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.
We have a watch fob that is made of the hair of my husband’s great-grandfather’s mother. It is the most amazingingly intricate braiding, absolutely beautiful. Quite the treasure to our family.
That is so cool! I wish we had something like that. When I was a teenager my maternal Grandmother gave me a sugar bowl that belonged to my great great great grandmother who emigrated as a child from Ireland to Canada. I wanted to keep it safe so I left it at home with all my treasures when I moved away to go to College. All was well until a year or two later my parents moved without telling me…they never gave me a chance to claim my treasures or tell them what was on my shelves. It probably ended up in the same place as my Barbie dolls…sad…but G.G.G. Mary Price Atchison won’t be forgotten in hurry. Pity we don’t have a picture for her.
“I hate to think my future great nieces and nephews might sell my portrait for a few bucks.”
Really? Perhaps rethink.
Maybe those future great nieces and nephews will be glad your portrait paid January’s electricity bill before the city sent out the guy who would pull them off the grid.
I do catch your drift, it sucks when the person you loved dies and no one knows how great he was but you.
You’re right…and all my nieces and nephews are really cute. I wouldn’t want any of them (or their hypothetically cute offspring) to freeze or starve for want while my hypothetically valuable portrait hangs smirking from their wall. As a portrait artist(one of my other hats) I’ll have plenty of scary self portraits to hand round. If I live to 100 as I hope, they’ll all get several to flog or burn. Speaking for myself though, I’d have to be in dire straights before I sold a portrait of a family member. It really does disturb me when I go to museums and see all these faces of disassociated family members (some now uknown) who were painted by a famous artist so are percieved to have value.
Steve Smith says
my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with
Tyrone Willets says
Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking you feeds also, Thanks.
John Deeds says
Hello. Great job. I did not expect this on a Wednesday. This is a great story. Thanks!
The Times Online says
Thanks very much for any help.