Claustrophobic alleyways or a delightful treasure trove?

22 Mar

The V&A could not really have fitted much more into one gallery for their latest exhibition. Entitled Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars it doesn’t sound the most inspiring but it’s a treasure trove with 150 or so objects including silverware, jewellery (with magnifying glasses sensibly attached to the cases), taxidermy, armour, coats of arms, firearms, paintings, sculptures, clothing, Shakespeare’s first folio and maps. In spite of being an academic exhibition looking at a weighty topic, it clearly highlights an often neglected area of history, using important examples from the history of art.

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Armour design for Sir Henry Lee, c. 1585. Own photograph.

I must say from the outset that I’m really torn – on the one hand, I think the exhibition is a fascinating study of the development of cultural diplomacy and trade between Britain and Russia from its origins in 1555 when the Muscovy Company was founded. But, on the other hand, the way the exhibition is curated is confining and doesn’t do any of these objects justice.

It starts with Henry VIII’s consolidation of the Tudor dynasty, after his accession to the throne in 1509, and then follows the exchange between British sovereigns and ambassadors until the end of Charles II’s reign in 1685 when the British monarchy had resumed contact with Russia.

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A selection of fabulous armour on display. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.

On entry to the exhibition we are greeted with carved wooden sculptures of beasts – a red bull, a black griffin, a white ram and a crowned white dolphin. These particular pieces were created to commemorate Thomas, Lord Dacre, who fought at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Power becomes immediately apparent here and is seen in various guises throughout this exhibition; it’s seen in the majestic armour on display as well as through the culture of possessing beautiful objects and costume. Power was not just dictated by exquisite jewels, it was far more subtle.

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Beasts at the entrance. Image via www.dailymail.co.uk.

The audio guide is in Russian and English – a nice touch to welcome Russian visitors, showing that our relations weren’t always frosty. In fact, one of the objects getting a lot of attention is a large white pelican – a gift from Russia that we still hold dear and can usually found at the Natural History Museum. I hasten to add that in 1662, it was alive and with a partner. The pelican is a strong heraldic emblem and, of course, the successors of this pair can still be found in St James’s Park. Gift-giving is a theme explored throughout the exhibition – there’s the lavish chariot presented in 1604 by British ambassador Thomas Smith to the Russian ruler Tsar Boris Gudunov. It’s represented here by a specially commissioned film and beautiful scale model. This film is one example of the successful use of multimedia; informative videos are dotted around to explain interesting points or arguments – there’s one looking at how miniatures were made.

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Model of an English Coach, 1974-1982. Own photograph.

At the very centre of the exhibition is a showcase of British and French silver, not just showing off these pieces but charting their extraordinary survival. The low lighting suits the works excellently. But, we really are led round the show and there isn’t much choice in where to go. These alleyways of art can become quite claustrophobic. The objects are amazing but heaven help you if you want to go back to see something again. The one way system doesn’t allow for any flexibility.

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Alleyways at the exhibition. Own photograph.

The Tudor and Stuart courts are explored in far more depth than the Russian court and it seems a bit unbalanced. Maybe this was different when the exhibition was shown in a slightly different format at the Kremlin last year.

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Finery.  Image via www.thetimes.co.uk.

The shop, as ever, really gets it right and knows how to maximise its market potential – there’s English mead created exclusively for the V&A, stained glass transfers, coins and goblets.

Despite all these positives, I can’t forgive that I felt I was frog-marched around this exhibition. If the objects had had more room, I’d have enjoyed it so much more.

shoes

Treasures of the Royal Courts is at the V&A until 14th July 2013, www.vam.ac.uk.

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