We unexpectedly loved Victoria and Albert Museum, especially for its sculpture collection

We unexpectedly loved Victoria and Albert Museum, especially for its sculpture collection

Article and photos by Scott S. Smith


The north side of the John Madejski Garden courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The north side of the John Madejski Garden courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum

In September 2016, my wife, Sandra, and I reluctantly visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, VAM, (Cromwell Road, +44 020 7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk, contact@vam.ac.uk) in the South Kensington area of central London, United Kingdom. We were hesitant because we normally don’t care for decorative art, but Time Out London had rated it the number one attraction of a city packed with world-class destinations. We had flown in that morning and planned to go to our hotel to sleep off our jet lag before heading to the museum, which was open until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays. But our hotel was out of the way and we decided to head directly to the museum for a few hours. It had one of the world’s largest and best collections of its kind, with 4.5 million objects, only a tiny fraction of which could be displayed at one time in its 145 galleries spread over seven miles on six levels. They included ceramics and glass, textiles, furniture, sculpture, metalwork, drawings, photos, jewelry, and costumes from around the world covering 5,000 years.

It was founded in 1852, the year after the Great Exhibition, a world’s fair that showed off the fruits of the industrial age and provided the museum’s initial collection. First called the Museum of Manufactures, it was the world’s first devoted to “applied art and science,” and the official opening at the current location was overseen by Queen Victoria in 1857 (her last public appearance was in 1899 at the laying of the foundation for a new building).

Samson Slaying a Philistine by Giovanni Bologna

Samson Slaying a Philistine by Giovanni Bologna

Walking into the central sculpture hall on the ground floor we were greeted by the dramatic marble statue of Samson Slaying a Philistine by Giovanni Bologna (also known as Giambologna) dated about 1562. He was sculptor to the Medici dukes of Tuscany and the most important one after the death of Michelangelo in 1564, until the emergence of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1614. Renaissance works dominated the long room. The VAM had one of the most comprehensive sculpture collections from the post-Classic era, with 22,000 from around the world created between 400 A.D. to 1914, using materials ranging from wood to bronze.

Glazed glass basin from Turkey

Glazed glass basin from Turkey

Islamic art was represented with 19,000 objects, one of the world’s largest collections, with works from the 7th to 20th centuries. We were particularly impressed with the rugs and tile art, with the artistry honed for nearly a millennium within the mandate of not depicting human or animal forms (except in the Persian Shiite tradition). We saw that up close on the Taj Mahal in India and in Uzbekistan, where floral and abstract forms were perfected. The VAM lighting in that area made it difficult to take photos, but we did get one of a glazed glass basin from Iznik, Turkey, 1545, with the Golden Horn design (a reference to the waterway off Istanbul). Some believe the museum’s glass and ceramics collection of 80,000 to be the most comprehensive in the world.

Tibetan deity representing enlightenment

Tibetan deity representing enlightenment

With 160,000 items, the Asian collection may be the largest in the West. We only saw a small part of it, but particularly loved the exquisite gilded brass statuette of the donkey-headed, many-armed Tibetan Buddhist deity Kharamukha Samvara, a metaphor for enlightenment in the Tantric tradition of channeling sexual energy. The male aspects represented compassion, the female wisdom.

Boy with Bagpipes by Caius Cibber

Boy with Bagpipes by Caius Cibber

We visited the room with the Raphael Cartoons, sketches for tapestries displayed in the Sistine Chapel on special occasions. By that time we were exhausted and our last photo was of the statue of a boy playing the bagpipes with his dog at his feet, sculpted from Portland stone by Danish artist Gaius Gabriel Cibber in 1680. Cibber moved to London in the 1650s, where he worked closely with the legendary architect Christopher Wren. When we return to London, the Victoria and Albert will be high on our list so that we can explore the areas we breezed through and check out those we completely neglected on photography, books, furniture, costumes, and jewelry, as well as regional exhibits on Asia and the Americas. I would recommend the VAM to friends who like art museums, regardless of whether they think they will like the focus on decorative arts.

