Quantities of Quant

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Until 16th February 2020, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating the career of Dame Mary Quant whose work as a fashion designer led her to become a powerful role model for women. Spanning twenty years from 1955 onwards, the Mary Quant exhibition displays clothing from her experimental brand Bazaar, Parisian couture and her success across the pond. Popularising the mini-skirt, hot pants and other fun fashion trends, Mary Quant revolutionised fashion throughout the world.

Barbara Mary Quant was born on 11th February 1930 in Blackheath, London to Welsh teachers Jack and Mildred. Her early life was marred by food and clothing rationings due to WWII, however, she was determined to become a fashion designer. Her parents, who studied at Cardiff University in order to earn first-class degrees and become teachers, were disappointed with their daughter’s ambitions and encouraged her to think about more conventional career choices for women. As a compromise, Quant attended Goldsmiths College to study illustration with the intention to train as an art teacher. College life introduced Quant to new and exciting people and prospects, resulting in an apprenticeship at Erik, a high-end Mayfair milliner.

Mary Quant’s ambitions to become a fashion designer were realised shortly after meeting her future husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene (d.1990) in 1953. The couple married in 1957 and later had a son named Orlando (b.1970). Two years before they became husband and wife, Quant and Plunket Greene teamed up with a friend, Archie McNair, to open a boutique called Bazaar. The shop was situated on the corner of Markham Square and King’s Road in Chelsea in a building above the basement restaurant Alexander’s, owned by Plunket Greene.

Quant began sourcing materials, quirky garments and jewellery from wholesale warehouses and art schools to fill her new shop, as well as producing unique works of fashion. Bazaar was described as “a bouillabaisse of clothes … and peculiar odds and ends,” and stock sold out during the opening night. Encouraged by this, Quant continued to make masses of dresses in her own home to sell in the shop. Every day, she bought fabric from the department store Harrods in Knightsbridge, opposite which, three years later, she opened her second boutique.

Whilst Bazaar was successful, allowing Quant to purchase expensive fabrics, the constant repetition of selling during the day and making new stock overnight was exhausting. Nonetheless, Quant persevered and was rewarded with a flourishing business. Due to making each garment by hand, there was usually only one of each design. The examples shown at the V&A are labelled with the name of the person who wore the piece. It was not until the 1960s that Quant began to work with machinists, who were able to produce her garments more rapidly. By 1966, she was working with 18 different manufacturers, which allowed her to mass-produce her popular designs.

Quant’s designs were influenced by London’s youth culture, which included dancers, Beatniks and the Mods (Modernists). Her clothes were modern and totally different from the acceptable style of dress for women during the war years. Simple and easy to wear, Quant aimed to produce clothes that were “relaxed … suited to the actions of normal life.” More women were going to work and needed appropriate clothing but Quant believed that did not mean they could not be stylish too.

As can be seen throughout the exhibition, Quant experimented with scale, proportion, and style. She incorporated features from the clothing of previous decades and centuries with modern ideas. Collared shirts and bodices were combined with short skirts, bright fabrics, and tights. Quant also recreated some of the clothes she wore as a child, altering parts to make them suitable for an adult. She also styled dresses on men’s clothing, for example, long male cardigans or jumpers.

By “borrowing from the boys”, Quant introduced tailoring cloth, which was intended for suits or military uniforms, to women’s clothing. In doing this, Quant broke fashion hierarchies and gender rules; no longer were certain materials reserved for particular people or classes. Items that were once only considered wearable by the upper classes were suddenly available to everyone. With clothing slightly bordering on satire, Quant allowed women to dress as bankers or barristers as well as the more feminine secretary.

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In 1963, Quant launched her Ginger Group collection, which was mass-produced and available in 75 outlets across the UK. The name comes from a political term for a pressure group, using the term ginger as a verb meaning to “pep things up”. Whereas Quant’s clothing was already popular, she wanted to produce modern and edgy clothing for a wider clientele.

Quant’s inspiration for the first Ginger Group collection was American sportswear. Rather than all-in-one dresses, she designed items that could be paired together with different things, thus the wearer could mix their wardrobe up without exceeding their bank balance by buying several outfits. The name of the collection led itself to an unusual “ginger” colour palette, which involved a range of red and orange tones.

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Ginger Group Crêpe Dress, modelled by Patti Boyd with the Rolling Stones

Having conquered London and the rest of Britain, Quant set her sights on the United States of America. In 1960, Quant and her husband flew out to New York, just two years after the first commercial transatlantic flight. American journalists had previously written about Quant’s “kooky” look and she was welcomed to the States as a celebrity.

During her first trip to America, Quant pitched her ideas to US department stores and met fashion editors interested in her “ready-to-wear” system. Rapidly, her clothing was purchased and displayed in store windows throughout New York.

In 1962, Quant signed a contract with the American department-store chain JC Penney. When her Ginger Collection launched the following year, her clothing was suddenly at the forefront of the mass market. By 1965, Quant was regularly flying between London and New York.

Quant shared the success of her Ginger Collection with the manufacturer Steinberg & Sons, who assisted with production, supplies, and exports. By 1965, Quant was producing 50 designs a year for the Ginger Collection as well as her other dresses. Working six months ahead, Quant produced sketches for future lines, which were costed and approved at the Steinburg head office before being sent to their seamstresses. The V&A includes a couple of Quant’s sketches in the exhibition.

