London, England: Victoria and Albert Museum – Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Guide – Travel Bite


The Victorian Age
was an exuberant time. The Neo-Gothic Albert
Memorial reminds London how Victoria’s
beloved husband Albert — the only one
who called her “Vickie” — did so much to promote
technology and culture during that industrial
boom time. The statues at the base
herald the great
accomplishments of Britain’s 19th-century
glory days. Albert died in 1861. His wife, Queen Victoria, was possibly the world’s
most determined mourner. She wore black
for the standard two years, and then tacked on 38 more
for good measure. Taking mourning
to new heights, she required that the city’s
once-colorful finials be painted black,
as they remain today. The queen built grand
monuments to her Albert, like the Royal
Albert Hall. The immense
Victoria & Albert museum is named for the royal couple
who did so much to support the many triumphs
of their day. Like lots of London’s top
attractions, it’s free. The V&A grew out of the Great
Exhibition of 1851. This first World’s Fair, housed in a temporary glass
and steel people’s palace, celebrated the Industrial
Revolution and the greatness
of Britain. The theme of the Britain
Galleries is style, taste and design
from 1500 through 1900. 400 years
of English fashion history are corseted into a series
of exquisite display cases. This painting from around
1600 is of a woman wearing this
actual garment. It was typical
formal daywear, linen and silk embroidered
with silver thread. Nightcaps were fashionable
among aristocratic men. This tortoiseshell
and silver toiletries kit shows that in 1640, careful
grooming was as important as dressing
magnificently. In the 1670s, shoes were
called “straights,” and there was no difference
between right and left. Whalebone and lacing
kept torsos flat and long. Fans were tools
for flirting. It was said, while a man’s
weapon was a sword, a woman’s weapon was a fan,
and the fan did more damage. In the 1740s,
a rich woman’s court dress was an extravagant display
of wealth, even if it meant
she entered rooms sideways. The huge collection
illustrates the far reach
of the British Empire, from its exquisite
indian art to its sumptuous hall
of Chinese artifacts. The hall of casts is filled
with plaster copies of Europe’s greatest
statuary, made for the
benefit of London’s 19th-century
art students who couldn’t afford
a rail pass. Students could compare
the Renaissance genius of Donatello, whose David
was Europe’s first male nude since Roman times, and that
of Michelangelo a century
later, with his more
heroic David. Around the back you’ll find
that this David came with an accessory,
a clip-on fig leaf. As this was the Victorian Age, when royal ladies
came to visit, they’d hang it on the statue
for modesty.

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