Magazine article The Spectator

Designed for Living

Magazine article The Spectator

Designed for Living

Article excerpt

International Arts and Crafts is the third of the V&A's major 19th/20th century 'lifestyle' themed exhibitions, following on from the successes of Art Nouveau (2000) and Art Deco (2003). Both those shows were ingenious and loving tributes to their subjects, and spectacles of the highest order. Before that, in 1996, there was the justly famed celebration of William Morris. What the current show (until 24 July and sponsored by Real's) proves beyond doubt is the danger of establishing a pattern and expecting every cultural development to rise to the occasion and create a similar star turn in exhibition terms. Sometimes the raw material simply isn't suitable. In the case of International Arts and Crafts, despite a luminously beautiful book that accompanies the show (V&A Publications, £40 in hardback), the actual experience of walking through the galleries is somewhat dispiriting.

It must be said that this impression is not helped by the forlorn aspect of the supposedly 'permanent' collection galleries through which the visitor has to pass they're denuded and scruffy. Where are the exhibits? What's happened to the Pisanos and the other denizens of the sculpture court? (Surely one of the reasons why museums exist is so that a permanent collection may be readily consulted.) Why is the garden being dug up yet again? Is the V&A the only museum where they search you on the way out (not on the way in) to ensure you haven't pocketed something from its shamefully unguarded galleries? Inevitably, these thoughts are carried into the Arts and Crafts exhibition, which is unfair. Thankfully, the first few rooms packed as they are with period treasures - do much to dispel the prevailing gloom.

A gorgeous stained-glass window by Baillie Scott welcomes you, as if in the entrance hall. To reinforce the comparison with entering a house, there is a splendid hall chair by Mackintosh and a fine table (like the frame for a terrestrial globe) by Voysey. Nearby are a reassuring mixture of things: a rather beastly series of Cotswold scenes by Alfred Powell on a cupboard by Ernest Gimson, a lovely spun copper and cast brass Christopher Dresser teapot, and Selwyn Image's distinctive cover for that quintessential Arts and Crafts journal, The Hobby Horse. Morris's tapestry 'The Forest' hangs on an adjacent wall, and round a corner are an uncomfortable-looking Pugin armchair and Godwin's more elegant 'Greek' chair. All this in the first gallery. The heart lifts.

Again, in the second room, it is individual items which catch and hold the attention: the 'Peacock' sconce in steel, bronze, brass and silver, with enamelled decoration for the plumage, by Alexander Fisher, and the 'Cawdor' candlesticks by George Walton. Voysey comes out well again, particularly from the elegant writing desk with cut metalwork pastoral scene. The 'Apple' textile design by Lindsay P. Butterfield is satisfying and memorable, not just because it appears on the endpapers of the V&A's book, as is the flower-shaped copper fire-screen by Benson and the 'Cymric' cup and cover by Archibald Knox. I revered Philip Webb's silver-plated wooden cross (also his Whitefriars glass in a cabinet near at hand), and the rich dalmatic (worn by a church deacon) designed for the Festival of the Holy Innocents. The Beggarstaff Brothers' magisterial collaged poster design for Don Quixote at the Lyceum Theatre looms over the exquisitely detailed bookbinding of Cobden Sanderson.

Over 300 works have been assembled, about a third of them coming from the V&A's own extensive collections, and many of these objects are entrancing in their oddness and piquancy. …

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