Design & The Decorative Arts in Britain 1500-1900 by Michael Snodin and John Styles, published by V&A Publications. ISBN 185177338X £45hb
SOMETHING’S come over the V&A – apart from free admission – they want to put the “wow” factor back into what they see as a faltering relationship with the public. This they aim to do with the £31m five-year transformation of their newly-opened British Galleries and the mining of the V&A’s enormous treasure trove into a near-decadent 3000-strong display of the design and decorative arts of the Croesus-rich and all-powerful Tudors, Jacobeans and Georgians who commissioned an astonishing array of sumptuous pieces, “many of alarming flamboyance and eccentricity”.
A favourite of mine, seen at the V&A’s Grinling Gibbons exhibition a few years ago, is here, the intricately carved cravat which Horace Walpole once wore to a party, causing the French ambassador to send a memo home about the latest madness of the English: wooden neckties.
With its 1000-plus illustrations, this book accompanies the opening of the galleries and tells the sumptuous tale of magnificent silks from Spitalfields, monumental tapestries made in Mortlake, masterworks from Doulton, Liberty’s and Wedgwood, which, until the Victorian era and “the workshop of the world” relied on profoundly foreign and beautiful things created in the workshops of Venice, Florence, Antwerp and Paris.
Within its three periods, Tudor and Stuart, Georgian and Victorian, the questions are asked, who led the taste – the court, the aristocracy, fashion magazines, the church, the Great Exhibition and William Morris, among others – and who decided what was considered beautiful and desirable, what was new and what was remarkable?
Including rare treasures such as James II’s wedding suit and Henry VIII’s writing desk, perhaps the most fantastic status symbol of all the British Galleries’ exhibits is the vast State Bed from Melville House, Scotland, not seen in public for 20 years and the size of a double-decker bus. The V&A has spent the last ten years restoring it and it is now exactly as it was when the lst Earl of Melville commissioned it in 1687, flung around with coronets and ciphers and covered in the finest Genoese velvet, coloured with a dye made from crushed South American beetles and lined with Chinese silk... not British at all and certainly not for regular sleeping, but created as a symbol of the owner’s wealth, rank and exalted connections. Not a bedpost for a Christmas stocking, methinks.