After last month’s reopening of the Raphael Cartoon Court at the V&A, another £2 million project, this time to refit the museum’s English Silver Galleries opens to the public on 27 November. Prepare to be dazzled: they are a triumph demonstrating to the world what the V&A can achieve if curatorial departments are given the necessary support. Prior to their closure in 1994, the galleries were among the dreariest in the museum. Inappropriate alterations had ruined the marvellous architectural features of the rooms. Neon strip lights eighteen feet up illuminated the dirty ceiling and dusty peeling cornices rather than the objects. The silver was displayed in serried ranks on a brown background in mahogany cases left over from the 1851 Great Exhibition. It is not surprising that most people gave up before they had got past the first case of identical cream jugs.
Stripped down and returned to their original 1860s decorative scheme the galleries are a masterpiece of high Victorian splendour. An enfilade of columns lines this 517 square-metre space which occupies the whole north side of the inner quadrangle. The highly decorated ceilings with their geometric borders containing vignettes have been restored, the cornices regilt and the sumptuous frieze, which lists the names of dozens of European porcelain factories, unveiled from beneath layers of white paint. Gone too are the dirty Venetian blinds, so for the first time one can look onto the garden and understand the architecture of the building. All the columns were originally clothed in ceramic tiles and miraculously the tiles from two of them were found in the museum’s crypt and reinstated.
The walls and ceiling have been returned to their original deep celadon green. To complement this the cases are lined with a deep vibrant pink against which the silver looks resplendent. Teams of conservators must have been polishing for weeks and the silver gleams with not a streak of discoloured lacquer in sight. The tour de force of the gallery is the incredibly sophisticated lighting and cases. The cases alone swallowed more than a third of the budget. Manufactured in Germany, they maintain state-of-the-art conservation standards so for the first time the department is attempting to display silver without applying lacquer to it which deadens and dulls its surface.
The cases are constructed of polished metal and glass with glass to glass corners. The silver appears to float on more glass shelves and labelling in the cases has been kept to a minimum, with pull-out label sheets in slots below the cases. Copies of these can be obtained for ten pence to avoid writing down endless information. The lighting was devised by the gallery’s designer, John Ronayne and curator Philippa Glanville. Fibre optic lights illuminate the tops and sides of the cases and for the first time it is possible to see silver as it would have looked lit by dozens of candle flames. The surfaces of the objects come alive as the intricately chased patterns and cast and relief modelling are picked out by dozens of tiny lights.
These are the study galleries and the museum’s policy is to pack in as many objects as possible so that students can unravel the intricate evolution of design and technique. Each case has a date and a clear theme and follows its neighbour chronologically. High glass cases line the walls looking like the gleaming contents of a butler’s pantry piled high with candlesticks, tea pots, tureens and cream jugs. Free-standing cases which display the most important objects are positioned down the centre of the galleries. These have unfortunate light fittings in the corners: curving steel rods which fight with the objects and give the distinct impression that they are some sort of tap filling up the vessels in the case. The display now includes several important new loans, the superbly chased St John tankard and a monumental wine cooler, cistern and fountain by Anthony Nelme made for the Earl of Macclesfield, Lord Chancellor to George I.
In a separate section of the gallery there is a study centre to enthral adults and children alike. You can hallmark your own piece of metal, take a brass rubbing of the current year’s hall mark and put different handles, bases and lids on different objects in a manner reminiscent of Happy Family card games. A special cage allows you to feel objects and decide how and what they were made of. Specially constructed peep shows reveal small sections of objects to make you really look and think about design and decoration. There is even an X-ray light box which shows you the underlying construction of objects.
The galleries have been funded with £700,000 from an anonymous trust, £500,000 from the Wolfson Foundation, £50,000 from a private source with the remaining £750,000 coming from the V&A.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Please touch, learn—and enjoy'