Exquisite jewels and all the ceramics

At the V&A last week I didn't really know what I wanted to see. This is a nice, indulgent state to be in. I am a member of the V&A, so I get in to all the exhibitions for free as part of my membership; and this means that I'll go and see exhibitions that I might not otherwise be tempted by. I found myself wandering onto the Bejewelled Treasures exhibition (on until 10 April), just because it caught my eye and I thought 'why not?'

It is a fairly small exhibition, filled with exquisite jewellery from one private collector, plus the loan of three items from the Queen. The pieces were incredibly beautiful, and the size of some of the gems was breathtaking, but I couldn't decide if I enjoyed the exhibition or not. It was very crowded, and to appreciate the jewellery properly you really need to get up close and peer at it for a few minutes. This meant that there was a great deal of standing around and chatting while people slowly manoeuvred themselves in front of a case. After five minutes of listening to two very loud women from Hampstead discussing the value of their engagement rings (“My dear! I could have sold the diamond one and paid for at least half the school fees!”), I put my headphones on, listened to some Flipside, and enjoyed myself a whole lot more.

I loved the paintings and the 19th century photographs of Indian rulers wearing their jewels, which were also a part of the exhibition and helped to give an idea of how dazzling an entire bejewelled outfit would have been. Also, pink sapphires! Who knew? Not me.

After all that sparkle and jostling I wants something a little more soothing, so I tried to work my way up to the 6th floor of the V&A where the ceramics collection is displayed. In all my many years of coming to the V&A, I don't think I've ever managed to do this (which to be fair is a logistical challenge as every staircase and lift in that building seems to go to a different floor). I finally came out of the correct lift and the scale of what I saw just took my breath away. They are not kidding when they say that “the V&A houses the greatest and most comprehensive collection of ceramics in the world”.

These pictures just show a tiny proportion of the collection. I wandered around for a couple of hours, entirely by myself (I think all the other visitors that day must have been in the Bejewelled Treasures exhibition, or had been defeated by the lifts). It was simply breathtaking.

When there is so much to see, I find that the best thing to do is to focus on a couple of things which catch my eye. I loved the teapots and teacups, but it was this delicate little eye bath (German, made in 1730) and the tiny blue and white scalloped dish (Japanese, date unknown) which I wanted to tuck into my pocket and bring home with me.

For a few minutes before I headed back home, I sat down to rest on a comfy padded leather bench, with the sunshine streaming through the window behind me and illuminating a whole case of giant Ming vases in front of me. And I thought once again, how very lucky I am to live where I do and be able to spend a cold Thursday morning in February looking at beautiful things from other lands and other eras.


The details in the fabric*

This is a decorated piece of discarded chewing gum on the Millennium Bridge in central London; it's about 2cm by 2cm and most people walking over the bridge would just glimpse something colourful out of the corner of their eye and carry on walking, admiring the stunning views of the Shard, St Paul's and the river. But I was curious enough to squat down, take a photo, and look at it more closely (causing a little bit of a pedestrian traffic jam – sorry, folks).

It turns out that there are hundreds of these tiny works of art on the bridge. Once your eye tunes into them you realise they are all over the walkway. Aren't they lovely?

They are made by Ben Wilson, popularly known as Chewing Gum Man; you can find out more about his tiny works of art here.

I was on my way to the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey – a lesser well known gem of a museum, about five minutes' walk from Borough Market, that is well worth a visit if you've not been before. Their current exhibition is Liberty In Fashion, and I was so excited to be going. I have loved Liberty designs since I was a teenager, when I used to buy quarter metres of Ianthe Art Nouveau tana lawn in the red colourway (no longer made it seems), to embellish my denim jackets and jeans. This is still my most favourite Liberty print – in any colour – and I still think it goes beautifully with denim.

The exhibition had dresses, jackets, stoles, scarves, skirts and blouses from the last 140 years – all made from Liberty fabrics, and many of them made by Liberty too. My favourites were the ones from the turn of the 20th Century and the 1930s because the garment construction was as exquisite as the fabrics.

I love the tiny floral prints, and the beautiful smocking, piping and gathering details that make the dresses so glorious.

Tiny things, made with care and attention to detail; I think they're just as enchanting when they're made from old chewing gum as they are when made from silk or lawn.

*I lifted the title of this blog post from the Jason Mraz song of the same name – thank you, Jason Mraz! It's one of my favourite songs – and not just because it has the word 'fabric' in the title.


A date with the Celts

Graham and I plan dates now that I'm back at work full-time. Shifts mean that sometimes we can go weeks between having days off together. Having a day off or a night out in the diary gives us something to look forward to and feels very special when it comes around.

The latest big exhibition at The British Museum opened a couple of weeks' ago week: Celts, art and identity. Both G and I have membership to The British Museum, which means we get to swan into any exhibition for free, and without booking; something that always feels very decadent and indulgent. We both love history and yet the celts are something neither of us knows much about. We were very excited to be going as part of a date day this weekend.

