes the traditional form of the commemorative medal, but she then subverts the format by not having a portrait of Robinson on one of the sides. Instead, she has chosen to reproduce a phrase written by Robinson himself, 'Now is the time'.
The phrase is taken from a letter he wrote on 6 September 1866 when in Madrid. Robinson was desperate to persuade the Museum authorities in London to support purchases he wanted to make.
‘Now is the time’ is written rapidly and underlined for greater emphasis, showing how passionate Robinson was about this venture. Felicity Powell, by choosing to show Robinson’s handwriting and words, reveals more of his personality than is possible through a traditional portrait.
On the other side of the medal there are five hands. These are a visual reference to Robinson’s role in forming the Sculpture collection at the V&A, and to two works in particular.
The hands, in a similar positioning, can be seen in The Annunciation of about 1300 from the workshop of Arnolfo di Cambio. The one at the top is the hand of God, while those to the right and left respectively are the hands of the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, who announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of Christ.
The low relief style of the hands derives from the work of the Renaissance sculptor Donatello. One of Robinson’s most celebrated acquisitions was 'The Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter', a work by Donatello of about 1428–30. In it, the artist represents spatial depth in shallow relief. The bronze edge of the medal carries Robinson’s name together with his birth and death dates.
The artist’s initials ‘FP’ and '2002', the date she made the medal, also appear. Finally, medals often carry phrases or images that the viewer might not immediately understand, without a knowledge of the person commemorated or the story of the commission. The phrase on this medal ‘FROM FEW TO MANY’, words chosen by the artist, can be interpreted in several ways, but one of its meanings is a reference to the anonymous donor whose generosity began the whole story.