In 1963, not only was Quant working on her Ginger Collection, she was establishing her Wet Collection too. A new material called PVC (polyvinyl chloride) was gradually making its way into the fashion industry. It had previously only been used for protective garments but Quant was fascinated by “this super shiny man-made stuff and its shrieking colours … its gleaming liquorice black, white and ginger.” The Wet Collection was launched at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and only contained garments produced in this plastic-coated cotton material.

Despite being unlike anything they had seen before, fashion editors and buyers were inspired by the “space-age” look and orders flooded in. This collection earned Quant her first magazine cover for British Vogue, which featured her bright red PVC rain mac. Unfortunately, there was a delay in launching the collection on the high street due to a problem with the seams of the garments. Standard sewing machines could not tightly seal the seams and often caused the material to rip or melt. Specialist machinery was needed, which was eventually found through collaboration with Alligator Rainwear in 1965.

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In 1963, The Sunday Times had awarded Mary Quant with an International Award for “jolting England out a conventional attitude towards clothes” but in 1966 she received a more prestigious award. Wearing a cream wool jersey dress with a low waist, short gathered skirt, high collar and bell-shaped sleeves with blue top-stitching and brass zippers, Mary Quant arrived at Buckingham Palace with her husband and their business partner. Hours later, Quant left with an OBE (Officer for the British Empire) as an award for her contribution to the UK fashion export trade and supporting the British economy.

Already known across the world, this event promoted her clothing further in international newspapers. Using the opportunity of all the media attention, Quant began to produce other items under her brand name. Recognised by her big Daisy logo, Quant began to sell makeup (male and female), hats, bags, stockings, underwear, colouring books, knitting patterns and so much more.

In 1966, Quant trademarked her daisy emblem, which became easily recognisable, attracting more customers to her brand. This was one of the first designer logos and it helped to establish the authenticity of her clothing and mark them apart from rival brands. The daisy logo lent its name to Quant’s next big idea, the Daisy doll. Quant moved to the toy market in 1973 with “the best-dressed doll in the world”. Daisy enabled the next generation to connect with her brand. The doll wore miniature versions of Mary Quant designs and the launch at the Harrogate Toy Fair involved models dancing down a catwalk wearing life-size versions of Daisy’s wardrobe.

“The shock of the knee”

Of all Mary Quant’s designs, she is undoubtedly known best for the miniskirt. Since the war years, the length of women’s skirts had gradually shortened to knee-length, however, Quant took it even further. Based on children’s pinafores, Quant rose her hemlines well above the knee causing scandal amongst the older generation. The teenage dance scene of the 60s, however, embraced the new fashion and by 1966 many young women were wearing the newly titled miniskirt. The style also became an international symbol of London’s youth and women’s liberation.

With the miniskirt becoming accepted in society, Mary Quant used a new type of wool jersey to produce a new style of her signature minidresses: the Jersey Dress. In keeping with her previous sporty theme, the machine-knitted dresses allowed for fluidity of movement at the same time as being fashionable. They were practical, affordable, and most importantly, crease-free.

Quant experimented with different shapes and colours. Some jersey dresses had a skater skirt, whereas others were more like long jumpers or shirts. The material allowed for embellishments, such as buttons, collars, and zips, which also became a recognisable element of her brand.

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The miniskirt was not the only new fashion Quant introduced to the modern generations. Already mentioned are her PVC rainwear but one of her greatest ideas were tights and long socks. Previously, women had to suffer fiddly suspender-belts and nude coloured stockings but Quant wanted to change this. Marks and Spencer had already introduced tights to the market, however, at 12 shillings a pair (three times the price of stockings) they had not yet caught on. Quant proposed brighter coloured stockings and tights – bright mustard yellow, ginger, and prune – that would match her miniskirts and jersey dresses.

Partnering with the Nylon Hosiery Company, Quant designed stockings and tights that enabled women to dance, run and move. The company developed a technique of making self-supporting long stockings that joined together at the top; therefore, women no longer needed to use suspender-belts.

Another of Quant’s contributions to fashion is trousers for women. Historically, trousers were a male item of clothing and, whilst Quant did not invent the female version, she pushed to make them more acceptable. Women, particularly students, were comfortable wearing trousers, however, most only wore them to informal occasions or at home. Quant wanted to make trousers acceptable for women in the workplace, at parties and other formal events. Not many Mary Quant trousers exist today, however, the result of her determination to make them a regular part of female fashion can be seen in every clothes shop today.

The last of Quant’s major contributions to fashion were hotpants and loungewear. Combining the miniskirt and trousers, Quant produced extremely short shorts that bemused department stores; which section should they sell them in?

“As I love breaking down barriers all this was great fun. Quite soon this collection was promoted as ‘underwear as outerwear’ and vice versa.”
– Mary Quant, Quant by Quant, 1966

Never before had people worn such revealing clothing but the trend caught on quickly amongst the younger members of society. Today, shorts and hotpants are acceptable forms of clothing for women but in the 60s and 70s, this was a risky, although successful, move for Quant.

Loungewear combined trousers, jersey dresses, and hotpants to create stretch towelling one-piece suits. Some had full-length legs that included feet (a precursor of the “onesie”) and others were short zip-up versions. Their purpose was to be worn when lounging at home, which was a foreign concept in Britain at the time. Women only had dressing gowns, which were worn last thing at night and first thing in the morning. The thought of laying around during the day was alien enough, let alone having special clothes in which to do it.

Quant’s inspiration for loungewear came from Babygro (invented in the US in the 1950s). This was the adult version of a baby’s outfit. When reflecting on her designs, Quant once said, “I didn’t want to grow up, perhaps that’s something to do with it.” This explains many of her designs, not just loungewear.

Most of Mary Quant’s greatest fashion achievements occurred within the twenty years shown in the exhibition. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she decided to concentrate more on homeware and make-up than only clothing. This included the duvet, which she dubiously claims she invented.

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In 1988, Quant designed the interior of the Mini (1000) Designer. Dubbed the Mini Quant, it featured black-and-white striped seats with red trimming and red seatbelts. The steering wheel featured her signature daisy.

In 2000, Mary Quant resigned from Mary Quant Ltd, selling the company to a Japanese business; there are currently over 200 Mary Quant shops in Japan. Nonetheless, her fame lives on in Britain and she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to British fashion. Quant is also a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers and the winner of the society’s highest award, the Minerva Medal.

The Mary Quant exhibition is a must-see for those who grew up wearing or being influenced by Quant’s designs. It is also interesting for the younger generations who were not around to experience the fashion first hand, but who benefit daily from her contributions. Mary Quant is a phenomenal woman who single-handedly became known and loved for her designs long before they were mass-produced. She knew she wanted to be a fashion designer from a young age and she made her dream come true.

The V&A are exhibiting Mary Quant until 16th February 2020. Standard tickets are £12, although concessions apply. The exhibition takes place on two levels but it has been made wheelchair friendly.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

For the first time ever, the possessions of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo have left Mexico and arrived at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to help tell her powerful, yet tragic story, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Beginning with an introduction to her family and ending with an impressive collection of clothing, Kahlo’s personal belongings, which were not discovered until 2004, reveal how she assembled her personal identity and coped with her many hardships.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on 6th July 1907 and would grow up to become a painter of surrealism and folk art based on her strong opinions about identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Unfortunately, life was not going to be easy for Kahlo, particularly where her health was concerned.

Kahlo’s parents were the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941) and Matilde Calderón y González (1876–1932) of indigenous descent. Although she had three sisters and two step-sisters, it appears that Frida was the favourite. Whilst her siblings went to a convent school, her father insisted she was enrolled into a German school. The reason for her father’s favouritism was on account of her disabilities as a result of Polio, which she contracted when she was six years old. As a result, her right leg was much shorter and thinner than the left.

Unfortunately, children were no better than they are today and bullied Frida about her defects. Isolated from her peers, her father took it upon himself to teach her about literature, nature, and philosophy, which set her in good stead for her political future with the Communist party. Guillermo also taught his daughter about photography, thus introducing Frida into the world of art and composition.

Frida Kahlo’s childhood took place during a time when women were not given equal opportunities and were regarded as weaker and lesser than men. Therefore, Kahlo’s determination to go to school to train to be a doctor shows her strength of character. Unfortunately, this dream of hers was never to be fulfilled. On 17th September 1925, whilst on her way home from school, Kahlo suffered near-fatal injuries after the bus she was travelling on collided with a street car. Lucky to survive, unlike many of the other passengers, Kahlo suffered fractured ribs, leg and collarbone and an iron handrail impaled through her pelvis.

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Plaster corset painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo

Kahlo suffered from pain and illness for the rest of her life as a result of the crash, however, it opened up an entirely new career path for her. During her recovery, Kahlo spent the majority of time in bed, her back held up by uncomfortable plaster corsets, some of which can be seen in the exhibition. Lying on her back with a specially crafted table over her legs, Kahlo stared at herself in a mirror positioned above her bed and began to paint her self-portrait.

Self-portraits make up the majority of Kahlo’s paintings, using them as a means of exploring her identity and existence. Although she never painted the terrible traffic collision, Kahlo expressed her feelings and pain through her artwork. Many of these are made up of several surreal elements, commenting on different aspects of her life.

The V&A does not display many of her paintings, however, except for a still life at the beginning of the exhibition, the few that are shown are self-portraits. These are spread throughout the gallery in order to expand upon the personal objects and periods of her life.

Frida Kahlo can be recognised by her black hair and a striking monobrow, as well as the fine black hairs between her nose and lips – an element many female artists would choose to omit when painting their self-portrait. Although she utilised make-up and carefully styled her hair, Kahlo was not one to be oppressed by female stereotypes. Her strong facial hair was a part of her and she wore it with pride and never let it bother her, even when some young American boys heckled her in the street, asking where the circus was.

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Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo

A few of the cosmetics and medications Kahlo frequently used are in display cases along with her sewing box, hairbrush and jewellery. Visitors can also see remnants of paint tubes and brushes personally used by Kahlo shortly before her death in 1954.

These belongings open a window into Kahlo’s life, which the symbolism in her paintings does not quite achieve. Whilst her self-portraits are a visual description of her appearance and cultural identity, the personal items reveal the true woman behind the paintbrush.

Kahlo typically included Mexican components in her paintings as well as the occasional post-colonialism reference. The colours, style of clothing and atmosphere are the type she experienced growing up in Mexico, which she endeavoured to hold onto despite the rise in Americanisation. Kahlo often painted exotic plants native to the country in the backgrounds and foregrounds of her portraits and sometimes included likenesses of her pets, which were also endemic to Mexico, for instance, spider monkeys.

Whenever Kahlo was unwell, her paintings reflected the pain and frustration she was feeling. Kahlo represented herself as wounded and broken, or like a child, depending on how the circumstances affected her mentality. Toward the end of her life, expressing the pain she was in became a common theme for Kahlo.

In The Broken Column (1944), Kahlo paints herself in the nude, her stomach and torso split apart to reveal a broken column that could topple at any moment. Her arms and face are attacked by nails, which, although draw no blood, express the pain and distress she was under at the time. The metaphor of the broken column alludes to the state her spine was in by the 1940s. Her back had worsened to the point that she could no longer sit or stand for any length of time due to the pain and lack of strength in the bones. Despite undergoing several operations throughout her life, nothing had cured her spinal problems and she was soon due to undergo an operation to fuse a bone graft and a steel support to her spine in order to straighten it. Regrettably, this procedure was also unsuccessful.

Despite this, Frida remained mentally strong, as emphasised by her stoic facial expression in the painting and upright posture. The tears on her face represent how she is feeling inside, but the vacuous facial features do not give any of that away. Her eyes look straight ahead at the audience as though she is conveying her spiritual triumph through a glance, challenging herself and others to accept the situation as it is and learn to endure and live with it.

Whilst Kahlo was recovering from the bus crash, other people her age were finishing school and attending university. Although she had missed out on her chance to attend herself, once she was released from bed rest in 1927, she regained contact with her friends and joined them in their involvement with student politics. This quickly led to joining the Mexican Communist Party where Kahlo was introduced to many notable people, including the most successful Mexican painter at the time, Diego Rivera (1886-1957). As well as her politics, Rivera was interested in her artwork stating, “it was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”

Despite the age gap, Rivera and Kahlo became a couple and were later married in 1929. Kahlo’s parents regarded the match as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove,” however, Kahlo’s father was pleased she had married a rich man who could support her expensive medical treatment. The pair moved to the state of Morelos where Rivera, as a mural painter, had been given a commission. Unfortunately, this meant Kahlo was exposed to the fighting of the Mexican civil war. It is believed this sparked her preference of traditional peasant clothing and Mexican style art, now that she was more aware of the importance of Mexican identity and history.

Rivera had to move around a lot depending on who commisioned him for a mural. In 1930, Kahlo went with him to San Francisco in the United States where she was introduced to a number of American painters. Whilst the trip was by no means horrible, Kahlo was unimpressed by American life, which she regarded as boring, and made her even more determined to express her own heritage in her artwork.

One of the paintings she produced at this time emphasises her longing for her home country. Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America (1932) shows the artist standing on an imaginary boundary stone between her country and the country in which she was currently residing. She paints herself in traditional clothing, holding a Mexican flag, indicating her loyalty to her country.

Facing towards Mexico, a handful of crops grow in the foreground, symbolising Mexico’s agricultural history, however, the background is the type of scene Kahlo saw whilst in America. Tall buildings obscure the sky and chimney stacks pollute the air with smoke. On the left, a pre-Columbian building lies partially ruined and being struck by lightning, suggesting that America has destroyed the indigenous origins of the country.

Kahlo’s marriage was not much of a happy one. A number of times, Kahlo fell pregnant but feeling unable to carry and care for a baby, had the pregnancies terminated. Later, she decided she would like to try to carry a baby to full term, however, in her weakened state, her body was unable to cope and resulted in miscarriages. Whilst the loss of an unborn baby can be hard upon a couple, it was Rivera’s womanising ways that caused the most strain. After he had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, she moved out and began affairs of her own, with both men and with women. This included Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) who was living in Kahlo’s house after seeking asylum in Mexico. Eventually, Kahlo and Rivera were granted a divorce in 1939, however, they remained on friendly terms.

The Two Fridas (1939) was painted shortly after the couple’s divorce. In this self-portrait, Kahlo has painted herself twice; on the right is Frida wearing traditional costume and on the left, she wears modern clothing. Both Frida’s are holding hands and their hearts, which are visible on top of their chests, are joined together by a single artery.

Kahlo admitted that the painting represents her broken heart and loneliness after her separation from her husband. Torn between her traditional Mexican values and the modern developments occurring throughout the country, she felt lost and unable to determine her own identity. Without Rivera, Kahlo had lost a little bit of herself.

Sadly, for Kahlo, divorce was soon to be the least of her worries. As previously mentioned, Kahlo’s spine was rapidly deteriorating during the 1940s, however, to make matters worse, in 1953 her right leg, already disfigured from Polio, developed gangrene and had to be amputated below the knee. She had a prosthetic leg made so that she could still move about, albeit slowly and in pain. The V&A displays her prosthetic wearing one of her bright red leather boots. Co-curator Circe Henestrosa declared, “this is my favourite object in the exhibition. It is really modern, and it symbolises her whole attitude. Far from letting herself be defined as an invalid, she intervened as a rebel act. She was comfortable uncovering her disabilities.”

On the night of 12th July 1954, Kahlo was in bed suffering from severe pain and a high fever. Having anticipated her death days before, Kahlo had produced a sketch of the Angel of Death annotated with the words, “I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return — Frida.” When Kahlo’s nurse came to check on her at 6am the next morning, she was dead.

According to Wikipedia, the Tate Modern has listed Kahlo as “one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century”, and art historian Elizabeth Bakewell concurs that Kahlo was “one of Mexico’s most important twentieth-century figures”. Kahlo’s fame has increased posthumously both as an artist and an unconventional personality. She is admired by feminists and people of the LGBT community on account of her bisexuality.

The V&A exhibition culminates with an extraordinary selection of Kahlo’s clothing, which was discovered in 2004 locked away in her personal bathroom of her house-cum-museum. All the outfits are full of bright colours and displayed on shop dummies created to look like Frida Kahlo, complete with her traditional braided hairstyle.

