Yesterday I went down the the V&A in South Kensington to explore their endless galleries of statues, paintings, dresses, chairs, alarm clocks, columns end so on. Endless hoards too this weekend. As London gears up for the Olympics, its cultural institutions (and shopping streets) seem busy than ever with people seeking a little bit of Britain.
I pass under the white traffic cones on the Cromwell Road entrance, an installation by Heatherwick Studio who are the subject of a current exhibition. Through the mahogany doors, passing the statues of Wren and of Shakespeare and of Morris. Facing me, high up behind an arch of pale grey marble is the magnificent George Gilbert Scott Hereford Screen.
It is the most magnificent display of High Victorian Gothic Revivalism. It combines craftsmanship with showiness. Devout religiosity with exuberance. Colourful wrought iron flowers and swirls and columns and leaves and swags topped off by angels and Jesus.
It was designed as the chancel screen for Hereford's pink sandstone cathedral in 1862, and spent a century dominating the view from the nave. Scott's reinstatement of mediaeval screens (which often completely cut the chancel off from the nave) is not merely and aesthetic choice. It also represent the liturgical shift from protestant Georgian preaching boxes to the Oxford Movement and the renewed interest in Catholic liturgy. Scott designed new iron screens for Salisbury and Lichfield. The use of iron for such an item was unknown in mediaeval England. Like a plastic pulpit or a fibreglass reredos.
But tastes change. Victoriana gave way for modernity. Lichfield kept it's screen, but Salisbury and Hereford both considered them unwanted recent additions. It was sold to a museum in Coventry, and then in 1983 the rusting remains were donated to the V&A who carefully restored it. today it sits on the first floor, adjacent to one of the lesser visited galleries, ironwork. Centuries of metalwork development and stylistic change, with Scott's Hereford screen the crescendo. A fitting tribute to the work of generations of metalworkers.
I was particularly struck by the beautiful shadows cast by the many spotlights. The arches and leaves and scrolls layered by light.
(images to follow)