How I tried to buy The Spectator

The Victoria and Albert Museum kindly threw me a leaving party after eight years as chair, plus a particularly apt present: a specially commissioned illuminated V&A logo made from powder-coated steel by the designer Toby Albrow. The logo is a reference to my megalomaniacal taste for giant logos atop museum buildings. We have placed a huge one on the roof of the Young V&A in Bethnal Green, and an even bigger one – 20 feet high – on the new V&A East in Stratford, visible from three miles away in Canary Wharf. What an exhilarating and happy gig the V&A has been. I’m going to miss it and the people.

Promethean grandeur: Maurice Broomfield – Industrial Sublime, at the V&A, reviewed

When Maurice Broomfield left school at the age of 15, he took a job at the Rolls-Royce factory, bending copper pipes on a turret lathe. That was what you did in Derby in 1931: Rolls-Royce was the town’s biggest employer, and entire generations expected to pass the best part of their lives behind the walls of its 13-acre plant. But Broomfield didn’t stay. Not long into his new job, he saw a photo of an ageing employee being packed off into retirement with a handshake and a gold watch. This was a person who’d never had any real control over his own life; who’d worked when he was told to,

The exquisite pottery of Richard Batterham

Richard Batterham died last September at the age of 85. He had worked in his pottery in the village of Durweston near Blandford Forum in Dorset for 60 years continuously. It was, in its own way, an heroic life. Batterham took an astonishingly pure, austere approach to his work. Quite simply, he undertook every part of the process of making himself. He made his own stoneware clay bodies, arguing that those who used bought-in clay missed out on the beginning of the whole process and were mistaken to think that they could just inject their artistry at a later stage. He threw his pots on an archaic kick-wheel. He did

The art and science of Fabergé

After all the magnificent presents she’d received from his workshop, Queen Alexandra was eager to meet the most famous jeweller in Russia. ‘If Mr Fabergé ever comes to London,’ she said to Henry Bainbridge, a manager of the design house, ‘you must bring him to see me.’ Peter Carl Fabergé paid a rare visit to the capital to inspect his new shop — the only one located outside the Russian empire — at 48 Dover Street in 1908. ‘The Queen wants to see me! What for?’ he asked an exasperated Bainbridge. ‘Well, you know what an admirer she is of all your things.’ Insisting that she would not wish to

The distortion of British history

The British Museum has announced the appointment of a curator to study the history of its own collections. On the face of it, nothing could be more anodyne. The history of collecting has been a fashionable topic in academic circles for decades. What sort of people collected, why, and how, tells us much about their cultural assumptions and their ways of seeing the world. It would be mildly surprising that the BM has been so slow to catch on – except that there seems more to it than scholarly pursuit of knowledge. While the research will indeed cover ‘wider patterns’ of collecting, the Museum announced that it is ‘likely that

Ignore the activists – Humboldt’s Enlightenment project deserves celebrating

‘What a loss is the excellent Humboldt. You and Berlin will both miss him greatly,’ Prince Albert wrote to his much-beloved daughter Vicky, Crown Princess of Prussia, on news of the death of the author, explorer and celebrity Alexander von Humboldt in 1859. ‘People of this kind do not grow upon every bush [‘an den Blumen’] and they are the grace and glory of a country and a century.’ After some delays and bad luck, the grace and glory of the Humboldt name flourishes once again with the opening of the Humboldt Forum. Annoyingly digital to begin with, the launch last month of the Forum signalled the culmination of Berlin’s

Lara King

The politics of handbags

‘Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law — that is why I carry a big handbag,’ Margaret Thatcher once told an interviewer. That handbag was part of the Iron Lady’s suit of armour; a fashion accoutrement turned into a political prop. But an accessory that became instantly recognisable on the outside held secrets on the inside. Thatcher referred to it as the only ‘leak-proof’ place in Downing Street, and it was a bag of tricks from which she might conjure pertinent quotes from Abraham Lincoln or Friedrich Hayek, or a crumpled brief from a mysterious source. Norman Tebbit said the art of being a successful

Are our churches safe from Justin Welby?

‘Frost & Lewis’. It sounds like a programme amalgamating two of the most famous TV detectives. The former diplomat, Lord (David) Frost, is our chief Brexit negotiator and Oliver Lewis, an expert on the Irish aspects, is his right-hand man. Until recently, they were simply considered the two best men for the job. Since the departure of Dominic Cummings, they have acquired a political role too. Close colleagues of Cummings who did not walk out with him, they stayed to Get Brexit Done, so they act as reassurance to anxious Brexiteers that the government will not throw in the sponge. Their staying also implies a threat. Dom has said he

Nicholas Coleridge: The Ghislaine Maxwell I knew

I have known Ghislaine Maxwell for more than 40 years, since she was a student at Balliol. I always liked her, everyone did, and I find it hard to reconcile the Ghislaine I knew with the heinous crimes of which she now stands accused. I visited her several times at Headington Hall, her family house on the edge of Oxford, when her father Robert Maxwell was at the height of his power. It was a peculiar house, rented from the council, like an enormous municipal town hall. The entrance hall and corridors were lined with at least a hundred framed cartoons by Jak and Mac of the great narcissist newspaper

A museum-quality car-boot sale: V&A’s Cars reviewed

We were looking at a 1956 Fiat Multipla, a charming ergonomic marvel that predicted today’s popular MPVs. Rather grandly, I said to my guide: ‘I think you’ll find the source of the Multipla in an unrealised 1930s design of Mario Revelli di Beaumont.’ He looked a bit blank. This exhibition is a rare attempt to explain the car, perhaps the most dramatic since the Museum of Modern Art’s 1951 New York show where Philip Johnson coined the term ‘rolling sculpture’. It is both occasionally brilliant and continuously exasperating. Rather as if in a crowded restaurant you are overhearing snatches of fascinating conversation coming from different tables. The context is significant.

