The Gilbert Collection is no stranger to world travel. Many of the objects crossed countless borders before they were acquired by Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert. The Collection itself began its life in Los Angeles, where it was on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for 25 years, before relocating across the Atlantic to Somerset House, London. In 2008 it came to the V&A where it will reside for 114 years, spread across 4 dedicated galleries that guide visitors on a trip through gold, silver, portrait miniatures, snuff boxes, micromosaics and hardstones. Now, for the first time in its history, the Gilbert Collection is off on a worldwide tour, showcasing the treasures from the collection, beginning its journey in Antwerp.
The exhibition has been delivered through the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. With many staff unavailable in the run up to opening, the team faced a great many challenges as they got the objects in perfect condition, measured up, crated and sent off on tour. Access to objects, ensuring the pieces were photographed, choosing backfills for the spaces the objects left behind in the galleries – there were many things to consider even before our conservators and technical team could get their hands on the collection, to work on and crate up.
The pandemic also gave us the opportunity to change and adapt for the better. With international travel banned, we worked on creating meticulous notes; our conservation and technical teams produced a manual of step-by-step instructions to install the exhibition virtually. Communication levels went up a notch, we spoke daily to the technical and curatorial staff in Antwerp, and kept open channels throughout the day – ready to respond to any important questions.
The exhibition opened at the first venue on its worldwide tour, DIVA Museum, Antwerp, Belgium. Home to an outstanding collection of jewellery, diamonds and decorative arts housed in the historic centre of Antwerp.
As the visitor enters the exhibition they are greeted by a wax figure of Sir Arthur himself, on display for the first time in over a decade. Commissioned by Arthur from Madame Tussaud’s, model ensures the visitor is left with a lingering image of the collector himself, as you wander around the collection. Alongside Arthur are two of Rosalinde Gilbert’s designs, from her pioneering 1940s fashion label. On show for the first time ever, the exhibition certainly places the collectors at the heart of their collection.
Art of Illusion is the first of three main exhibition sections. A reflective room engulfs the visitor, as they are drawn to the hardstone and micromosaic objects around them. Arthur was famed for walking around his collection, magnifying glass in hand, and encouraging people to take a closer look at the minute details in the pieces. This mirror effect reflects his passion for looking up close, for taking another look. With a magnificent Barberi tabletop perched atop a mirror drum plinth, it almost appears to be weightless and floating.
The majestic Kiev silver gates commissioned in 1784 by Catherine the Great of Russia draw the visitor into the next section, Shine and Scale. The room is a Schatzkammer of drinking goblets, eighteenth-century monumental silver and tablewear. The splendour of silver and gold are everywhere, and we wanted to demonstrate the power these objects wield from the smallest scale of a golden beaker, through to the huge Lafayette vase. The magnetic nature of these objects dazzle the viewer, demanding attention as the eye is drawn to the intricate techniques applied to the surface of these precious metals.
Along one entire wall a table layout has been reimagined, placing Paul Storr candelabra alongside an Elizabeth Bland wine cistern. It leaves the visitor with a small insight into how extravagant an eighteenth-century table display could be. The power and attention silverware demands is evident here, once the vast wealth of an aristocrat or member of royalty could be held in the silver they owned. The recyclable nature of silver and gold mean that some of the most spectacular pieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been melted down and repurposed – increasing the significance to the pieces that are now on show.
The final room is dedicated to Pocket Sized Perfection, a snaking corridor of snuff boxes and portrait miniatures, highlighting the trans-European nature makers from England, France, Russia and Antwerp itself. The boxes were used as gifts, as diplomatic tools, as purveyors of wealth and style. Goldsmiths were constantly reaching new heights of craftsmanship, adorning these snuffboxes with evermore extravagant gems, hardstones and gold. The star of the show is the Chrysoprase snuffbox, belonging to Frederick the Great of Prussia, made about 1765. The box glows with the heavily encrusted diamonds and precious stone.
Visitors exit the exhibition through a space dedicated to contemporary collecting and craft, with the 2018 Gilbert Collection commission, a Moondust Snuffbox created by the artist Silvia Weidenbach showcasing the Gilbert Collections drive and championing of the contemporary arts. Ever pushing the boundaries of design, and ultimately sharing this magnificent collection with the world.