Former Assistant Keeper, Metalwork Department
Right time, right place
I joined the V&A in 1939. I was looking for a museum job, but there was a lot of competition. I had three years teaching at a prep school after university, before a vacancy came up at the British Museum. There were 300 applicants for the job, and I didn't get it. Then there was a vacancy at the V&A, but I was pipped to the post. I went back to my school, and thought: 'I shall be here for the rest of my life'. But a few months later I had a letter from Leigh Ashton, who was then the director's assistant, saying that a lady on the staff had resigned after getting married, and that, instead of setting up a new selection board, they would offer me the job because I had been the runner-up at the last one. So I got the job by the skin of my teeth. On 2 January 1939 I presented myself to see Eric Maclagan, the director, and was taken on as an assistant keeper.
I knew I wanted to be an orientalist. I'd been interested in Persian miniatures since the age of about eight or nine. I read Classics at Oxford, and stayed on to do a B.Litt in the faculty of oriental languages, working on the Persian miniatures in the Bodleian Library.
In the V&A, I started in the library under Charles Gibbs-Smith, a man full of ideas. He was then engaged in putting on an exhibition for the centenary of photography and the first thing I had to do was select what I thought would be suitable for display. After that, I was given the job of re-cataloguing the small collection of Persian manuscripts, which I was happy to do. Then a vacancy came up in the Department of Metalwork. It had a very large collection of oriental metalwork, both Far Eastern and Near Eastern, so I went for that post and got it. I spent the rest of my career there. One identified very much with one's own department; Major Bailey was the keeper, a very genial personality, and very pleasant.
When the war came, I was sent off to the Ministry of Home Security as an intelligence officer. I was always on the phone to the regions about security and had to write an intelligence report every day, to be sent to everyone from Winston Churchill downwards.
Then I was eventually called up to the armed services. I went into the Royal Sussex Regiment, because I had family connections there. I wasn't a very military man, so I was content to be a private and didn't look for promotion. But somebody spotted me after a time, and I ended the war as a captain in the 2nd Punjab regiment. I served in India, Burma and Malaya. I had to put my museum interests on one side, of course, though I could have seen interesting things out there. Indian museums have a lot of Islamic material, which I would have been glad to see, but they were all closed. I saw the Taj Mahal once from the air, but it was covered in scaffolding.
Picking up the pieces
I returned to the Metalwork Department. I had not had time to get deeply into anything before the war, and now I had to master the usual tasks of a curator. Major Bailey, the keeper, put me on to reading certain books on English silver. He said this and jewellery were the stock-in-trade of the department, and one was more likely to get queries from the public in these areas. So he was determined I should get a good grounding. Every day people were bringing in objects for an opinion. Some dealers used to come in quite regularly, every Saturday morning. (We were at our desks on Saturday mornings in those days). Giving opinions on items was a wonderful education. An enormous variety and range were brought in. I often couldn't identify things immediately. I had to work at it, and used to tell people to come back again. Alongside this, I was pursuing my oriental interests. I worked on the Chinese bronzes for a while, and then on Islamic metalwork, chiefly trying to work out the inscriptions in Arabic and Persian.
During the war many of the museum's exhibits had been stored for safety in stone quarries at Bradford-on-Avon - about ten miles of underground space allocated to us and the British Museum. We had to organise their return and somebody had to invigilate, so we took it in turns with the British Museum. Someone had to go for a fortnight or three weeks at a time. It was a cold winter, 1946-47, but the quarries were heated and air-conditioned for the sake of the objects, so it was very comfortable. I spent my spare time building up an index of Japanese swordsmiths. We had to walk round practically the whole system at the beginning and end of each day with a thermometer and a hygrometer - a thing like a football rattle that registered the humidity.
Once the exhibits were back at South Kensington, the galleries had to be refilled, and everything had to be checked against its catalogue entry. Unpacking was very interesting - things you hadn't seen for a long time turned up again. The finest pieces were skimmed off for new 'primary' galleries, but that left a great mass of objects that remained more or less as they had been before the war in study galleries. The new director, Leigh Ashton, introduced a primary gallery for Japanese and Chinese art, and I helped him with that. I had to meet him in the gallery every morning and he would state what his requirements were. He was known as an expert on Chinese art. It wasn't always smooth. Once Arthur Lane (keeper of ceramics) took exception to some of the arrangements made, and one morning I came to the gallery and found him with a museum assistant rearranging things that I had done under the director's instructions. I enlisted the aid of Terence Hodgkinson, the director's assistant, and he spoke a few well-chosen words to Lane. There was a certain amount of departmental rivalry about that sort of thing, depending on the personalities of the keepers involved.
There had not been many people in the museum before me with expertise in oriental art. In the Japanese and Chinese field, there was A J Koop, who became keeper of metalwork. He had been a great asset in his youth, but had terrible rheumatoid arthritis. He would come to the museum every week in his wheelchair and answer Far Eastern questions. I think he was glad to see that I was in the department to follow in his footsteps, to an extent. He specialised in Japanese swords, and was instrumental in building up our collections.
During my time oriental expertise remained sparse. There were people in ceramics with some knowledge, particularly Arthur Lane, the keeper, but I don't think you could say there were any real specialists. Other departments would send queries on oriental things to me. Paintings and Drawings would send me Japanese prints, and Woodwork referred Persian lacquer to me. There were orientalists at the British Museum and in the Royal Asiatic Society and we consulted each other - I found everyone in that field very easy and tremendously helpful.
Basil Robinson (20 June 1912 - 29 December 2005) former Assistant Keeper, Metalwork Department. Recounted to Anthony Burton in 2004.