Jump to navigation

V&A logo

V&A blogs

Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

RSS web feed image

Archive for the 'Photographs' Category

Picturing the Past

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

 By Stuart Frost

Untitled, about 1858. William Lyndon Smith (1835-65). Museum no. E.292-2008. Given by David Lyndon Smith.A major milestone was reached last month when the gallery space that will become The Renaissance City 1350-1600 was handed back to the V&A by the contractors. With the opening of the galleries a little over six months away everyone who is working on the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries is working at a formidable level. Major and minor milestones are passing, and receding into the distance, at a rapid rate.

Installation of complex objects in Gallery 50 is continuing to make good progress. The gallery texts have been through the third proofing stage. Work is also almost complete on the publications that will complement the galleries. From my own point of view the development of gallery films, touch-screen interactives, audios and other more hands-on activities continues at a pace. I’ve been posting images of the manufacture of handling objects, such as a 16th-century gauntlet, on Flickr intending to use them in blog entries but then failing to do so. I must catch up!

Untitled, About 1858, Roger Fenton (1819-69). Albumen print. Museum no. 31:986.There has been a concerted effort amongst the team to track down any remaining photographs of buildings or objects that are required for gallery graphics or interactives. The V&A has significant collections related to both photographs and architecture so in obtaining images we’re aware that we have high standards to maintain. In 1858 the V&A (or South Kensington Museum as it was then) became the first museum to host a major exhibition of photographs.

Over the course of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries project I’ve developed a deepening appreciation for photography generally and architectural photography in particular. A selection of fifteen photographic prints will be included in the exciting new daylit gallery space in a display entitled Living With The Past. These photographs will highlight some of the most significant buildings built in medieval and Renaissance Europe through a nineteenth century lense. The prescence of daylit, filtered through a remarkable glass roof, means that of necessity only reproduction prints will be displayed in this space. However visitors will be able to see the original photographs in the Print Study Room by appointment should they wish to do so.

The Photography Gallery, Room 38a, at the V&A has always been one of my favourite rooms. The display has recently been rehung and I was keen to see which photographs had been selected from the Museum’s vast collections. Some of the photographs chosen have been hung in a way that evokes the approach used in the 1858 exhibition. I’ve illustrated this blog entry with a couple of examples that I think are particularly appropriate. I hope you find them as inspiring as I do. As always if you’d like to know more about the image, click on the picture.

The photograph immediately above shows the west facade of Lincoln cathedral. The picture at the top of this blog entry is of a ruined Gothic church that remains enigmatically unidentified in the label text. If you do recognise the building please post your identification below!

Harold Godwinson, Hastings and Hollywood

Friday, February 27th, 2009

By Stuart Frost

Conservation work on a section of a 19th photograph of the Bayeux Tapestry, February  2009.Long term readers of this blog will know that the Bayeux Tapestry is a subject that is close to my heart. Conservation work was recently completed on a section of one of two nineteenth-century photographic copies of the Bayeux Tapestry at the V&A.

One of the V&A’s photographs exists as a complete roll matching the length of the original tapestry. The other photograph was also once a roll but it was seperated into twenty-five sections in the past. It is one of these sections that has benefited from the attention of conservators Merryl Huxtable and Victoria Button at the V&A.

The surface of the photograph has been delicately cleaned. The photograph has also been removed from the textile to which it was attached, allowing the print(s) to be remounted onto Japanese paper. This will help reduce some of the unevenness in the print and will ensure that it looks as good as possible when it is mounted and displayed in a Discovery Area in the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Click on the photographs to find out more about the work that has been completed. I’ve posted other photographs of the work on our Flickr site. I hope to produce a longer online subject about the Bayeux Tapestry photographs so more information will follow at a later date.

Conservators working on the Bayeux Tapestry photograph, February 2009.Hollywood appears to have finally discovered the Battle of Hastings. There are apparently no fewer than three creative teams preparing to dramatise the events of 1066 for the big screen in multi-million pound epics. The story clearly has the potential to make a great film and hopefully the competition between rival filmmakers will bring out the best in all concerned. The medieval source material varies in reliability but the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the best. It is actually some of the less trustworthy sources that provide some of the most dramatic stories and I hope that some of those make it through into one of the films.

