Ramadan Pavilion 2023, courtesy of the V&A Press Office.
The Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington houses one of the largest collections of decorative arts and design in the world. With a collection of over 1.25 million objects, it can feel overwhelming to wander through the labyrinth of galleries if you don’t already have a trained eye for picking out the most important pieces on display. Thankfully, the V&A offers several free guided tours that help make understanding the museum’s extensive collection more accessible to the general public.
This past week I went on the Treasures of Europe Tour, which covers about three centuries of European art and design in only one hour. Upfront, it sounds like a lot. But to put it into perspective, the entirety of the V&A’s collections spans about 5,000 years total, and its European collection spans 1,500 years. So, the fifteen pieces highlighted on this tour really only represent a sliver of the V&A’s immense collections of artwork, furniture, ceramics, and textiles.
The tour was led by one of the V&A’s volunteer guides, who appeared to be no less than an expert when it came to the changing trends and styles in Europe over the course of three centuries. We began with Giambologna’s statue of Samson Slaying a Philistine, a spiralling scene made to “look good from all angles” that also allowed our guide to introduce some of the concepts he would discuss throughout the rest of the tour. For many people, the Italian Renaissance is a familiar concept regardless of their prior knowledge of art history. So for a tour that primarily focuses on the Baroque and Rococo works on display, beginning with a short conversation about the Italian Renaissance gave the audience an opportunity to orient themselves in a familiar narrative before heading back across the main lobby and down a flight of stairs to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European galleries on the first floor.
These galleries, which were renovated in 2015, organize items by theme while also taking their period and geographic region into consideration. Like the Cabinets of Curiosities popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these galleries are filled to the brim with sculptures, paintings, furniture, and extraordinary examples of the everyday objects used by aristocrats and royalty. Some of the highlights included porcelain tableware used to serve ambassadors at banquets, a 9-tier ceramic “flower pyramid” used to display tulips in Dutch grand houses, a tapestry custom made for Louis XIV of France that once adorned the walls of a chateaux, an asymmetrical rococo writing cabinet with mother-of-pearl and gilt decoration, and the showstopping Table Fountain for Count von Brühl.
The tour centered around the overarching themes of luxury and the movement of trends, innovations, and ideas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The most significant example of this is the story behind the Table Fountain of Count von Brühl. As our guide explained, the Table Fountain–which is nearly four meters long–is a scale model of an actual fountain built in the gardens of von Brühl’s summer palace. It was fully operational with fragrant rosewater flowing through it, impressing guests during the dessert course of von Brühl’s theatrical and luxurious dinner parties. The fountain is made of some of the earliest European-made porcelain (before the eighteenth century, all porcelain was imported from Asia), making it significant to the history of European design and innovation.
Anecdotes, such as the tale of the Table Fountain for Count von Brühl, most likely would remain unknown if not for our volunteer guide. Our guide did an excellent job of explaining the artistic and historical significance of each item, emphasizing the materials used to create each object and the impressive craftsmanship that went into their elaborate design.
For those interested in decorative arts and design of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but aren’t sure where to start, this tour is an easy solution.
The Treasures of Europe Tour departs from the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, Cromwell Road foyer at 13:30 everyday. The tour is free, no booking required.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn