The latest stage in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) programme to restore the museum to its original decoration is the reopening of the Victorian paintings galleries on 26 November. Since the post-war period these rooms, just off the Silver Galleries, were used as galleries for base metals and arms and armour.
Opened in 1860, these were the first public galleries to employ north-facing light scoops to maximise the advantage of top lighting. They were purpose-built to display the collection of the Leeds textile magnate, John Sheepshanks. The five rooms of the newly restored galleries also include two other major bequests by Constantine Ionides and Isabel Constable, the artist’s daughter. These galleries were the first public displays of contemporary French and British painting in Britain. The hang of the galleries has been devised by the curator, Mark Evans.
The first room is devoted to the Sheepshanks paintings. This and the adjoining gallery with the Ionides Collection, are painted deep crimson with charcoal woodwork and are densely hung. When the galleries opened in 1860, Sheepshanks’s was the largest and most influential public collection of contemporary British art. He had made his fortune in the Leeds textile industry and amassed contemporary art. His favourite artists were Mulready, Landseer, Redgrave, Turner, Constable and C.R. Leslie. Sheepshanks was a friend of Richard Redgrave, the artist and curator of the V&A who persuaded him to leave his collection to the museum. Sheepshanks agreed, on the condition that his paintings were housed somewhere “light and airy”.
Richard Redgrave was very concerned with conservation and display issues. He thought the Sheepshank paintings should be glazed, and he also devised the characteristic front-loading frames in which they are still to be found. His ideas of conservation were well founded as the works are in excellent condition.
The restored galleries have not had air-conditioning installed because the cost was prohibitive. While most of the paintings remain glazed, Redgrave’s glass has been replaced by a modern, non-reflective variety. Instead of wall labels, a sloping dado has been fitted to show the information. The overall result is as close as one can get to an authentic display of a collection formed between 1837 and 1857, in its original frames and hanging in its own, purpose-built gallery.
Constantine Ionides, who also made his fortune in textiles, formed his collection slightly later than Sheepshanks, between 1860 and the late 1890s. He acquired some Old Masters and collected contemporary British art, including two important pre-Raphaelite works, Rossetti’s “The dream” and Burne-Jones’s “The mill”. As well as British art, Ionides also collected French painting. concentrating on Courbet, Corot, Millet, Le Nain and Legros. From 1891 to the 1930s, his collection at the V&A was the only place in London to see modern French painting. In 1880, he acquired Degas’ rendition of a scene from Meyerbeer’s opera, “Il diavolo”, making this the first Impressionist painting to enter and be shown in a British public collection.
These French landscapes are the link to the next two galleries, devoted to the museum’s collection of works by Constable and Turner. These two have been painted sage green and hung sparsely in a contemporary manner. The works by Constable include finished oils, oil sketches and sketch books. The museum also owns the full scale “six-footer” sketches for “The haywain” and “The leaping horse”. In this gallery, it is now possible to see Constable’s entire working process from sketch to small oil sketch, to full scale preparatory sketch to finished exhibition work. Constable’s “Building near Flatford Mill”, the first exhibition painting to be completed entirely in the open air (in 1814) along with its sketch, are on display. Gainsborough’s glass transparencies, not seen for 20 years, are also back on display, thanks to improved conservation lighting techniques.
The last gallery, painted mauve/blue, is for changing exhibitions from the drawings collection. This space is rather small, but will double when the second phase of restoration is completed in the next two years. This phase will turn what remains of the arms and armour gallery into a miniatures gallery and more exhibition space.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Victorian collectors’ pictures back on display '