/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on December 4, 2009 at 5:11 am
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Go Gothic – the new medieval gallery at the V&A

I remember the way I discovered one of London’s best Renaissance house fronts – a marvellous work of ornately carved half-timber that had survived the Great Fire of London, one of London’s greatest secrets. It was an amazing piece of architecture; a wooden version of one of the great Elizabethan country houses, with its huge windows and panelled curves.

A golden tabernacle, you might think? Actually an earthenware water cistern made for Henry VII of England. Fantastic.

A golden tabernacle, you might think? Actually an earthenware water cistern made for Henry VII of England. Fantastic.

And why was it so secret? Because most people walked right past it. When Sir Paul Pindar’s house in Bishopgate was demolished to make way for Liverpool Street Station, the facade was taken down, piece by piece, and re-erected in the Victoria & Albert Museum. So far, so good; but then the story gets sadder. The facade was marooned in a dim gallery, with a bunch of old plaster casts. Then someone had the bright idea of putting the Museum shop right in front of it. And for years, it mouldered. It was dusty. The woodwork was cracked and dull.

Now as part of the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries this fantastic architecture has been cleaned up, taken to pieces, and remounted. (The V&A has a great web page about the conservation effort.) The conservators have even found out some interesting things about the inside of the house from the facade.

Sir Paul Pindar’s House is only one of numerous art works that have been cleaned up and remounted. There’s a marvellous Renaissance timber staircase, for instance. There are belts and girdles and jewels, drinking vessels and pots, and then there are the fine art pieces – from altarpieces to portrait paintings, stained glass windows to tapestries. There’s a wax model by Michelangelo and a notebook from Leonardo, as well as finished works.

The lovely thing about these galleries, against say the medieval and Renaissance rooms in the National Gallery, is that they show the entire visual culture of the age. Just looking at paintings only gives you a distanced view, like trying to understand punk rock without the clothes and hairstyles. Here you can see how Paul Pindar brings the motifs of the Italian Renaissance to bear on a house facade that’s still, in a way, very medieval and very English – you can follow the ebb and flow of artistic culture, and you can see how people brought artistic value to small things that were very close to them, like a belt or a knife.

But this isn’t just craft works, all very interesting but perhaps devoid of real specialness and artistic value. The V&A has always had art as well as craft, and there are some impressive works of genius in these galleries. The Gloucester Candlestick with its nightmare triffid tendrils in which tiny men and animals seem to be captured, a vision of life as struggle against insuperable odds; the tiny Pisano crucifixion with its raw emotion and precise carving. If it’s High Art you want, there is more than enough to satisfy the most aesthetic of souls.

The works are displayed in an uncluttered way; at first sight, rather undramatic, too. It’s only when you take a closer look that you see how much thought has been given to the way they are displayed – a tomb slab laid on a low plinth, for example, so that you can see it the way it would originally have been displayed, rather than attached to the wall. Every work has enough space around it for you to appreciate it without your attention being distracted; and I can’t see many things in the new galleries that aren’t worth a good few minutes of your time.

If you have a fascination with the medieval world, or the Renaissance in Europe, I think the V&A has always been one of the top places to visit. That’s even more so the case now… thoughI am just a little bit sad that Sir Paul Pindar’s House is no longer one of my special secrets, but something everybody will know about!

Photo by ForeverWiser on flickr


  • Marianne says:

    I wonder if the house was demolished when Liverpool Street Station was first built in the late 19th century, or when the station was renovated in 1980 or thereabouts.

  • Andrea Kirkby says:

    This was when the station was originally built – it’s interesting that while we think we’ve only just become aware of the importance of our heritage, in fact the Victorians were great believers in conservation as well as in the gods of scientific progress. So you get the railway going in and knocking down everything in its path – but at the same time, the dismantling and re-erection of these ancient buildings. We have a lot to be grateful for!

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