‘We humour them when they suggest absurd reforms, we placate them with small material comforts, but we heave sighs of relief when they go away and leave us to our jobs.’ I am glad to say that the approach adopted by one of my predecessors, Eric Maclagan, to the visiting public is no longer preferred policy at the V&A. Instead, this week we are desperate to welcome the British people back to their collections. For the past five months, South Kensington has felt too much like Miss Havisham’s mansion, with lots of dust sheets, unexplained noises and an overpowering sense of loss. To ensure we reopen properly, my favoured reading of recent weeks has been the British Medical Journal editorial explaining that surface transmission of Covid-19 is ‘relatively minimal’. So sanitation stations and free online booking are back, but so too are our touch-screens, seating areas and relaxed cultured ambience. We all need it.
A minor benefit of the extended closure has been time for some Marie Kondo-style reordering (without the throwing out). The Turners are looking fabulous; ‘The Three Graces’ has been relocated to accompany the other Canovas; and, most wondrously of all, the Raphael Court has been transformed. Finally, Raphael’s epic narrative of St Peter and St Paul — on loan from the sovereign since the days of Queen Victoria — have the lighting and paintwork which the finest works of the High Renaissance in Britain deserve. The vital insight came from seeing the Hampton Court Mantegna cycle displayed on a dark green background at the Royal Academy’s King Charles I exhibition. So we exchanged a faded Tuscan background for Farrow & Ball’s ‘Hague Blue’ (certainly named after the former foreign secretary, rather than the Dutch city). The fear of every V&A director is Buckingham Palace requesting the Cartoons’ return; but I think finally they have the magnificent backdrop they deserve.
Hartlepool voted for Brexit in similar numbers to my former constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, and now both have gone Tory. As in Scotland, the hideous duality of referendum politics has eaten away the Labour vote. I felt deep sympathy for my former colleagues doing the media round explaining why the Labour party needed to reform faster and further. After a similar rout, I once made the case that Labour, ahem, should be ‘on the side of families who want to shop at John Lewis’. I have no useful advice for Keir Starmer, other than to decamp from the truly terrible offices which the leader of the opposition is allocated in Westminster’s Norman Shaw Buildings. For more than a decade, these grimy rooms have reeked of defeat, futility, conservatism, lethargy and unhappiness. Keir should demand a power-hungry suite in Portcullis House.
To Milton Keynes Central. Then the X60 bus to Buckingham, followed by a walk up Stowe Avenue towards the Corinthian Arch to see Cobham’s great garden. The V&A holds some of the terracotta busts made by the Dutch-born sculptor John Michael Rysbrack, which provided the models for Stowe’s ‘Temple of British Worthies’: surely the most aesthetically pleasing celebration of patriotism in English material culture. Here are Milton, Hampden, Queen Elizabeth and Locke all looking unworried by any threat of ‘cancel culture’. To its credit, the National Trust has kept this historic canvas of civic republicanism in superb form. But I feel a twinge of apprehension for the pupils of Stowe school who roam the grounds: what can adult life possibly offer after a childhood playing cricket beneath a rotunda displaying the ‘Venus de’ Medici’? And yet how wonderful to be able to say to one another: ‘I’ll text you when I get to the Temple of Virtue.’
It would have been nice if the government’s ‘retain and explain’ policy for statues and monuments had extended to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. A site of heavy metal and soft power for 450 years, the Foundry cast Big Ben as well as some 500 tower bells in Australia, 600 in the US (including the Liberty Bell) and at least 900 in Canada. Following its closure, the planning authorities have now ruled against its regeneration as a working foundry and instead opted for yet another boutique hotel. Such a shame when, after all the trials of lockdown, the public deserve authenticity rather than more ersatz.
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