The style of dress is called Tehuana and comprises of several pieces. The blouses, or Huipile, were typical in Mexico and Central American countries and were usually made by hand. The embroidery is intricately beautiful and must have taken days or even weeks to produce; no doubt these items are one of a kind.

The skirts are floor length and equally delicately decorated. The material would have been perfect for Kahlo to cover up her disfigured leg and, later, the prosthetic leg. The skirt and Huipile were combined with various shawls or rezbos, which were wrapped around the shoulders. Although this was the traditional garb of Mexican peasants, the colours were fit for the elite.

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
-Frida Kahlo

The V&A has done a wonderful job, as always, with Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Rather than concentrating on her artwork, the museum looks at her entire life from birth to death. With only a limited selection of paintings available, visitors learn more about Kahlo as a person rather than a painter. They discover her passionate determination, her background, the future she paved for herself and, most importantly, the way she wished to be seen by the world.

Most people who visit the exhibition will likely have already heard of and know a little about Frida Kahlo. This is a great benefit because the museum does not elaborate much on certain events of her life. Another downside, as overheard whilst walking around the exhibition, is some of the information about certain paintings or photographs is far too low and small to read for many people, resulting in crowds bending over to get a closer look. Whilst there are booklets with large print available, there are not enough for everyone, especially as the tickets are usually sold out by mid-morning.

The V&A will be showing Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up until Sunday 4th November 2018. Tickets cost £15 and can be booked online, which is strongly advisable to limit disappointment. 

Handel with Care

“… But Handel’s harmony affects the soul,
To sooth by sweetness, or by force controul;
And with like sounds as tune the rolling spheres,
So tunes the mind, that ev’ry sense has ears.
When jaundice jealousy, and carking care,
Or tyrant pride, or homicide despair,
The soul as on a rack in torture keep,
Those monsters Handel’s music lulls to sleep.”

an anonymous poem in The Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1740

Being a posthumously famous artist, musician, performer and so forth is a peculiar sentiment. A name may be remembered for hundreds of years, a painting may be viewed centuries after the artist’s death, people may have favourite musicians who lived long before their birth, but is it the person who is famous or the legacies they have left behind? One of the most famous British composers is Handel, a German-born Baroque musician who lived in the 18th century. Most people can name at least one or two of his compositions, but how many can claim to know about the man himself? How many people can explain how a German child grew up to be the highly acclaimed British composer? Handel’s name has survived through his music but his personal history is equally worthy of praise.

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George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner c1726-28

Georg Friedrich Händel was born on 5th March 1685 (incidentally the same year as J.S. Bach and Scarlatti) in the Prussian, now German, town Halle-upon-Saale to Georg Händel and Dorothea Taust. Little is known about Handel’s early life but documents prove that he was the first son of his father’s second marriage, discounting a still-birth, and he was followed by two sisters, Dorothea Sophia, born 6th October 1687, and Johanna Christiana, born 10th January 1690. His maternal grandfather was the Lutheran pastor of the Church of St. Bartholomew in Giebichenstein, north Germany, and it is likely that this had some influence on his upbringing.

Information about Handel’s childhood has to rely upon Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel written by his biographer John Mainwaring (1724-1807), although there are many discrepancies within the text. For instance, Mainwaring claims that Handel’s father was dismayed with his son’s penchant for music and “took every measure to oppose it”, going as far as to ban musical instruments from the house and refusing to let Handel visit anyone in possession of one. The biographer tells a romantic story about Handel’s secret visits to the attic where he had hidden a clavichord, which he played whilst his family were asleep. Some historians claim this to be little more than “poetic imagination”, for Handel must have been receiving some sort of musical education for him to be eventually noticed by Johann Adolf I, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels (1649-97).

At about eight years old, the young Handel accompanied his father on a trip to Weissenfels where he sneaked over to the organ in the palace chapel of the Holy Trinity and proceeded to play. His impromptu performance was overheard by Duke Johann Adolf I who persuaded Handel’s father to allow his son to receive musical instruction. Back home, his father sought out the organist at the Halle parish church, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712), and Handel’s musical education began. He learnt to play the violin as well as the organ, yet continued to practice on the clavichord/harpsichord. It is also noted that Handel developed a love for the oboe, which is evidenced by the number of pieces he would later compose for this instrument.

Due to his late father’s wishes that he should become a lawyer, Handel enrolled at the University of Halle in 1702, however, he never completed the course. Despite being Lutheran, Handel accepted the position of organist at the Calvinist Cathedral in Halle until mid-1703 when he moved to Hamburg. Whilst he was in the city, Handel joined the orchestra for the theatre Oper am Gänsemarkt as a violinist and harpsichordist. It was during this period that Handel composed his first two operas, Almira (full title: Der in Krohnen erlangte Glücks-Wechsel, oder: Almira, Königin von Castilien) and Nero; Handel was only 19-years old.

In 1706, Handel was invited to Italy; whilst it is uncertain who summoned him, it is likely to have been a member of the Medici family. During his time in Florence and Rome, Handel wrote several compositions, including sacred music for the Roman clergy, cantatas, oratorios, and operas. Yet, Handel’s time here was short, by 1710 he had become the Kapellmeister to the future king of England, Prince George the Elector of Hamburg (George I).

By the time he was 27-years old, Handel had found a permanent home in London. He achieved great success with his opera Rinaldo, the first opera in Italian to be performed in the British capital, which the Victoria and Albert Museum celebrated last year (2017) in their exhibition on opera. The composer caught the attention of Queen Anne who supplied him with a yearly stipend of £200 after he composed the sacred choral composition Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (1713) in her honour. For the next five years, however, Handel gave up composing operas, although his famous Water Music proved popular. 