There’s something about Mary

I think I probably qualify as the oldest fashion editor in the world, because in spite of my advanced age I am still writing about clothes (in the Oldie). This gives me one USP: it means that I was actually around — even wearing them myself — when the revolutionary fashion ideas that are now the stuff of museum exhibitions were being invented. Next month the Mary Quant exhibition opens at the V&A, and sure enough I have been asked to talk about those giddy times for a video that will be shown at the museum. I was 16 in the autumn of 1955 when Quant’s shop, Bazaar, first shocked

The waist land

Strange to think when you visit the Christian Dior show at the V&A that his time as designer was so very short. From the first show in 1947 when he brought the war to an end — at least in terms of clothes — with the New Look, to his sudden death at the age of 52 was just a decade. But in that brief time he brought about a revolution in fashion, creating some of the most beautiful dresses ever made for women, with a line that was wholly his own. It was both architectural and natural: the skirt of his celebrated Bar suit was based on the corolla

Pirates on parade

Avast there, scurvy dogs! For a nation founded on piracy (the privateer Sir Francis Drake swelled the exchequer by raiding the Spanish, who were in no doubt that he was a pirate), it is appropriate that Britain should give the international archetype of the pirate his language. The language of the Victoria & Albert’s exhibition A Pirate’s Life for Me at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green is a banquet of humour and doggerel. Whether you arrive a slipperslopper sea-cook, reeking of Havanas, or pushing treasures in a pram, you will stare at walls, speak in tongues and smile. These master (and mistress) mariners of yore have their grappling

There will be blood | 13 September 2018

For the past few decades, admirers of video-games have every couple of years mounted a new attempt to persuade the wider arts-loving public of the form’s merits. Look, they say, games are not all about shooting people in the face! They are a dynamic fusion of animation, architecture, intellectual challenge, music and drama! They can be political and subversive! This is true, and yet somehow it never catches on. Will a new exhibition at the V&A enjoy any greater success? You walk through a series of large black rooms with giant screens that appear to be floating through the air. Along the walls are ranged game designers’ working notebooks, and

A self examined

In 2004 Mexican art historians made a sensational discovery in Frida Kahlo’s bathroom. Inside this space, sealed since the 1950s, was an enormous archive of documents, photographs and personal possessions. This hoard forms the basis of Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, an exhibition at the V&A. Oscar Wilde once remarked that ‘one should either be a work of art or wear a work of art’. Kahlo opted for both, and she didn’t stop there. Though she was a Marxist who numbered Trotsky among her many lovers, she also channelled the role of saint and martyr. She was neater than Francis Bacon, whose studio-floor detritus has also been subjected to zealous

Call of the wild | 19 April 2018

One of the prettiest pieces in the V&A exhibition Fashioned from Nature is a man’s cream waistcoat, silk and linen, produced in France before the revolution, in the days when men could give women a run for their money in flamboyant dress. It’s embroidered with macaque monkeys of quite extraordinary verisimilitude, with fruit trees sprouting all the way up the buttons. And what we know is that they were derived from the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, of 1749–88. As Edwina Ehrman, curator of the exhibition, observes in her introductory essay, ‘choosing monkeys from Buffon’s publication… to create an embroidery pattern for a waistcoat reflected the fashionable

Sea fever

Looking at the sketchbook of William Whitelock Lloyd, a soldier-artist who joined a P&O liner after surviving the Anglo-Zulu War, I’m reminded why I avoid cruises. On board this India-bound ship were: a ‘man who talks a great deal of yachting shop and collapses at the first breeze of wind’, ‘a successful Colonist’, and ‘the victim of mal de mer who lives on smelling salts’. It would be just my luck to be stuck in the cabin between ‘One of our Flirts’, the busty lady with pretty eyes, and what Lloyd affectionately called ‘Our Foghorns (automatic)’ — two bawling babies. By the late 19th century, ocean liners attracted all sorts,

May’s day

You may think you don’t know May Morris, daughter of William, but you’ll probably have come across her wallpaper. Her honeysuckle design was and remains a Morris & Co. bestseller, and it not only features in homes to this day, it’s been nicked by designer Jonathan Anderson for a Morris-inspired range for the very expensive fashion house Loewe. It’s all a bit dispiriting for a woman whose aesthetic sensibility, like her father’s, was bound up in her socialism. But it was embroidery that was May Morris’s art and craft and now a new exhibition at the Morris Gallery in Walthamstow lets us see it in its own right. The gist

Grain of truth

We routinely feel emotional about materials — often subliminally. Which is why new substances and techniques for manufacturing have provoked vivid writing, particularly during the design-reform debates of the 19th century. Think of John Ruskin on the evils of cut as opposed to blown glass or his views on wrought iron as opposed to cast iron — the latter emblematic in his view of a ‘sophisticated, unkind, uncomfortable, unprincipled society’. For the designer Gottfried Semper man’s very inventiveness was a loss. We were losing our understanding of discrete materials. Then there was, and is, our perfectly justified anxieties about the plastics family, beautifully chronicled in Jeffrey Meikle’s American Plastic: A

Back in the USSR

For much of 1517 Michelangelo Buonarroti was busy quarrying marble in the mountains near Carrara. From time to time, however, he received letters relating how his affairs were going in Rome. These contained updates on — among other matters — how his friend and collaborator Sebastiano del Piombo was getting on with a big altarpiece which he hoped, with Michelangelo’s help, would vanquish their joint rival, Raphael. This picture, ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, has been in the National Gallery for almost 200 years now (it is No. 1 in the inventory of the collection). Next March it will be one of the centrepieces in an ambitious exhibition that inaugurates the