The events leading up to the death of King Harold Godwinson on 14 October 1066 have everything a scriptwriter could want: envy, murder, exile, brother betraying brother, the breaking of sacred oaths, endless ambition, bravery, heroism, lust, love and loss.  Hopefully the universality of these themes will draw in American audiences for whom the events of 1066 are of marginal significance, just as they were for 11th century superpowers like the Byzantine Empire.

I want the film versions of 1066 to be good – the story deserves it – and with the right attention to period detail there could be some stunning set-piece scenes. However quotes like “In Hollywood terms it is a ‘buddy’ movie about two men which ended in tears” set alarm-bells ringing. The film archives at the British Film Institute provide plenty of evidence that bad men-in-tights films out-weigh the good ones. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

The Bayeux Tapestry, 19th century copy based on photographs taken for the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).In 1885 the V&A’s photographic copies provided thirty-five members of the Leek Embroidery Society with the inspiration and source material to embroider a full copy of the Tapestry. The work was completed in 1886 and after an eventful history their copy found a home in the Museum of Reading where it remains today. Each woman stitched her name beneath the section she embroidered. The detail reproduced here features the name of Elizabeth Frost, no relation!

We are about to commission sets of clothing based on garments illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Visitors to the new galleries will be able to try on an 11th century style tunic and find out more about medieval fashion and textiles.

King Alfred the Great?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Reliquary Cross, about 1000. Museum no. 7943-1862.It is the nature of history that only the names of a comparatively few people are remembered after their deaths. For the medieval period the people we know most about tend to be the most powerful, exceptional or notorious figures. 

Medieval chroniclers were fond of adding an adjective after an individual’s name. Some rulers were more fortunate than others in the label posterity gave them. Charles the Great, William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion Heart are all at the acceptable end of the spectrum, but who would want to be known as Louis the Fat, Charles the Bald or John Soft-sword?

The word great is arguably over-used today. Such and such is a great singer, footballer or actor. It is difficult to really assess someone’s merits without the perspective that the passage of time brings. However if there is one English figure who truly deserves the epithet great then it is Alfred of Wessex (849-899), ruler of the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to survive the Viking onslaught in the ninth century. 

If you need convincing about Alfred’s credentials then I’d recommend visiting Winchester to see the exhibition: Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom. The exhibition closes on 27 April 2008. The display is small but it includes some beautiful objects which are also of immense historical importance. The V&A has loaned the remarkable Anglo-Saxon reliquary illustrated above to Winchester for the duration of the display. Click on the object to find out more about the object and its link with Alfred’s achievements.

The legacy Alfred left his sucessors allowed them to consolidate the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and eventually bring all of England under the control of one monarch. The origins of modern England can arguably be traced back to Alfred’s reign. Winchester became Alfred’s main city and throughout the middle ages the city was extremely important. There is enough evidence around the modern town to give a sense of just how impressive medieval Winchester was.

Alfred’s achievements ensured that he would never be forgotten. The photograph illustrated below shows 19th century remodelling at Arundel Castle. The relief sculpture is difficult to see but it shows ‘King Alfred instituting Trial by Jury on Salisbury Plain’, evidence of Alfred’s enduring reputation as a model monarch.North Side of Quadrangle, Arundel Castle, 1852-54, Benjamin Brecknell Turner. Museum no. PH 44 1982

Click here to find out more about Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom.

The Portico de la Gloria, Santiago de Compostela

Friday, July 27th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

I have to confess that I am guilty of claiming one particular object of being my favourite, and then next week I declare something else to be the greatest artefact in the V&A’s collections. Hopefully you’ll overlook my inconsistency. This week though I am writing about an object for which I do have unique affection, and it isn’t even the real thing!West facade of Cathederal of Santiago de Compostela, Charles Thurston-Thompson. Museum no. 62:598

The V&A collections include a vast nineteenth-century plaster copy of the Portico de la Gloria from the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  Pilgrims entering the cathedral today via the main entrance in the west façade pass through the Portico de la Gloria, a masterpiece of late twelfth-century architectural sculpture. The photograph reproduced to the right shows the vast Baroque façade of the cathedral behind which the medieval masterpiece is now hidden. Click on the image for more information about the photograph.

