For a museum to renovate and reinstall completely a series of primary galleries is a gigantic undertaking; to publish a very substantial book at the same time seems almost hubristic. ‘“...a very readable big book...which sums up the thought that went into them [the new British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum]”: that is how this title was trailed in The Art Newspaper in November. Well, it is certainly big and readable (not necessarily compatible factors in publishing) as well as beautifully written, dependable and informative, but the extent to which it is inextricably linked with the idea of the galleries is not so immediately quantifiable. The uniquely comprehensive text is divided into three almost exactly equal sections (approximately 150 pages long) covering periods of diminishing length, respectively, 214 years (1500-1714), 173 years (1714-1837) and 64 years (1837-1901), a neat reflection on the relative availability of material. These tell the story of a journey, in which the British Isles travelled from unsophisticated provincial outpost of design and manufacturing into a widely admired and imitated industrial centre of decorative innovation. Historical introductions to each period by John Styles are followed by chapters on “Style” and “Who led taste?” by Michael Snodin, “Fashionable living”, shared between Michael Snodin, Maurice Howard and Christopher Breward and “What was new”, by John Styles again. Time-lines and bibliographies at the end are already divided into their respective sections, leaving the way open for three books of more manageable proportions (and weight, you cannot carry this one about). All three sections are punctuated by interventions in the form of double page spreads on key topics; some of these work better than others—where a significant development lends itself to encapsulation in few words and some well-chosen images—and although they are all well done there may be readers who have reservations about these rather too obviously educational bits, but they have the merit of very apt illustrations taken from across the museum’s collections. A trawl through the farthest depths of the vast V&A holdings has yielded some intriguing curiosities and throughout the whole book the pictures make a telling contrast with the usually lamentably banal choice of illustrative material selected for most historical publications. The authors rightly acknowledge the contribution of the team responsible for the illustrations; the task of the designer must also have been formidable. Whatever else the book achieves—and it is a great deal—it brings into startlingly clear focus the extraordinary richness and diversity of the museum’s collections.
Advances in display and lighting techniques permit the showing in these new galleries of fragile textiles and paper, and with them the story of design and style is much more completely covered than ever before. If the authors’ ambitions had been limited to providing a guide to the galleries, with more than a thousand illustrations it would have been possible to include just about a third of the exhibited objects. But the huge disparities in the material would have made for a very unwieldy catalogue or reference book, and the decision to provide a historical narrative must have been almost a foregone conclusion.
A question which must have exercised its compilers and the museum’s publications department is “Will it stand on its own merits as an account of four centuries of British achievement in the decorative arts?” The test is to have read and pondered the book’s achievement before seeing the new galleries. Among the vast number of illustrations the choice ranges far outside the confines of the Museum, with a very high proportion of buildings—and even gardens—included to give context to the furniture, architectural fittings and whole rooms in the collections. Then there are paintings and portraits, manuscripts and tapestries, sewing machines and typewriters as well, anything in fact that might illuminate the unfolding story. The last two spreads consist of no less than six fine railway engines. However, outside the repeating format, followed through all three sections, of style and design discussions, it is is not really feasible as a reader to follow the progress throughout the whole date-span of a topic such as “dress” or “transport” or “entertainment”, and this may be where the interdependence between the book with its emphasis on the three thematic threads and the new galleries makes sense. The opening of this ambitious regeneration of one of the most historically important parts of the museum will have taken place by the time this notice appears, and that question will have been answered.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The story of a style journey'