The art of death surveyed at the V&A

An eclectic selection of memento mori

The subtitle of this exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “Objects from the English Death Ritual 1500-1800”, may make or break attendance numbers. The exhibition was the brainchild of Julian Litten (author of The English Way of Death ) who made the first moves towards its realisation. Nigel Llewellyn, author of The Art of Death: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual 1500-1800 has curated the exhibition’s final presentation. The latter says that our ancestors “reacted energetically to the prospect and reality of death”, and the exhibition shows a selection of mementi mori— death masks, coffins, mourning jewellery, church monuments and paintings; over 250 objects are included. It seems odd to insist, however, in the present climate, that death is still such a taboo subject. When asked why Mr Litten’s excellent book is not on sale at the exhibition, the V&A Press Office replied that this was a “matter of internal politics”. Does this reflect the museum’s newly evolved intellectual policy? The exhibition continues until 22 March.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 15 February 1992