How not to make an ex­hi­bi­tion of your­self

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - LAURA FREE­MAN

Thomas Hardy, while still mar­ried to his first wife Emma, but ar­rang­ing assig­na­tions in Lon­don with Florence, his se­cond wife-to-be, used to ask her to meet him at Lon­don’s Victoria and Al­bert Museum by the great, tow­er­ing plas­ter cast of Tra­jan’s Col­umn. Re­ally, Thomas? Tra­jan’s Col­umn? How ob­vi­ous can a man be?

Know­ing what I know about Hardy’s col­umn, and with the added bur­lesque of the mod­esty fig leaf that was cast for Michelangelo’s plas­ter David, I can­not now keep a straight face in the Cast Courts at the V&A and have to take my­self off up­stairs to look at sil­ver salt-shak­ers the minute I get the snig­gers.

What a lot of things the Vic­to­ri­ans had. To­day’s tidi­ness ma­ni­acs would have fainted at the bits and bobs and cruets and clut­ter of the Vic­to­rian side­board — sar­dine forks and as­para­gus tongs, wal­nut pick­ers and nut crack­ers, crumb scoops and egg cod­dlers, grape scis­sors and crab crack­ers, “mous­tache spoons” with nickel-plated whisker guards to keep bris­tles dry while slurp­ing soup. They are all here, in the Bri­tish Gal­leries, splen­didly pol­ished and ar­ranged on baize.

Teapots, too. Teapots in ev­ery cab­i­net, in ev­ery room, on ev­ery floor — teapots in the shape of gourds, teapots in the shape of fish, teapots shaped like bis­cuit tins and bis­cuit tins shaped like teapots, sil­ver teapots, Ja­panese teapots, Chi­nese teapots, Turkish teapots, Wedg­wood teapots, art deco teapots, post­mod­ern teapots, Mad Hat- ter teapots — a his­tory of Bri­tish taste and de­sign in af­ter­noon tea ser­vices.

Where in any other museum in the world will you find Beatrix Pot­ter’s Mrs Tiggy-win­kle in her mob­cap and pinafore just a few gal­leries down from a 1.5m-long sa­mu­rai scab­bard and cop­per-gold sword, notched by bat­tles fought and en­e­mies slain? The V&A is the grand­est of an­tiques road­shows, with equal ta­ble space given to Rapha- el’s Sistine Chapel car­toons and a dear lit­tle pair of quilted baby’s booties.

There is no hap­pier spot in Lon­don than the John Made­jski Gar­den on a hot day, where tod­dlers, plump and cheer­ful as Luca della Rob­bia’s enamel bam­bini, play in the foun­tains. The V&A is gen­er­ous with its places to sit and books to browse. I re­vised for my A-lev­els at a desk un­der the Cor­nelia Parker sculp­ture Breath­less — 54 steam­rollered brass in­stru­ments sus­pended be­tween two floors of the Bri­tish gal­leries. When prac­tice es­says palled, I walked along the corridor to the Nor­folk House Mu­sic Room, taken from St James’s Square and re­in­stalled in South Kens­ing­ton, cream pan­elling and gilt scrolls in­tact. A pair of golden mon­keys jeer above the outer door, very wild and toothy. What a fright they must have given the mu­sic-room ladies when first carved in 1756.

You re­ally can­not do it all jus­tice in a day (a week, a month, a life­time). You must go back again and again and lose your­self in Iznik tiles and posters for the tram to Kew Gar­dens. And, if you’re there for an assig­na­tion, don’t be brazen and ex­posed un­der Tra­jan’s Col­umn. There’s never any­body in the Gothic Straw­berry Room sal­vaged from Lee Pri­ory in Kent. Bri­tish Gal­leries, fourth floor, room 120.

• vam.ac.uk

THE SPEC­TA­TOR

John Made­jski Gar­den at the V&A

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