Laura Freeman Laura Freeman

The Victoria and Albert

This museum is generous with its places to sit and books to browse – and its sheer profusion of stuff

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.

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