This is an ENORMOUS exhibition – based around The British Museum's own extensive collection of Celtic objects, and with impressive additional loans from other museums across Europe. I learnt so much about a subject I'd previously been quite hazy on; everything I looked at made me think and wonder – which is fundamentally why I love going to exhibitions like these.

The design elements were fascinating. I loved the swirly, curvy lines, the emphasis on plants and animals in their designs, the incredible intricate detailing, and the constant use of mirror images. The jewellery in particular was stunning. I especially loved the torcs (of which there must have been close to a hundred in the exhibition).

I wondered how the torcs were put on – only a very few were hinged. The exhibition didn't adequately explain this mystery to me, and now I've read what the museum's website has to say on the matter perhaps that is because even archaeologists and historians are not quite certain. The one in the postcard above is impressive and weighty, but the ones I loved the most were the delicate twisted ones made in Ireland, from gold that glittered as if they were electrified.

Another postcard that I bought was this one of tiny metal model of a wild boar. It was probably originally used to decorate a jug or a large bowl.

It reminds me of the 'sangliers' or wild boar that you still see in South West France and other heavily forested parts of Europe today; slightly menacing, slightly ridiculous, other-worldly creatures that seem as if they've time travelled from another era.

Just like the Fabric of India exhibition I went to last week, this is something I'm going to have to go back to again in order to do it justice. When I go back to an exhibition I usually focus on a few things that I loved most the first time, rather than looking at every single item again. Many visitors at the weekend had sketchbooks with them, and I'm thinking I might have a go at drawing some of the torcs next time.

How about you? Do you go back to see an exhibition again if you can? Do you like to draw, take photographs or buy postcards? How do you try to remember what you've seen? I'd love to know.


Indian fabrics

This morning I trekked right across London to the V and A, to see their new exhibition The Fabric of India. I knew I would enjoy it, because it's the V and A, and it's fabric, so what's not to like?…but goodness me, I was just blown away.


The exhibition is vast – it took me nearly two hours to go round. There was so much wonderful fabric, plus plenty of information on every single exhibit. I thought I already knew a fair bit about both the history and the textile industry of India, but I still had much to learn. The exhibition covers dying, weaving, design, pattern, embroidery, printing, stitching, beading, clothing, quilting, fashion, and so many other things.


Many of the fabrics were first shown at The Great Exhibition in 1851, but although they are now more than 164 years old they look as vibrant and delicious as if they had been made last week. There were a good number of fabrics even older than that too, including an enormous floor cloth from the 1650s printed with bright red poppies which had me standing open mouthed in front of it for ages, almost unable to believe what I was seeing.


My favourite part of the exhibition was the Royal room, with examples of the most luxurious clothing woven from gold and silver thread that I've ever seen. The clothing was all several hundred years' old but it gleamed and sparkled as if it had been made yesterday. One piece of lace fabric, made to edge a woman's sari, was embroidered with hundreds of tiny metallic green beetle wing cases that looked for all the world like exquisite gems.


I loved the ikat fabrics, the kantha stitching, the indigo, the padded jackets, the tiny floral chintz muslins, the elephant appliqué, the gold thread, the shawls, the khadi…there was so much to take in, and reflect on, that I know I'll need to go back to see it all again.


Have you been? Would you like to go? Which Indian textiles are your favourites?


Reflections on ageing at the National Portrait Gallery

It's an uninspiring and rainy Bank Holiday Monday today, and both Graham and I have rather persistent and unforgiving hangovers following a lovely day yesterday entertaining friends, followed by a night out at the local drag cabaret. We still woke up early though – we always do – so I persuaded Graham to come on a jaunt to the National Portrait Gallery before the crowds got too overwhelming.


I wanted to see this year's BP Portrait Award before it closes on the 20th September. I love this exhibition, and go every year without fail. It is an outing that's so much better to do with a friend than on your own, because the portraits always prompt discussion and comment. What I particularly loved this year was the number of fascinating and thought-provoking portraits of elderly people. This one of two older men sitting in the kitchen at the end of a party, discussing German history, made me smile and reminded me of my great day with friends yesterday.

After we'd finished at the NPG, we headed towards Soho where we went our separate ways for an hour. Graham went to a few drum shops and I prowled around a couple of fabric shops. We met up again in Liberty where I squished some nice wool and had a productive discussion with the sales assistant about different types of knicker elastic.

On the way back downstairs this unassuming war memorial halfway up the staircase made me stop and think. Sixteen young people who worked at Liberty were killed during World War Two – an enormous number I think from the employees of just one shop. They didn't live long enough to become the elderly people with so much experience in their faces, whose portraits I had so admired earlier in the day at the NPG.