treasures of the V&A

Te Papa curator of Modern Art, Lizzie Bisley, takes a look at some choice pieces from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s grand collection of instruments, pieces Lizzie got to know intimately while working there before returning to New Zealand.

The South Kensington Museum (or the V&A, as it is now known) was founded in 1852, in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Hoping to follow on from the encyclopedic displays of art and industry that this first international exhibition had brought together, the South Kensington Museum planned to build a collection of the best examples of art and design from around the world. It saw itself as an incubator for future generations of British manufacturers and craftspeople, with collections that were intended to provide a physical dictionary of objects and ornament; one which the public, designers and manufacturers could study, replicate and draw inspiration from.

Musical instruments were in the  mix  from the museum’s earliest days, with the first instrument (a 1730s theorbo-lute) acquired in 1856. The earliest instrument in the collection was bought shortly after this: a harpsichord made in 1574 by Giovanni Baffo of Venice, for the Florentine Strozzi family. Other highlights include two 16th-century spinets by Annibale Rossi, the earliest known keyboard instrument in Britain (a claviorgan dated 1579, made by Lodewyk Theewes of London), and a virginal likely to have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I.

The instruments in the museum’s collection were mostly acquired in Britain and Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of the early collecting was done  by  the  museum’s ‘Art Referees’, a group of artists, designers and scholars who were sent out around Europe to find objects for acquisition or loan. The ‘Art Referees Reports’ – a fascinating series of letters sent back with recommendations (and often including beautiful line drawings of the objects under consideration) highlight the extent to which musical instruments formed part of the institution’s broader interest in an encyclopedia of ornamental art. Rather than focusing on the history of music, these objects were acquired primarily as pieces of decorative work – seeking out the most elaborate and highly-decorated examples, the museum was interested in instruments that might demonstrate connections of ornament, material, construction and form across different types of object from the same period.

Over the past 30 or so years, the V&A has increasingly looked to highlight the position that music (and instrument-making) held in a wider social and political world. In 2015, parts of the musical instrument collection were included in the V&A’s ‘Europe 1600- 1815’ galleries – a suite of seven permanent galleries, displaying over 1000 objects from the collection. I was lucky enough to be part of  the curatorial team that worked on this project and got to know several of the instruments very well, during the long process of research, conservation and display that precedes a major gallery opening.

Through a rich group of prints, libretti, furniture, textiles, ceramics, paintings, and the instruments themselves, the galleries examine the importance and  proliferation of musical performance through 17th- and 18th-century Europe. The displays touch on public entertainment, such as opera and ballet, while also looking at the fascinating history of performance in the home. Musical instruments are shown as examples of fashionable domestic furniture, as princely treasures, and as part of European social and intellectual life. The galleries demonstrate shifts in both performance and audience over the period – highlighting, for example, the rise of amateur women musicians in 18th-century France, and the relationship that this had to a growing, increasingly wealthy middle class. Fashions for different types of instrument and music are also explored – my favourite example of this being a lavishly decorated French hurdy-gurdy, dating from the 1770s-80s, which formed part of a contemporary aristocratic interest in ‘peasant’ life and culture (think Marie Antoinette’s toy farm, in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles).

Another extremely elaborate instrument, that is displayed in a gallery about 17th-century cabinets of curiosities, is the V&A’s glass virginal. Dated to the late 16th century and thought to have been made in Austria or Southern Germany, this instrument is a bit of a mystery. It takes the rectangular form of a Northern German virginal, with integral case and drop-front. The outside of the case is covered with gilt-embossed leather, while every internal surface is richly embellished with glass and thin enameled metal plates. Most breath-taking is the underside of the lid, which is decorated with 18 lamp-worked, glass relief panels, showing scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Although 16th-century princely inventories occasionally refer to pieces of furniture covered with glass, the fragility of these kinds of objects mean that they very rarely survive. We don’t know who the glass virginal was made for, but it is likely to have been intended for display in a Wunderkammer (or cabinet of curiosities) and is also designed to be played. Although no other examples of instruments of this type survive, it has a strong stylistic relationship to a late 16th-century Austrian casket in the V&A’s collection, which is also decorated with glass whorls, florets and lamp-worked glass reliefs. This raises interesting possibilities about the workshops that might have made both of these objects – in the period from 1572-1591, Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol ran a glass workshop peopled by Venetian craftsmen from Murano, who introduced lamp-working (a technique in which a lamp is used to melt and shape intricate detail in glass relief) to the region. It seems likely that the virginal may have been commissioned from an instrument-maker, for decoration in this workshop.

