Curating a Cabinet

November 27, 2014

A display case consisting of nine glass shelves lies between the ceramic studio and the collections up on the 6th floor of the Museum. It is designed to temporarily house objects chosen by the resident artist to spark conversations and assist in communicating their ideas and interests. As the current resident, I find it an intimidating slither of space due to knowledge of past residents’ approaches, and the fact that the public are just the other side of the transparent divide.

The current climate of art education, the history of the V&A, and the three-dimensionality of ‘the tile’ are prominent areas that I am exploring during my time at the Museum, and I have picked objects that will help me explain this. As outlined below, the pieces are borrowed from the Museum collections, the prints and drawings archive, the store at Blythe House, a private collection, and are mixed in with examples of my existing work.

I began my residency at the beginning of October, and have just completed my first combination of objects in the case. I intend to change and add to the selection, but thought I would elaborate on why these things are important to me and why they are currently on display.

My view of the display (November 2014) © Matthew Raw
My view / the back of the display (November 2014) © Matthew Raw

The four big, individual letters are various adaptations of Godfrey Sykes’s bespoke V&A alphabet work. I’m still learning just how instrumental he was in the design and decoration of the Museum back when it was conceived post Great Exhibition (1851).

The label on the case of letters © V&A Museum
The label on the case of letters © V&A Museum

I have borrowed a few of the hand-drafted, charcoal letters from the Prints & Drawings Archive. Each design incorporates people in different positions who wrap themselves around the letter. I’ve not got to the bottom of the ideas behind each character yet, but they are clearly of their time, and I harbour ambitions to one day to create a contemporary version of the alphabet, complete with a commentary on our time. Thanks to Francis Rankine, from the Museum’s Prints & Drawings department, who has provided invaluable knowledge in finding these original pieces. They have a lovely confident line quality about them, and they stand proudly on two of the top shelves.

Sykes's dramatic M from the Prints & Drawings Archive © V&A Museum
Sykes’s dramatic ‘M’ from the Prints & Drawings Archive © V&A Museum

The sinister looking, blue tile depicting the letter ‘V’ was introduced to me by Rebecca Wallis – curator of the Western 19th-Century Ceramics and Glass Collection. Due to a combination of the crude brushwork and fact that these tiles don’t appear anywhere in the Museum, I think that this is the work of a Royal College of Art student back in the mid 19th Century. I was attracted by its scale and hands-on aesthetic. It also provides a bridge from the two-dimensional charcoal letters to the three-dimensional tile that I’ve displayed it next to.

Painted 'V' (Museum no. 700W – 1868) © V&A Museum, and relief 'M' © Glenn Benson
Painted ‘V’ (Museum no. 700W – 1868) © V&A Museum, and relief ‘M’ © Glenn Benson

The wonderful, chunky ‘M’ has been the trickiest of the items to track down and get here. Sykes’ drawings were made into relief tiles (most famously used in the V&A café… where they remain – go check them out!) by the company Minton & Co. They are very much part of the fabric of the building, rather than a catalogued object, which allows you to touch them. My relationship with them has grown over the years due in part to the Secondary School Graphics workshop (which I run at the Museum with Rebecca English in the Learning Department), where these 3D tiles are a crucial part of the students’ whistle-stop research into typography. I set about finding one to exhibit here, but the journey was not as predicted…

Getting the 'M' to the Museum
Getting the ‘M’ to the Museum © Glenn Benson

On the second day of my residency I was introduced to Blythe House – the V&A’s archive at Kensington Olympia (which incidentally is open to the public too). Glenn Benson showed me round, and we have been conversing ever since, sending links back and forwards about various objects and historical references. Glenn has worked at the V&A in various capacities for over 30 years and he is a fountain of knowledge, knowing exactly whom I should speak to about various lines of enquiry. He knew that back in the late 1980’s / early 90’s, the V&A shop produced facsimile tiles based on the Sykes and Minton & Co versions. They were apparently very popular, but we couldn’t find them anywhere. Until one showed up on eBay, and Glenn snapped it up… along with another six letters from the same range. I have loaned the ‘M’ tile from his personal collection, and I am very grateful for this and his investigative skills.

These letters relate to my love of 3D type and help me understand the pride, skill and time that went into the design and execution of making this grand Museum. At every turn, the Museum’s creators – Henry Cole and his chums – invested in the practitioners of the time.

Glenn sat proudly by his newly acquired collection
Glenn sat proudly by his newly acquired collection © Matthew Raw

The bricks – displayed on the other top shelf – were discovered on the Blythe House trip on ‘Day 2’ too. The interior of the building (built to house the Post Office Bank) is floor to ceiling Victorian glazed brick. I became quickly obsessed with the subtle variety and range of compositions these rectangles provide. Just outside reception there lies a huge pile of old, damaged bricks, so I asked if I could borrow a few! I have displayed them next to the new bricks, which the V&A use to replace the damaged ones (see image below). I love the stark contrast not only visually, but also in the story behind their production – one being hand packed with the mark of the factory evident, and the other industrially extruded and, in my opinion, a bit anaemic looking. For me, they spark thoughts and conversations about the lack of the hand made, loss of skill / industry, and how people are simply not ‘making’ in general today.

