Thomas Hardy, while still married to his first wife Emma, but arranging assignations in London with Florence, his second-wife-to-be, used to ask her to meet him at the Victoria and Albert Museum by the great, towering plaster cast of Trajan’s column. Really, Thomas? Trajan’s column? How obvious can a man be?
Knowing what I know about Hardy’s column, and with the added burlesque of the modesty fig leaf that was cast for Michelangelo’s plaster David, I cannot now keep a straight face in the Cast Courts at the V&A and have to take myself off upstairs to look at silver salt-shakers the minute I get the sniggers.
What a lot of things the Victorians had. Today’s tidiness maniacs would have fainted at the bits and bobs and cruets and clutter of the Victorian sideboard: sardine forks and asparagus tongs, walnut pickers and nut crackers, crumb scoops and egg coddlers, grape scissors and crab crackers — and special ‘moustache spoons’ with nickel-plated whisker guards to keep bristles dry while slurping soup. They are all here, in the British galleries, splendidly polished and arranged on baize. Teapots, too. Teapots in every cabinet, in every room, on every floor — teapots in the shape of gourds, teapots in the shape of fish, teapots shaped like biscuit tins and biscuit tins shaped like teapots, silver teapots, Japanese teapots, Chinese teapots, Turkish teapots, Wedgwood teapots, Art Deco teapots, Postmodern teapots, Mad Hatter teapots — a history of British taste and design in afternoon tea services.
Where in any other museum in the world will you find Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggy-winkle in her mobcap and pinafore just a few galleries down from a 5ft samurai scabbard and copper-gold sword, notched by battles fought and enemies slain? The V&A is the grandest of antiques roadshows, with equal table space given to Raphael’s Sistine Chapel cartoons and a dear little pair of quilted baby’s booties.
There is no happier spot in London than the John Madejski Garden on a hot day, where toddlers, plump and cheerful as Luca della Robbia’s enamel bambini, play in the fountains. The V&A is generous with its places to sit and books to browse. I revised for my A-levels at a desk under the Cornelia Parker sculpture ‘Breathless’ — 54 steamrollered brass instruments suspended between two floors of the British galleries. When practice essays palled, I walked along the corridor to the Norfolk House Music Room, taken from St James’s Square and reinstalled in South Kensington, cream panelling and gilt scrolls intact. A pair of golden monkeys jeer above the outer door, very wild and toothy. What a fright they must have given the music-room ladies when first carved in 1756.
You really cannot do it all justice in a day (a week, a month, a lifetime). You must go back again and again and lose yourself in Iznik tiles and posters for the tram to Kew Gardens. And, if you’re there for an assignation, don’t be brazen and exposed under Trajan’s Column. There’s never anybody in the Gothic Strawberry Room salvaged from Lee Priory in Kent. British galleries, fourth floor, room 120.