The V&A’s plaster copy of the Portico was created in 1866 when casts were taken from the original by a team of specialists commissioned by the Director of the South Kensington Museum (as the V&A was then known). The Portico is now acknowledged as one of the great works of art of any time and place, but this wasn’t always the case.Plaster Cast Portico

Before 1865 detailed accounts of the Portico were not available and it had recieved little attention. The displaying of the plaster cast copy of the Portico at the South Kensington Museum, and the publication of a series of photographs by Charles Thurston Thompson, played a crucial role in raising public and scholarly awareness of this great work.  Where as a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David has long been admired and appreciated, the medieval Portico languished in relative obscurity for many centuries.

In my last posting I wrote about the feast day of St James which was celebrated on the 25 July. The shrine of St James is in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the saint has a prominent position on the Portico de la Gloria welcoming pilgrims to the church. Vast numbers of pilgrims of all ages and from diverse backgrounds still tread along the long route to Santiago each year, a route which people have been following for over a thousand years and which shows no sign of waning in popularity. 

PORTICO DE LA GLORIA, SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, SPAINI confess that St James and Santiago de Compostela have been on mind recently because I’m looking forward to my next holiday, the flights for which I booked a few weeks ago. Later on this summer I’ll be meeting up with a few friends in St Jean-Pied-de-Port, before walking across the Pyrenees into Spain following the pilgrim route to Santiago. Unfortunately I don’t have enough leave to be able to walk all the way in one go.  So I’ll get as far as I can in ten days this year, and then pick up where I left off next year!

To search the V&A’s collections for objects which have a connection with St James or Santiago de Compostela visit Collections Online

If you’re interested in finding out more about following the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela you may find the website of the Confraternity of St James

Romantic Ruins

Monday, June 4th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

The surviving architecture of medieval Britain perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the age.  The ruins of castles and abbeys have provided inspiration for many generations of painters, poets and photographers. The photograph of Raglan castle reproduced below has been chosen for inclusion in a display I’m pulling together that will be installed late in 2009. We’ve recently confirmed a selection of twenty-five prints from the V&A’s vast collection of photographs, all of which feature nineteenth century views of medieval and Renaissance buildings. Click on the image of Raglan for a more detailed view.

Raglan Castle from Across the Moat

Raglan Castle is located in south-east Wales, not far from the town of Monmouth. I’ve been researching the background to the castle so that I can write an object label for it and a longer database entry. I last visited Raglan on 6 September 1992. The reason I can be so precise is because the admission ticket dropped out of my old copy of the castle guidebook when I opened it. Like many people who work in museums I’m not very good at throwing things away!

Raglan was once an extremely impressive residence and fortress. Enough of the castle survives to give a vivid impression of the scale of the building and the comfortable accommodation it provided. Its architecture and furnishings reflected the wealth and status of its owners who included the Earls of Pembroke, the Earl of Huntingdon and the Earls of Worcester.  Most of the surviving structure dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. How did such a magnificent and costly castle become reduced to the impressive and romantic ruin that we can see in this photograph? 

The castle was held by Royalist forces during the English Civil War and was surrendered to Parliamentarians on 19th August 1646 after a siege which involved the use of mortars and cannon.  Shortly afterwards the castle was deliberately slighted to ensure that it couldn’t be used easily as a fortress again.  Further depredation occurred throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the castle buildings were plundered for building materials. This is story that rings true for many castles in England and Wales. It was only in 1938 that the castle was placed under the protection of the Commissioners of His Majesties Works and a programme of conservation was carried out.

Today many of us enjoy visiting castles like Raglan but this sort of leisure pursuit isn’t as recent as you might think.  A guide to Raglan was published in 1792 and was in its eleventh edition by 1829. Visiting castles is one of my greatest pleasure but I’d love to have been able to explore castle ruins as there were before they were tidied up in the twentieth century. The vegetation that you can see in this image taken in 1860 portrays Raglan as a romantic ruin, a victim of the relentless progress of time. Photographs like this became popular in the decades following the invention of photography and two other prints of Raglan by the same photographer were published in 1862 in a volume, Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain, that catered for this demand.