Taking an extremely different decorative form, my other favourite keyboard instrument in the Europe galleries is the Pascal-Joseph Taskin harpsichord, dated 1786. Taskin was instrument maker to the court of Louis XVI. The V&A’s harpsichord is signed by Taskin, and although we don’t know who it was made for, it is fitted with a small keyboard that has unusually narrow keys. This suggests that it was a specific commission, possibly for a child, or perhaps for someone like Louise- Honorine, Duchesse de Choiseul (died 1801). An accomplished clavichord player, there are records of the Duchesse (who was a small woman) having had furniture made specially for her.

The harpsichord is decorated using a French technique known as ‘vernis Martin’. Achieved through layers of paint and varnish, this technique is intended to imitate Japanese lacquer. Vernis Martin was extremely fashionable in the second half of the 18th- century, making this harpsichord, with its carved gilded frame and screw-on legs, a perfect element in the contemporary interior. What is particularly striking about the decorative scheme is its use of colour. While the outside of the case is painted in the classic combination of black ground with gold figures, the inside of the lid is a brilliant, rich, peachy-orange, imitating coloured Asian lacquers. Opening the instrument always brings a jolt of joyous surprise, as its lush interior is revealed.

Harpsichords became fairly standard as pieces of household furniture for wealthier Europeans in the second half of the 18th century. In the Europe galleries the Taskin harpsichord is shown next to a square piano, made in Madrid in around 1800. Here we herald the major shift away from the harpsichord, and towards the new keyboard instrument of the piano, that took place at the start of the 19th century – a shift that can be clearly heard in the expressive Romantic music of the period.

The last instrument that I want to touch on here, partly to correct the keyboard bias, is a guitar made in 1693 in the Hamburg workshop of Joachim Tielke. The back and sides of this instrument are beautifully decorated with engraved marquetry of turtleshell, ivory and pewter – depicting intricate floral designs, cupids, classical scenes and putti running through foliage. We know from other surviving instruments that Tielke’s workshop tended to make instruments of this type in pairs, with the accompanying guitar using the reverse marquetery cut-out, so that what is ivory ground with turtleshell motif becomes ivory inlaid into turtleshell, and vice versa.

Joachim Tielke, a luthier who made violins, guitars, violas de gamba, bell citterns and lutes, was one of the most successful instrument makers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Trained as an apprentice in Königsberg, he moved  to  Hamburg  at  25 to join the workshop of the Dutch-born instrument maker Christoffer Fleischer. In a move that was extremely common across the woodworking trades, the promising apprentice Tielke soon married Fleischer’s daughter Catarina, as a way of ensuring the generational life of the business. Tielke went on to have an extremely successful career as a luthier, merchant and entrepreneur – more than 130 of his instruments are known to survive today.

In the Europe galleries Tielke’s guitar is shown as an example of baroque ornament – it sits alongside a leather vestment that is covered with magnificent scrolling acanthus; as well as other objects decorated with flowers and foliage, including an engraved silver tankard and a painted tin-earthenware jug. In addition to this story about the history of design, and the adaptation and borrowing of motifs across different art forms, the guitar also  tells a musical narrative. The contemporary, fashionable style of its ornament, alongside the use of lavish and expensive materials, highlights the great fashionability of guitar music in the second half of the 17th century. This was a period when the guitar was one of several instruments commonly used by small ensembles to accompany the performance of songs, both in domestic households and across European courts.

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