One of the nicest things about the South Kensington Museum is the lively way it keeps in touch with what happens to be interesting Londoners at the moment.
Is there a loan exhibition of Spanish pictures at Burlington House, at once everything Spanish that the Museum possesses is gathered together so that the different phases of Spanish art may be conveniently noted, and there is nearly always some extra little exhibition of special interest, either in celebration of the centenary of some great artist or to introduce the work of some foreigner of outstanding merit like Mestrovic.
The lectures given here daily by expert guides at 12 and 3 p.m. would probably be crowded if they cost a guinea. With that curious apathy towards what is not expensive that is one of our less pleasing attributes, only a few people take advantage of these pleasant scholarly talks. If they were known to be very exclusive and costly, the thousands of excellent people with modest incomes and no occupation who live in Bloomsbury and Earl’s Court boarding-houses, would sigh for the privilege of sharing these hour-long strolls through the museum, when the lecturer gives no disconnected account of individual objects but deftly traces the development of the art of different countries and ages, illustrating his teaching by the treasures under his care.
I think this apathy is largely due to lack of initiative and imagination, as well as to the aforesaid deeply-rooted idea that what costs nothing cannot be worth much. I have found so many people who have never heard of these lectures that another cause of the small attendance may be that the news of their existence is not sufficiently widely spread.
There is, alas, no one at Claridge’s or the Ritz or the Savoy to tell mothers who bring their girls over here to buy clothes and do the theatres, that there is also a way open to them to gain something that will still be theirs when the memory of the play has faded-in most cases let us hope so-and the clothes have been cast aside-since no one nowadays wears clothes long enough to wear them out.
The South Kensington Museum is the finest museum of applied art in the world. That is why it is the Mecca of students who come here to study and draw inspiration from the lovely things fashioned by our forefathers in gold and silver and bronze and leather, in silk and lace and precious stones, in the furnishings and decorations of the houses and persons of other times and other nations. There are paintings and sculpture as well: the Raphael cartoons are one of the glories of the place.
There is something, indeed, to appeal to everyone’s taste in this most marvellous museum. For the little schoolgirls who seem to throng the place in cohorts, in the charge of apathetic teachers, there are the dolls and dolls’ houses that their great-grandmothers played withthe former as delicately waxen and elegantly dressed as any to be found today. Furniture lovers may study here the finest specimens of every period, from the handsome Jacobean chairs and settles that harmonise so well with the background of panelled walls and decorated ceilings taken from old English houses, to the marvellous ornate escritoires, toilet tables and gilt couches of French royal palaces. There is less formality about the English furniture, but it was not more comfortable; and the heavy projecting carvings even on the back of the little children’s chairs may well have been the reason for the erect bearings used for odious comparisons in one’s youth. They say that the beds of our forefathers were comfortable. That may be true, but they were certainly depressing, and the state bed from Boughton House, Northampton, in which William III. slept, with its dingy hangings and horrible hearselike plumes, reaching into the lofty roof, makes you thankful for the airier ideas of today.
For book-lovers there are upstairs the old, old missals and books of hours, illuminated with such skill and patience by monks in mediaeval monasteries-some with colours almost as perfect, the ink as black, the paper as white as when they were first executed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As marvellous, and perhaps even more exquisite as works of art, are the slender Persian volumes, love-poems and prayers, inscribed in delicate characters of the East, with pictures of shahs and houris, and leather covers, so wonderfully embossed and inlaid and beautifully coloured that no description could give the faintest idea of their perfection.
Even people who are not musicians love the gallery where musical instruments of the past stand silent in their cases: guitars that troubadours in parti-coloured hose twanged dolorously to their lady-loves; virginals belonging to Queen Elizabeth and that other Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, who was a daughter of James I.; the harpsichord that Handel bequeathed to George H.; the great harp of the famous blind Welsh harper. Zithers are there, and other instruments of cunning workmanship, lovely to see and with names as melodious as the sounds they once gave forth: dulcimers and clavicords, lutes and ceteras, pandores and clavecins. Here are the spinets of our grandmothers, and what must be the veritable father of the hurdy-gurdy, and a little pianino made by Chappell more than one hundred years ago, so small that you could carry it about from place to place.
Then there is the jewellery-bracelets, girdles, necklaces, earrings, rings chosen and worn by ” Flora la Belle Rommaine ” and her sisters of other ages and countries, but so like, both in design and execution, the work of the modern goldsmith.
There is an interesting and beautiful collection of the peasant jewellery of continental countries-wonderful gilt crowns of Russian and Norwegian brides and curious rings of gigantic size and significant names, charm rings, motto rings, incantation rings, iconigraphic rings, Gnostic rings and rings with all sorts of devices.
These are only a tithe of the treasures in the Victoria and Albert Museum that can easily be reached by District Railway and Inner Circle to South Kensington Station or by the Piccadilly Tube and the Brompton Road.