The old and new © Matthew Raw
The old and new © Matthew Raw

William Morris was a great communicator and antagonist when it came to the Victorians moving away from hand based skills. I have to admit that at University I was bored stiff of William Morris lectures and being forced to look at his wallpaper! It wasn’t until my studio collective – Manifold – were approached by the National Trust to create work inspired by Morris and his Red House in 2012, that I gave him another shot. Discovering his socialist ideals and the energy with which he promoted them was incredible, and it has remained a big influence on my work and thinking ever since. For our show ‘This Is How To Live’, I created an artwork entitled ‘For a Few’ in reaction to Morris’ writings, and the then planned (now implemented) rise in student tuition fees which I marched against in 2010 when I worked for the Royal College of Art Student Union. The hand carved wooden block was homage to learning new skills, creating something useful and beautiful, and recognising his energy is spreading his belief that the world could be a better, fairer place.

Detail of 'Few A Few' 2012
Detail of ‘Few A Few’ 2012 © Matthew Raw

I realised that Morris’ concerns had many parallels to today’s climate. The more I read and explore him, the more this is evident. I am of course not alone in this thinking, as the current Anarchy & Beauty exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery shows. In my proposal for this residency, I expressed a wish to ‘hire’ Morris in an advisory role to me during my time here. So far so good – I am really enjoying discovering how he influenced the creation of the Museum, and how he and his contempories (namely John Ruskin) were prolific in their varied output of work and ideas.

Marching against the cuts in 2010
RCA students marching against the cuts in 2010 © Matthew Raw

A recent addition to the cabinet has been a small pressed glass ‘plate commemorating the achievements of the American philanthropist George Peabody… He was a great benefactor to the poor of London.’ (English 19th Century Press Moulded Glass, Colin. R. Lattimore, 1979) I discovered this plate on Search the Collections after briefly researching the work of Peabody and was attracted to the folky typography. He was dissatisfied with the education and housing systems of the time – issues that we are facing again: gentrification and shifting demographics are issues that I am seeing and experiencing first hand at the moment in the area of East London where I live and (usually) work.

Pressed glass Peabody plate © V&A Museum. Thanks to Florence Tyler
Pressed glass Peabody plate (Museum no. CIRC.509-1967) © V&A Museum. Thanks to Florence Tyler

A solitary yellow diamond tile sits amongst a range of rich, navy blue tiles. These are ‘spare’ tiles from my recent commission for the Jerwood Makers Award 2014. I believe that the pub is a key social indicator into what is happening in an area, so I made a fictional, but actual sized, ceramic pub façade – entitled ‘The Shifting Spirit’ – discussing the change happening where I live. Hand-rolling the 250+ tiles has inevitably focussed my attention onto tiles and their manufacture, history, and arrangement. I want my assortment in the case to remind me of that important project, and push me to develop tiles three-dimensionally.,

'The Shifting Spirit' 2014
‘The Shifting Spirit’ 2014 © Matthew Raw

It is this attraction to chunky forms that (at times) can be classed as a tile, that accounts for the remaining three objects in my cabinet of wonder and awe. The Adoration of the Magi was a piece that I was drawn to as far back as my interview for the residency. When on show in it’s normal home of Room 143, it is arrestingly three dimensional on display at knee height. In comparison to the image on Search the Collections, it appears almost as a completely different piece (see below). My guess (which anyone is welcome to challenge) is that the craftsman behind this gorgeous Italian 15th Century object, was responsible for making the piece AND glazing it. The crude form relates seamlessly with the decoration, with an outline picking out low relief details. Described as a panel on the V&A database, it has freed me up and inspired a series of text based pieces that I am initially calling ‘discussion panels’.

'The Adoration of the Magi' as normally displayed (Museum no. 2410-1856)
‘The Adoration of the Magi’ as normally displayed (Museum no. 2410-1856) © V&A Museum

The Iznik pallet caught my attention when I was studying for my Masters. I discovered the ‘shades of midnight’ – a range of vibrant and unique colours used by the crafts people of the time to adorn mosques and develop their love of pattern. The calligraphic Arabic text – which I cannot understand, and therefore only view as an image – always grabs me, but the blue lion fragment I have chosen is a reminder of stories being made visual and permanent in ceramics. One imagines the larger tile and building it must have help clad.

Iranian tiger (Museum no. 1530-1876)
Iranian tiger (Museum no. 1530-1876) © V&A Museum

The final pieces are from an Iranian frame, but are separated and broken which allows me to display them at different angles to highlight their incredible profile. The V&A has another five pieces of the same object, but i’m not necessarily interested in showing the piece complete – I want to celebrate their ‘chunkiness’ and pressed aesthetic. It’s the total 3D tile that I hope will keep my mind open to what a tile can be!

Profile of the Iranian frame (Museum no. unknown)
Profile of the Iranian frame (Museum no. unknown) © V&A Museum

Special thanks to Laura Southall, Francis Rankine, Florence Tyler, Glenn Benson, Rebecca Wallis, Rebecca English, and Alun Graves for their help and support up to this stage. And of course Margaret and Jeremy Strachan, thanks to whom my residency is made possible.

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