London’s museums contain some of the most exquisite treasures and antiquities imaginable. Some have been acquired from private donations or bequests, others gifted by various non-English royal persons or donated in lieu of tax debts.
The V&A (Victoria and Albert) Museum is an imposing, vast building. Mosaic tiling covers the floors and stairs, reflecting the wealth of the Empire at the time the building was created. With a collection of this scale, it is necessary to be selective and focus on one or two areas. Of particular interest were the jewelry and high fashion from the mid eighteenth century to today displays.
The jewelry is superbly displayed in two black walled rooms in which thick glass cases contain breathtakingly stunning pieces … Scores of diamonds, perfect pearls, finely wrought gold … All of which had been owned by persons of high social status, making certain the beholder would be aware of their personal wealth.
The fashion had much more of an accompanying story, with the significance of individual pieces being linked to the growth of trade with the Far East (silks from China), and the movement from handmade (every seam hand stitched, lace trimmings painstakingly created) to machine made and the introduction of synthetic fabrics.
A former power station is the home of The Tate Modern. Vast, hard spaces, polished concrete floors contain a diverse range of works – a number of which are too obscure for your writer to understand, even with the accompanying wall notes. Sculptural pieces had been created from traditional materials such as wood, steel or glass; and less traditional materials such as hundreds of steel fibre pot scourers (weird), or thousands of triangular pieces of polystyrene wrapped in paper and tied with string then fitted together inside a massive frame (interesting).
The National Gallery, holding a vast collection of paintings, has works dating back to the 12th century. The religious art of many churches (altar pieces, triptyches, diptyches and paintings) fills room after room. Of note was a collection of six works by Van Gogh – a chair, sunflowers, butterflies in grass, two cypress trees, two red crabs and an unfinished work of a village. You walk into the room, and there they are, surrounded by works of his contemporaries and overpowering those other works by the sheer force of the application of colour. Equally exciting was the discovery of two works by Caravaggio – again surrounded by works of his contemporaries, and outshining those works by his capacity to capture light on different surfaces.
The Royal Naval Museum, in Greenwich, had a special exhibition of Turner’s works bringing together pieces from galleries around the world and including some works from private collections. The place was packed! To see each piece, one patiently waited for the opportunity to shuffle forward to get an unimpeded view of tempestuous seas, sinking ships and sea battles in full fury. Curiously, visitors were very, very quiet … there wasn’t even murmuring. Visitors closely observed the works, exchanged looks with their companions, nodded sagely (perhaps discretely whispered a brief comment), and shuffled along to the next work.
The Royal Observatory, in Greenwich, contains an new exhibition on Time, its importance to the Navy and to society. Here one can learn the story of the creation of an accurate time piece for determining longitude. Prior to the creation of such a chronometer, thousands of men perished at sea from scurvy and starvation because landfall could not be found. Then the expansion of the rail system across England in the 19th century necessitated the standardisation of time across the country – and eventually the world – because until the introduction of the railway system, time was determined locally. Hence the presence of a clock tower in each town. Chronometers have now been developed which will only require the correction of one second in one billion years!