The Victoria and Albert museum has about seven miles of exhibition rooms crammed with beautiful stuff from all ages and corners of the globe. I can’t imagine anyone being able to see the whole thing in week let alone a day. My visits have been kept fairly short. After about two hours in any museum I start having sensory overload. My eyes start to bug out and images start to swirl into meaningless blotches of painful shapes and colours. Six hours in the V&A and I’d be done for! Can you imagine some poor security guard finding me passed out, spread eagle like some dazed votary infront of a naked Celtic warrior. Have you ever seen the sculpture, “The Fallen Gaul”? I don’t know if the V&A has a copy, but it’s one of my favorite…yes he’s naked and has a wee too much facial hair, but he’s so lovely…even if he is dying.
Hypothetical faintings aside, I went to the V&A website yesterday to see if they offered (like the National Portrait Gallery) to print off their pictures for a fee. Unfortunately they don’t, but they do offer to allow you to download for FREE a large digital image of many of their objet d’art. The beauty of the word FREE is put into context when one visits The National Gallery’s website and tries to find how to buy or download a print of one of their works…the only thing they give you is the opportunity to pay them a truck load of money for a digital download. I duly signed up and downloaded several pictures I love. As I was randomly combing through endless V&A images I stumbled across a treasure trove of miniatures and other paintings. This picture of Thomas Philips is one of my favorites. He stares at the viewer with such serious eyes. It’s hard to imagine him laughing and I’m dying to know if it was made for a lover or a family member and what he was thinking as he sat there. It’s a mystery.
Seeing miniatures (and full size portraits) in museums often makes me sad, especially if the sitter is marked, “unknown”. These images of people once loved are now nothing more than rare curiosities, faces that have been disowned; stories that have been lost. I always wonder if their families had to sell them to buy food, or if it was just an oportunity to make some money. I hate to think my future great nieces and nephews might sell my portrait for a few bucks. How depressing! But I can’t help wondering, who were these people? Why did they have the portrait made? Was their love returned or was it a gift in vain? What sort of lives did they have? Even if the miniature has been inscribed with a name the life of the man or woman painted on the ivory or paper has been forgotten.
This is another one of the miniatures I found. We know his name, James Daniel, but who was he? When he powdered his hair did he intentionally leave the bottom edges undone? Did he think that looked really cool? I think it does. You can see that the top of the miniature frame is strangely worn away. Did his portrait hang from a ribbon around the neck of a pretty girl? Was it tucked away in her chemise and taken out only for private viewings? Was he pleased the artist noted a vacuous expression? Was he a pretty idiot or someone who hid his feelings behind a locked steel door? What did he do for a living? What sort of adventures did he have? We’ll never know…he’s just a pretty face; an image of someone who once was, a lost story.