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The Chandos Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel, attr. James Thornhill, c1720

In 1717, Handel became the resident composer at the stately home Cannons in Little Stanmore, Middlesex, where he composed his 12 Chandos Anthems for his patron, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (1673-1744). Handel also wrote his first English-language pastoral opera, or “little opera”, Acis and Galatea (1718), which became the most performed of his works during his lifetime. The music was set to a text written by John Gay (1685-1732), a poet and dramatist who also penned The Beggars Opera (1728).

During his residence at Cannons, the Royal Academy of Music was founded by a group of aristocrats who sought musicians and composers to perform and write operas and such forth. Handel was one of three leading composers commissioned by the academy, the others being Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729) and Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), and was also appointed as Master of the Orchestra. One of Handel’s commissions was to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of George II: The King Shall Rejoice, My Heart is Inditing and Let thy Hand be Strengthened, and Zadok the Priest. The latter has become one of Handel’s best-known works and has been played at every British monarch’s coronation since.

Unfortunately, the Royal Academy of Music soon folded but Handel continued composing and sought a venture elsewhere. In 1729, Handel became the joint manager of The Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s Theatre) alongside the leading impresario John James Heidegger (1666-1749). Works by Handel were already popular at this theatre and between the years 1711 and 1739, over 25 of his operas premiered there.

Handel could be a very cantankerous man and earned a reputation for his inexhaustible vocabulary of swear words in five different languages. Whether or not triggered by the stress of opera falling out of fashion, thus causing Handel to become bankrupt, he suffered a stroke in April 1737, aged 52, resulting in temporary loss of movement in his right hand. Unable to perform, Handel sought treatment in Aachen, a spa in Germany, where he made an astonishingly quick recovery. He continued writing operas despite his ill-health, however, by 1741 and still losing money, he decided to give up in favour of English oratorios.

Unfortunately, Handel’s oratorios, many of which were based on biblical passages, caused controversy and outrage throughout the predominantly Protestant country. The Church was shocked about God’s word being spoken in the theatre in such a fashion causing one minister to exclaim: “What are we coming to when the will of Satan is imposed upon us in this fashion?”

Angry Christians sabotaged many of the performances of Handel’s oratorios, something which deeply saddened the Lutheran composer who was profoundly religious himself. The author John Hawkins (1719-89) commented that Handel “would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification.” Not to be defeated, Handel persevered with his compositions, however, he was at risk of being thrown into debtor’s prison. Depressed, his health deteriorating and his career on the line, Handel was losing hope of any future successes, however, his greatest legacy was still to come.

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Charles Jennens by Mason Chamberlin, mid-18th century

In 1741, friend and librettist, Charles Jennens (1700-73) visited Handel with a proposal concerning a spiritual text he had written based on the King James Bible. The story is a reflection on the life of Jesus the Messiah beginning with the prophecy told in Isaiah, through to the Annunciation, Passion and Resurrection. Having written with the intent of it being sung, Jennens entreated Handel to compose an oratorio. In spite of the negative reaction he had received with his previous religious works, Handel accepted and estimated that he would need a year to complete the entire score.

With a new project to work on, Handel’s depression lifted and he swiftly completed the entire orchestration in 24 days, which consisted of 53 movements within three parts. Containing sections for trumpets, timpani, oboes, violins, cellos and so forth, and the famous Hallelujah ChorusMessiah was born.

“I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
-Handel speaking about composing the Hallelujah Chorus

 

 

Messiah premiered at the new Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin in April 1742. It was performed as a means of raising money “for the relief of prisoners in the several gaols and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay.” Although some people felt insulted that Handel had not premiered the oratorio in London first, his reasoning was that it was too sacred for the theatre and too long for a liturgical service – concert halls had not yet arrived in the capital.

Handel hoped for the concert in Dublin to become an annual event, however, this plan never came to fruition. Nonetheless, Messiah was soon to become a yearly occurrence in London, attracting thousands of spectators. In 1749, another benefit concert, this time in aid of the Foundling Hospital, was so successful that it was repeated each year, including after Handel’s death in 1759.

The Foundling Hospital, established in 1739, was a children’s home established for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.” The money raised from the Messiah concerts helped to fund the home and Handel was elected a Governor of the Hospital in recognition of his support.

Despite the success of Messiah, Handel was once again nearing poverty by 1745. Opera was no longer as popular as it used to be and many performances failed to attract a full audience. Alongside this, Handel’s health was rapidly deteriorating, he was losing his sight, thus making it difficult to write. Despite a cataract operation in 1751, Handel was completely blind the following year. He remained in his house in London, occasionally attending concerts to listen to the music he had composed. The last work he heard before his death in 1759 was of Messiah.

Although he died a poor man, Handel was given full state honours and buried in the south wing of Westminster Abbey. Over 3000 mourners attended his funeral, proving that he had been a popular composer regardless of the difficulties during his final years. In his will, Handel had requested the following in regards to his burial:

I hope I have the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in a private manner, at the discretion of my executor, Mr. Amyand; and I desire that my said executor may have leave to erect a monument for me there, and that any sum not exceeding six hundred pounds, be expended for that purpose, at the discretion of my said executor.

