A Tour of Indulgences for National Volunteers’ Week

June 26, 2018

Several events were held at the V&A to mark National Volunteers’ Week earlier this month. This guest post is written by a group of V&A/RCA History of Design MA students, Rosemary Byford, Florence Sandford-Richardson, Elena Jarmoskaite, Eve Allen, Margaret McGrath and Alice Labourg, who took volunteers on a gallery tour to share their research into objects in the collections. The students introduced their audience to different aspects of nineteenth-century indulgences around the world through objects both on and off display, from sugary treats to jewels, via intoxication, smoking, snuff and brothels.

Our tour began amidst the opulence of the Gilbert Collection and its collection of Italian micromosaic snuff boxes.  These highly ornate objects reflected the refined aesthetics and taste of the times with their reworking of classical landscapes and were particularly prized for the skilful way they imitated contemporary oil paintings. The extravagant micromosaic snuff boxes are far removed from more ‘basic’ papier-mâché ones that were also popular at the time. And yet, these too were used by the wealthy as we can tell from the mysterious story behind the hand-painted portrait of an actress on one papier-mâché box with royal connections, currently in store. Indeed, connoisseurs of snuff maintained that papier-mâché preserved freshness and flavour better than any other material.

Black papier-mâché box
Black papier-mâché box with removable lid, the lid painted with an image of the actress Mrs. Honey as Psyche. Museum no. S.611:2-1997

In the Silver Galleries, we travelled further afield to India, by means of a bidri ware huqqa pipe manufactured in Calcutta by Scottish firm Hamilton & Co. During the second half of the eighteenth century, huqqa pipes became very popular with Europeans and could often be seen hanging from the mouths of officials during mealtimes. However, lingering associations with opium use, as well as with languorous behaviour gradually made huqqa smoking less socially acceptable in some circles, although the activity remained highly addictive.

Examining a huqqa pipe in the Silver Galleries
Examining a huqqa pipe in the Silver Galleries

A pewter beer jug brought us back to the pubs and inns of London and the dangers of Victorian drinking habits. Increasingly concerned by the growing popularity of hard liquors in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the government introduced a series of sometimes rather bizarre efforts to sober up the nation by aiding the beer industry and design played an important role in facilitating these endeavours.

Nineteenth-century pewter beer jug
Nineteenth-century pewter beer jug. Museum no. 725-1904

We then focused on another kind of passion: the romance between an English lady and a Hungarian Count, described in several memoirs. The Countess’s tragic early death led to the couple’s collection of Hungarian jewels being gifted to the V&A and various pieces from Countess Harley Teleki’s casket of jewels are on display in the museum, in addition to a less well-known jewel in store made from repurposed garnet and pearl buttons.

Our tour concluded in the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art with a group of Ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, which often depicted salacious topics, such as courtesans and the sanctioned pleasure quarters that were the centre of fashionable and hedonistic life during Edo-era Japan.

The tour concluding in the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art
The volunteers tour concludes with a discussion of Japanese woodblock prints


To see what else V&A/RCA History of Design students and alumni have been up to, check our pages on the V&A and  RCA websites and take a look at Un-Making Things, a student-run online platform for all things design history and material culture.

About the author

June 26, 2018

I am Head of Early Modern Studies in the V&A's Research Institute (VARI). The History of Architecture and of Technology are my main research interests. Currently I am working on...

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