Early architectural photographs are a valuable record of the appearance of many great medieval buildings before the impact of organisations like English Heritage, CADW and the National Trust in preserving and interpreting them. These organisations, and others like them across Europe, play a vital and role in preserving the architectural heritage of medieval and Renaissance Europe. However part of the appeal of nineteenth century photographs like this one is that they evoke a sense of romance, discovery and mystery that I think is difficult to recapture when visiting a castle today. Personally I find that the more heavily interpreted a site is, and the more carefully manicured the surroundings, the less space there is for my imagination to wander.

For more information about Raglan Castle visit the CADW (Welsh Historic Monuments) website.

Anyone who has a passion for castles will find the Castle Studies Group website of interest.

Nothing stays the same

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

By Stuart Frost

I know nothing stays the same for very long, especially in large cities. New buildings are constructed and old ones are demolished or adapted. London is a very exciting city to live in lots of ways and the diversity of great architecture in the City is undoudtedly one of its many attractions. There aren’t many cities were you can see such a variety of buildings of different periods and styles side-by-side.

I was interested to read in the press recently debate about the impact of the construction of new buildings in proximity to the Tower of London. There is concern that these have had a negative impact on views of the City’s iconic castle. I first came to London eight years ago and remember the excitement I felt at seeing the Tower lit up at night as I waited on the platform at London Bridge for a train home. I still pass through London Bridge train station everyday, but I noticed some time ago that I could no longer see the Tower on my way to and from work. From time to time I still glimpse at where I used to be able to look across the Thames towards the castle.  The view is now completely blocked by recent developments. The White Tower is the most potent surviving architectural symbol of the Norman conquest and I feel clear views of it should be maintained. Whilst I recognise that change is inevitable, and that many new buildings are wonderful pieces of architecture in their own right, in this instance I’m more sympathetic to the view that some buildings and vistas are more important than others.

Canterbury Cathedral

I’ve been looking through the V&A’s collections of nineteenth century photographs recently, focussing on those that record medieval and Renaissance buildings and monuments. Many of these are wonderfully evocative images of buildings and cityscapes that have changed, often in quite subtle ways, sometimes more dramatic. They’re views of a world long gone. Some were taken of buildings before extensive restoration, or before urban growth tansformed their surroundings. Several examples even record buildings that no longer survive.

Click on the images for detailed views of two of my favourite photographs. We’re hoping to display a selection of twenty-five of the best photographs from the collections when the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries open. Selecting just twenty-five from the V&A’s extensive collection is, however, proving to be quite a challenge!

The object in last week’s Mystery Object blog entry is indeed a flower-holder. If anyone has seen a similar example elsewhere, either in another collection or a painting, please do let me know!

Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey

1066 and all that!

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

By Stuart Frost

The 14 October 1066 is arguably the most famous date in English history, even if most people remember the year rather than the day and month. The Battle of Hastings didn’t actually take place at Hastings. If you get off the train there looking for the site where Harold Godwinson died you’ll be disappointed. The nearest train station is at Battle. From there it is a few hundred meters to the ruins of Battle Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror on the site of his victory. Each year, on the weekend nearest to the actual date, the Battle of Hastings takes place at Battle all over again.


The Bayeux Tapestry, actually an embroidery, gives a very good impression of what the battle must have been like. Many of the scenes capture the violence and chaos of the fighting remarkably vividly. The original tapestry is in Bayeux, but Reading Museum is home to a life-size copy that was embroidered in the 19th century. Not all of the ladies who made this copy travelled to Bayeux to study the original. They used an actual-size hand-coloured photograph that was produced in the 1870s. The V&A holds this photographic copy in its collections. In fact the V&A has two photographic copies, both of which were originally on display at the Museum and which once merited their own guide book. Neither of these photographs is on public display at the moment, but we are hoping to include a section from one of them in a Discovery Area in the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries.


The Reading version of the tapestry isn’t an exact copy. For example, there is a naked male figure in the lower border of the original. One of those embroiderer’s working on Britain’s ‘very own copy’ decided to give this little chap a pair of shorts to cover his obvious exuberance. There are other examples of 19th century prudery in relation to medieval and Renaissance art. Fortunately the V&A’s plaster cast copy of Michelangelo’s David was provided with a fig-leaf rather than a pair of woollen shorts.

Find out more about the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project.

Explore Reading Museum’s tapestry online.