G.F.Handel

Handel may have been quick to anger, as evidenced by his colourful use of language, but he was also a kind and generous man, particularly considering his own financial state. An entry in his will dated 4th August 1757 stated, “a fair copy of the score, and all parts of my oratorio called the Messiah” was to be given to the Foundling Hospital so that they had every right to continue their annual benefit concert. Handel’s will can be viewed at the Foundling Museum in London.

The Foundling Museum tells the history of the hospital and its patrons including George Frideric Handel, who has an entire upper room devoted to him. Alongside his will, many other items are displayed in connection with the great composer. These have come from the Handel Collection owned by Gerald Coke, who had amassed over 1000 books, scores and objects. Coke began collecting in 1930 until his death in 1990, by which time he owned the biggest private accumulation of “Handelania” in the country.

Amongst the objects in the museum are manuscripts, paintings, posters, advertisements, music, busts and a model of his monument in Westminster Abbey. Visitors can also sit and listen to a handful of Handel’s compositions and talk to knowledgeable staff about his life and works.

 

Another statue of Handel can be viewed in the V&A. A full-length marble statue was commissioned of the composer in approximately 1730 by the proprietor of New Spring Gardens (Vauxhall Gardens) Jonathan Tyers (1702-67). At this period of time, Handel was the leading composer of music in London and his statue was used to help advertise the gardens. The sculpture was produced by Louis François Roubiliac (1702–62) and it is thought to be his first independent work, thus establishing his reputation.

There are a number of other places in London fans of Handel can visit, including a number of places he frequented, however, there is none so important as the Handel House Museum in Mayfair. Now renamed Handel and Hendrix in London, the museum is set up within the rooms of 25 Brook Street where Handel lived for the majority of his time in London. It also incorporates a room from 23 Brook Street where the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) once lived.

The house has been restored to look how it did during Handel’s 36-year occupancy until his death in 1759. The interior is decorated in the typical Georgian style and contains a variety of Handel memorabilia. The front room of the house was likely used as a rehearsal room, whereas the rear, containing Handel’s clavichord is presumably where most of his composing took place. The rest of the rooms reflect the standard living arrangements of the time, including a bedroom, dressing room and servant quarters.

Of the hundreds of items in the collection, the correspondences of Handel and original compositions are perhaps the most precious. A copy of one of the first biographies of Handel by John Mainwaring is also in the museum’s possession. The remainder of objects include prints, paintings and sculptures of the composer.

 

Although an easily recognised name, the life of Handel is largely unacknowledged and his existence is identified through his music. His name is also remembered in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church with a feast day on 28th July, which he shares with Johann Sebastian Bach and Henry Purcell (1659-95).

Amongst his contemporaries and later musicians, Handel was regarded with high esteem, particularly by Bach and Mozart (1756-91), the latter who was born in the final years of Handel’s life. Another composer that lived after Handel’s time who considered him the greatest composer who ever lived was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Calling him “the master of us all,” Beethoven exclaimed, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”

The man may no longer be important in contemporary society, however, Handel’s music will never go out of fashion. His compositions continue to be performed yearly for a variety of events, for instance, the BBC Proms, Good Friday services, Christmas concerts, Royal celebrations and so on.

Whether by attending an opera, a concert or hearing background music on a television advert, Handel will continue to infiltrate the lives of Londoners and the rest of the western world. Nonetheless, it is always worth discovering more about the people who have impacted lives through music or any other means; you are bound to find out something interesting.

“He died as he lived—a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and to man, and in perfect charity with all the world.”

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended. 

The World’s Leading Museum of Art and Design

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The Sackler Courtyard, Victoria and Albert Museum, Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A), 2017

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, is regarded as the finest museum of art and design in the world. With over 2.3 million objects from the past five millennia, the museum is constantly expanding. Housing hundreds of collections including post-classical sculpture, fine art, silver works, ceramics, furniture, musical instruments, oriental art, and the National Art Library, it is unsurprising that the content and building is forever increasing.

From its early beginnings in 1852, the museum has undergone numerous extensions, the very latest being completed this year. Exhibition Road, South Kensington, is home to several important locations, specifically the V&A’s neighbours: the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. A new, user-friendly entrance has been designed and built, providing easy access from the road to the contemporary Sainsbury Gallery. This quarter of the museum will be home to temporary exhibitions.

Rather than having an entrance directly from the pavement, the Amanda Levete Architects have paved an ultra-modern courtyard, incorporating arches from the 19th-century building. This open-air area contains a glass-walled cafe to serve the anticipated 3.4 million visitors who use this new entrance each year.

Although people visit the V&A for its extensive collections, the building itself is a work of art. The original founders aimed to exhibit the best and most innovative design in the actual fabric of the building, as well as in its contents. The idea for the museum was introduced by Prince Albert (1819-61) the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria (1819-1901). After the very successful Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park – the first World’s fair – Prince Albert urged for the £186,000 to be spent on developing a cultural district in South Kensington; “Albertopolis”.

Prince Albert’s ambition was to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry.”

In 1857, construction began on the building that would become the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). It was not to only contain galleries but be the residence of government departments and colleges, including the Central School of Practice Art (Royal College of Art). The original building was a temporary iron structure that stuck out like a sore thumb. It was also quickly evident that it would not be large enough to accommodate the sheer number of exhibits. Thus, a new elaborate plan was drawn out and construction began on a permanent structure.

Throughout the 1860s and 70s, the museum expanded with new rooms being constantly added to the structure. Henry Cole (1808-82), the first director of the museum, had very ambitious decorative schemes and wanted the building to represent the best of British design. With a distrust for foreign builders, Cole employed leading English artists and designers of his own choosing to work on the building.