Eighteenth century home museum near Paris worth visit when in Seine-et-Marne area

Eighteenth century home museum near Paris worth visit when in Seine-et-Marne area

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Champs Sur Marnes on a cloudy rainy day

Champs-sur-Marnes on a cloudy rainy day

The gardens viewed from the second floor

A view of the Notable Gardens, inspired by Le Notre’s work, from the second floor

We liked visiting the Château de Champs-sur-Marne (31 rue de Paris 77420 Champs-sur-Marne +33160052443. www.chateau-champs-sur-marne.fr, champs@monuments-nationaux.fr) in the Seine-et-Marne Department (www.turisme77.co.uk and www.paris-whatelse.com) in the town of Champs-sur-Marne near Paris, France. A private home in the eighteenth century the property was completed in 1708. It was managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, a government entity. Champs-sur-Marne is within an 85 hectare estate in the town of the same name, about 25 minutes from Paris by public transportation (RER A) and a 30 minute drive via highway A4.

Most of the rooms were furnished

The furniture in the entry hall

The 16 room two story structure stood out for its rococo style and its Notable Gardens, inspired by Le Notre’s work and restored in 1895. Because of rainy and cold weather we missed visiting the gardens. In its heyday the Castle of Champs-sur-Marne welcomed illustrious tenants such as the princess of Conti, duke de La Vallière, and la Marquise de Pompadour. In 1895, Louis Cahen d’Anvers, a banker, bought and restored the property, and in 1935, the Cahen d’Anvers family donated the property to the state. About 1,800 square meters of the 3,600 square meter large property were open to visitors, including the second floor and basement.

Decorations meant to look asian were popular

Asian style decor was popular despite a lack of accurate information about the subject matter.

Removing the paint in one room revewal paintings underneath

A glass covered close up where the removal of paint revealed further paintings underneath

During our visit to the Seine-et-Marne the Château de Champs-sur-Marne served as a contrast to other larger and far more pompous properties such as the Chateau de Fontainebleau, the former royal homestead, and Vaux-le-Vicomte, the famous precursor to Versailles. Like Vaux-le-Vicomte, Champs-sur-Marne served as a model for another well known property, the Elysee Palace in Paris completed in 1720. The north facade’s special feature, the rotunda, is similar to the one at the Hôtel de Matignon, the official residence of the first minister.

Some of the rooms looked very comfortable to relax

One of the rooms appeared inviting

The Château de Champs-sur-Marne was built as the home of a newly wealthy family wishing to impress society, whereas the other two area properties were designed for the public as well as private life of their affluent residents. A staff of 37 looked after the property. In 1959, President Charles de Gaulle began using it as an official residence for government guests. In 1974, the Ministry of Culture took over management of estate, allowing the public to visit the castle and its grounds. In 2006, parts of the Chinese Salon ceiling collapsed, requiring a six year long restoration. Although it was reopened in 2013 it looked like it could use additional work.

The rooms were decorated according to purpose

The rooms were decorated according to purpose with light colors for women or mixed groups.

If the Château de Champs-sur-Marne looked familiar, our English speaking guide explained, it was because a number of films were shot on the estate, including Dangerous Liaisons (1987) by Stephen Frears, Ridicule (1995) by Patrice Leconte, and Marie-Antoinette (2005) by Sofia Coppola.The orangery of the castle also appeared in the series Versailles (2016) by Jalil Lespert.

The darker rooms were offices and places for the men to gather.

The dark rooms were offices and places for men to gather.

The billiards room

The billiards room

Our guide especially noted the chinoiseries painted decorations and the door panel (in the Cabinet Camaïeu) by Christophe Huet, among the highlights of the era. Other noteworthy features included, in the great hall, the Coromandel screen from the 18th century restored in 2016; faience pieces from the 18th century in various rooms as well as exceptional pendulums, for example, the pendulum Tête de Poupée by Jacques Auguste Thuret, clockmaker to the King Louis XIV in 1694 in La Chambre Grise; and “le Bonheur-du-jour” signed Charles Topino in the 18th century, a desk for the ladies.