The Jameel Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum

Tuesday 2 December 2014

The Victoria & Albert Museum bills itself as the 'world's greatest museum of art and design', and I'm not going to argue with them (not just because I volunteer there, either). Originally opening as the Museum of Manufactures in 1852 after the success of The Great Exhibition in 1851, it then became the South Kensington Museum in 1857 after moving to its current site - it was finally christened as the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899. Its founding principle was to make works of art and design available for all, including the working classes, and had days of free entry for this purpose, as well as being the first museum in the world to use gas lighting, enabling the later opening of the galleries. It has a fascinating array of nearly two and a quarter million objects, including the first commercial Christmas card, the earliest photograph of London, the world's oldest dated carpet, and panels embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment. It also showcases some of the best contemporary art and design in the world: it hosts the London Design Festival each year, puts on exhibitions featuring the likes of David Bowie, Alexander McQueen and the Heatherwick Studio, and schedules an amazing array of events, workshops and talks, most of which are free (I particularly recommend Friday Lates).

The museum is huge, and it's effectively impossible to get round in a day. I like to take my time when visiting museums (as my friends often find out), and so even after volunteering at the museum for a couple of years, there's still galleries I haven't had a thorough look around. Until recently, the V&A's Jameel Gallery, showcasing Islamic Art from the eighth century onwards, was one of them. Taking centre stage is the Ardabil Carpet, the oldest dated carpet in the world, made for the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili in Iran in the late 1530s. Its design is incredibly complex, even compensating for the foreshortening effect that the huge size of the carpet would have on the design when viewed flat, as intended - this is why the two lamp motifs are different sizes. For a long time, it was shown behind a protective screen which dampened its beautiful colours, but in the Jameel Gallery it is displayed in its full glory, lit up for ten minutes every half hour in order to preserve these colours.

As I only had my 50mm lens on me the day I visited the gallery, getting a shot of the Ardabil Carpet proved nearly impossible due to its massive size! However, I did photograph a few of my favourite objects on display in the gallery, which you can see above. From top to bottom, left to right:
  1. A beautiful example of plant motifs often used in Islamic design, this ceramic vase was made circa 1575 in Iznik, Turkey.
  2. A column capital from the palace complex of Madinat al-Zahra, Spain, Cordoba, 960-80AD. This  piece of carved marble would have been placed at the top of a column.
  3. An extremely rare crystal ewer, carved from a single piece of rock crystal, dating from around 1000-1050AD. It was probably made in Cairo, in Egypt, where fine objects like this were made for the rulers of Cairo during the Fatimid period. These vessels are often held in Catholic treasuries after being rededicated, having been stripped from their original owners.
  4. An amazing jade tankard, inlaid with gold thread, rubies and emeralds. Tankards like these were often made for the court in Ottoman Turkey, with this one dating from around 1550-1600, with the changed baroque-style handle added in about 1800.
  5. The Chelsea Carpet was named as such simply because it was purchased from a dealer in that part of London - its history is unknown, but due to its quality and style it is thought to have originated around 1500 somewhere in Iran.
  6. Tiles with repeating patterns, made in Iznik, Turkey, in a pattern associated with the shrine of EyĆ¼p. Each group of four tiles creates a pattern which can repeat endlessly.
  7. This large textile made of silk with detailed silk embroidery was probably used as a quilt cover or wall hanging, and was made in Turkey between 1600 and 1700.