Amongst the many workers were two painters and sculptors: George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) and Frederic Leighton (1830-96), dominant figures in late Victorian art. They were commissioned to produce canvases to display inside the gallery as well as design intricate mosaics. These mosaics made up the thirty-five portraits of significant European artists that adorned the South Court. This was later affectionately named the Kensington Valhalla after the Norse mythological term for the resting place of heroes.

Specific rooms within the museum were assigned to various artists to decorate. One interior designer of particular note was William Morris (1834-96) who was known for his distinctive designs, craftsmanship, and paintings, amongst many other things. Another name worth knowing is Owen Jones (1809-74), who was commissioned to produce decorations for the Oriental Courts. He wanted his designs to complement the objects on show, therefore took great care to depict Persian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art styles.

Godfrey Sykes (1824-66), a Yorkshire-born designer, was very active in the development of the South Kensington Museum. He was the head of the decorative design team responsible for the majority of the museum’s ornamentations and ornate trimmings. The museum was the last building he worked on before his early death at the age of 42. Some of his best work includes terracotta columns in the Lecture Theatre and a tiled frieze in the Centre Refreshment Room. These, however, were not necessarily created by Sykes himself. Although he produced the designs, others would have been responsible for the modelling, including a man named John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911), the father of the world-known writer, Rudyard Kipling.

Sykes was known for his sense of humour, which he used to great effect in his “inhabited” alphabet with witty touches. Each letter contained an illustration of a person or persons interacting with the letter. These are located throughout the museum and are often used in relevant books published by the Science and Art Department.

The director, Henry Cole, and evidently the brains of the construction, retired in 1873. Although building works continued for another decade, work eventually stopped, leaving the museum in a chaotic, unfinished mess. Although able to function as an institution for the great collection of objects, the public was unhappy with the sorry looking appearance of what had promised to be a grand building. After much campaigning, an architectural competition was announced in 1891 to find a final design for the museum.

The winner of the competition was the young Aston Webb (1849-1930), an English architect who would later go on to design the facade of Buckingham Palace. Although some critics preferred the design submitted by the runner up, John Belcher (1841-1913), Webb’s proposal was far more practical.

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Design for the completion of the South Kensington Museum, Aston Webb, 1891

It was an additional eight years between the competition and the beginning of construction. Aston Webb finalised his design proposal thinking carefully about the general floor plan as well as the appearance of the exterior. Similarly to the original designers, Webb wanted to show off the splendour of British art and emphasise the importance of the museum. The facade of the building includes statues of significant people involved with the museum.

… a statue of Queen Victoria supported by St George and St Michael over the great arch and the Prince Consort below, as the Founders of the Museum; on either side in niches the present King and Queen. The great archway itself would be enriched with symbolic sculpture. The large bosses in the archivolt would represent various crafts; the large spandrils would have figures representing Truth and Beauty; while the two smaller niches on either side would have statues representing Imagination and Knowledge. …The whole edifice I suggest to be crowned by a gilt bronze winged figure of Fame.

-Aston Webb

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Left to right: Statue of George Frederic Watts by Richard Reginald Goulden, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 – 6; statue of William Morris by Arthur George Walker, Exhibition Road façade, 1905 – 6; statue of Alfred Stevens by James Gamble, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 –6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, Queen Victoria had died before the completion of the museum and never got to see herself immortalised in stone above the Grand Entrance. She did, however, take the opportunity to lay the foundation stone for the new structure, and thus renamed the South Kensington Museum the Victoria and Albert Museum. King Edward VII, who came to the throne in 1901, officially opened the V&A on 26th June 1909.

Aston Webb’s design was the last major construction the museum undertook – the new Sainsbury Gallery being rather minor in comparison. Yet, plenty of change has occurred over the past century.  Between 1910 and 1914, the then director, Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith (1859-1944) objected to the ostentatious design on the museum. He believed that the focus should be on the items in the collection and that visitors did not want to be distracted by the surrounding architecture. The way forward, in his eyes, was to create modest and neutrally decorated display spaces.

Harcourt Smith ordered the destruction or covering up of the supposedly inappropriate decor. Fortunately, the First World War halted the procedure, thus saving many of the original features. It was not until 1973 with the appointment of Sir Roy Strong (b.1935) as the director that the work conducted pre-war was reversed. Strong managed to restore some of the original interiors and reinstate the 19th-century collections. Unfortunately, some of the initial features are lost forever.

Beginning as a dream of Prince Albert’s, and quickly becoming a reality, the Victoria and Albert museum is continually becoming more diverse as knowledge is widened about past works of art and cultural representation. The V&A is not meant to be a historical museum, therefore it also keeps up with the times, displaying modern and contemporary exhibitions amongst the ancient. A recent exhibition illustrates how variegated the V&A’s collection can be. Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains (closing on 1st October 2017) is the first audio-visual display put on by the museum, showing the beginnings, middle and end of the iconic British band.

Despite the various extensions over the years, the Victoria and Albert Museum remains one of the most difficult buildings to understand and navigate. However, this is one of the great appeals of the museum. It is a unique building with an unequalled collection. It is possible to visit the museum several times and see something different on each trip. As the collection continues to grow, the V&A will never lose its appeal; there is something there for everyone.

Any visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum is likely to be bemused as to what exactly the central thread that animates these discrepant if marvellous collections. The answer is that there is none. For over a century the museum has proved an extrememly capacious handbag.

-Sir Roy Strong