Sunday, 2 July 2017

THE REBIRTH OF THE V & A – Dianne Hofmeyr

When I first arrived in the UK nearly twenty years ago, it was summer – the loneliest summer I’ve ever known. I longed for my ridgeback dogs, my thatch-roofed house and my garden with free-roaming ‘silkie’ bantams under purple jacarandas. I was saved by three institutions – the Society of Authors, the V&A and a local gym.

In 1998 the V&A was hardly welcoming. The rooms were cavernous and dark and the floors seemed covered with brown lino. (Is this possible or was my mood just bleak?) In the first room where the present shop is, was a collection of odd relics – a carved narwhal tusk, the Beckett casket and some clerical things I can no longer recall. It reminded me of my old convent school and around every pillar I expected to meet a nun who would say – ‘what mortal sin have you committed today my child?’

The loneliness of those cavernous dark rooms made worse by the smell of boiled milk and burnt coffee emanating from a low-ceilinged room in the northern parts of the building – not that lovely Gamble Room – no baristas, or lattes, or cappuccinos in sight. The only ray of light for me was the Glass Gallery that sparkled with dragons' wings, seahorses and curled creatures lurking on Venetian goblet stems of incredible thinness. I was already scribbling the first lines of The Glassmaker's Daughter. 

Slowly, imperceptibly, changes came. By 2005 there was the beautiful new planting and reflection pool of the Madejski Gardens at the heart of the Museum ­– the buildings of the terracotta courtyard taking inspiration from 15th century Italy, turning the water into a reflection not of pale Provençal rosé but of deep salmon Blanc de Noir where children paddle and splash on a hot day.

This last Friday 30th June, another dramatic change! The gates of the Sackler Courtyard swung open to the biggest architectural intervention in the last 100 years. Amanda Levete’s innovative opening up of what was previously the Boiler Room area, has revealed the historic facades of buildings that have long been hidden to the public. The old exterior wall in Exhibition Road has been replaced by a series of arches creating a new entrance and using the same beautiful stone and even replicating the bomb damage of WW2. 

Beyond the gates, visitors are drawn into world’s first porcelain courtyard. A pale, milky blue hue coloured by fine grooves of blue, and here and there red and yellow, positively gleamed in the sunshine on the opening evening. Fitting that in a building so filled with ceramic both in the fabric of the building in its freezes, staircases and columns, as well as in the exhibits themselves, that the architect should choose ceramic to pave this courtyard. 

3375 truckloads of soil were removed to create an underground exhibition space and a gleaming courtyard above, with a café bar made from a single 9 metre piece of steel forged in Como, Italy and a huge almost seamless curved glass wall created in Barcelona, also roofed with porcelain tiles. 

A wedge-shaped oculus in the courtyard casts light into the exhibition space below. For this week of the opening, Simon Heijen’s 'Shade' is creating a kaleidoscope of light and shadow that is choreographed by the wind passing over films of lead crystal on the oculus, which will reflect ever-changing light into the room below. 

   See video below:

The Gallery space below the courtyard is totally column free due to the support of mammoth Chinese red pillars of steel on the external outer periphery, where staircases of oak lined with black lacquer lead you down. Just this view alone is worth a visit. 

High up in the central cupola of the old building below where Victoria stands purveying her Empire via a spiral staircase (not for sufferers of vertigo) there was a chance to see an exhibition of 25 artists whose work was reflected onto a wall in a piece called Reality vs Virtual Reality. I spoke to the artist Gemma Therese Pearce who explored the concept of exotic flowers through photography, sometimes blowing up the photographs to huge proportions and photographing them again under rippling water. '

The brochure stated 'A self-created virtual world where anyone can generate unique content' –something not unfamiliar to writers who continually create other utopias and blur the edges between the real and the unreal.

This week-end the Museum is a far cry from the lonely place I spent time in, in 1998. It’s filled with people, music and energy – the Exhibition Road Quarter has brought the Museum far into the 21st century. While away your time on a summer's day in London and perhaps even venture inside.


Dianne Hofmeyr’s new book THE GLASSMAKER’S DAUGHTER set in Venice, illustrated by Jane Ray and published by Frances Lincoln, will be out in October.
Twitter: @dihofmeyr


Mystica said...

Thank you for a beautiful post. I loved the V&A over ten years ago on a long ago visit to London. I cannot foresee another visit but you never can say. The V&A is on my list, especially after this post. Thank you.

Your book is not available on Netgalley? my only source of books but I will be looking out for it.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank you Mystica. The V&A is a constant source of inspiration for me. I feel I come back smiling ever time I've been. The book isn't out yet... only in October... so hopefully it will soon be up on Netgalley. I'll check. Lovely to connect with someone across the world. Thank you for the contact.

Sue Purkiss said...

I heard an interview the other day with the architect of the new extension - really looking forward to seeing it! Thanks, Di.

Penny Dolan said...

I heard some of that architect's interview too, and was slightly worried that the water gardens that delighted so many children had gone. However, this post is really fine and useful explanation, Di, as are all the wonderful sunshine-on-stone photographs. Thanks!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Heavens, haven't museums improved since our childhoods? I grew up in Melbourne, where the museum used to be part of what is now just the State Library. Mind you, I was quite happy with the dusty old displays, but the current museum, which is next door to the hundred year old Exhibition Buildings, is breathtakingly beautiful, inside and out. It assumes people might actually want to come in and learn something and enjoy it at the same time.

The State Library, which is designed to look like the British Museum, is also gorgeous these days.

As for the V and A, I've never been, but I know where I'm going on my next trip to England! Thanks for sharing!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I missed that interview and no the water gardens are still there, Penny. I updated my pic yesterday to one I took yesterday. It was heaving with children. A proper summer's day in the city.

I always love hearing from you Sue and about your growing up in Australia. I think it was similar to my childhood in South Africa but Australia was a jump ahead when it came to Opera,Theatre and Museums. Need to visit again. I haven't been for 18 years.

Niki Daly said...

Beautifully done facelift for the Old V&A. But I especially love the way the pond is being used by children. What a nice way to cool off hot feet!