I used to long for mid-October when I could say goodbye to the hot rooms, cold buffets, and warm white wine of party conference season. But ever since I swapped politics for the world of museums, I have happily rediscovered those autumnal weeks of blackberries, spider webs and London returning to life after summer. At the V&A, we opened our new opera exhibition, tracing the art form’s development from Monteverdi’s Venice to Shostakovich’s Moscow. At the British Museum, the Scythians have been reviving the art of ancient Siberia. And around the capital, Frieze Art Fair has been drawing the world’s aesthetes to London. What we don’t yet know is how Brexit will affect this cultural leadership. Any bureaucratic hurdles to borrowing artefacts from the Continent, paying VAT for purchases in the European Union, or limiting the curatorial talent able to work here could badly damage our future creative capacity.
Someone else wrestling with Brexit is our Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Luckily, amid all that long-form non-fiction essay writing, he can retreat to Chevening House. As director of the V&A, I am privileged to be a trustee of this Sevenoaks jewel, gifted to the nation by the Stanhope family for the use of government ministers. It is here that our leaders and officials gather to thrash out the myriad complexities of exiting the European Union. Yet what V&A curators Julius Bryant and Angus Patterson have discovered is that dominating the house’s entrance hall, up the freestanding staircase, is a suit of armour that belonged to Alonso Perez de Guzman, 7th Duke of Medina Sidonia and, er, the commander of the Spanish Armada. As Brexit Britain seeks to rediscover the bounteous, buccaneering days of Good Queen Bess liberated from the shackles of Europe, a dreadful spectre of Continental revenge is standing at the top of the stairs.
An antiquarian curiosity of a different order can be found in the museum of the Royal Crown Derby pottery works. Kevin Oakes, one of the great figures in British ceramics, has moved from Stoke-on-Trent to take charge of this historic brand. As he seeks to revive the company, so he is celebrating its heritage; although not necessarily the Titanic collection, commissioned for the first-class lounge. In fact, the highlight of Crown Derby’s archive is the Zeppelin range: a complete firing of pottery which had to be halted halfway through due to a Zeppelin bombing raid over Derby. The kilns had to put out for the blackout but when the oven doors were opened the fine bone china had fired perfectly— so a moon and Zeppelin backstamp was created in honour of the moment. I think an acquisition might be in order.
It is cars, not Zeppelins, we have to worry about now. Our national museums in South Kensington suffered an unfortunate traffic incident when a car turned into a small crowd queuing to get into the Natural History Museum, causing minor injuries. As ever, the emergency services proved themselves swift, professional and commanding. But the truth is that Exhibition Road’s so-called ‘shared space’ between car and pedestrian is dangerous, confusing and unsatisfactory. We should pedestrianise this lovely boulevard which connects the V&A, Science Museum and Natural History Museum and stretches up towards Hyde Park. It should be an open civic space: an ‘Albertopolis’ for families, tourists, students and flâneurs to wander in safety and in awe.
We are blessed with wonderful neighbours at the V&A. Close by lives Rory Stewart, the author and international development minister, who likes to pop over to inspect the restoration of our plaster-cast Trajan’s Column — and then bedazzle the curators with his knowledge of the Punic Wars. More significantly, we sit in the middle of the Ismaili Centre, Holy Trinity Brompton and the Brompton Oratory: a trinity of prayer and holiness. After we woke the Fathers of the Oratory at an unseemly hour with some ill-timed shop repairs, the Provost invited me to visit the community. I had feared a silent monastic dinner in the refectory but the evening proved a joy: there is nothing quite like eating supper to the sound of a priest reading passages from the Bible, the life of St Philip, and then God’s Architect, Rosemary Hill’s life of Pugin. It was like a really good Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ not read by an actor. Outside, in the gardens beneath the plane trees, the Oratory’s dahlias were in bloom. It feels a long way from the seaside.
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