Tag Archives: Victoria & Albert Museum

London Slant: Why has the V&A’s resident architect disappeared?

The maid was standing in the bedroom when I asked her whether I could take photographs. “No, I’m sorry,” she replied, politely “this is a private home”.

Tomorrow at V&A

Cracked dining table and a sculpture of Norman Swann cowering in the hearth.

I doubt whether gallery assistants at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum usually give this response, but then a frilly white apron over a black dress is hardly their regular uniform. It’s all part of Tomorrow, the brilliantly conceived installation that Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset have created in the recesses of the museum’s upper floors.

Just finding my way to Tomorrow was all part of the fun. I meandered through rooms I haven’t visited for years, beside a golden sarcophagus, among gothic Victoriana and  past radiant stained glass. Once suitably steeped in nostalgia I arrived at the imaginary residence of architect Norman Swann.

A butler nodded as I entered the suite of formal, high-ceilinged rooms. But Swann himself was nowhere to be seen. Around the swiftly vacated premises were hints that this éminence grise had fallen on hard times and, unable to pay his bills, disappeared. A film script available at the entrance gave a different twist to the tale.

But as I wandered around I began to wonder whether something worse had befallen the man—and half expected to find his turned-up toes peeking out from beneath the bed. Was that why a crystal vulture loomed over it from above?

Bedroom Elmgreen & Dragset

A vulture is poised over the rumpled bed

The black dining table had a sinister crack running through its centre. Through a locked door came the sound of running water: was it Swann in the shower or a tap left running by someone inside unable to turn it off?

All these dramatic touches were skilfully juxtaposed with the plaintive minutiae of a grand life lost,  of the old order ousted by the new. On the piano was a collection of monochrome photographs, including shots of Swann with worthies such as Margaret Thatcher. Library shelves featured august leather-bound tomes alongside Proust’s In Remembrance of Things Past and The Benn Diaries.

More poignantly, in the corner of the pristine, hi-spec kitchen, was a pile of discarded pizza boxes. Concealed behind an elegant screen stood an invalid’s walking frame. There were crumpled unpaid bills, guns, half-stuffed packing boxes, an old cardigan slung on a chair. All had been meticulously compiled from the collections of the V&A and E&D to create this unnerving scene.

By now, I’d built up so many different scenarios I could have written a film script of my own. But the time had come to step out back into the galleries. I said goodbye and thanked the maid. It was a pleasure,” she replied. “Thank you for visiting.”

V&A Elmgreen & Dragset

The steel-cold kitchen, with Domino’s pizza boxes dumped in the corner

The artists in Norman Swann's lounge.

Visitors are welcome to sit in Norman Swann’s lounge, just like its two artists, above.

Tomorrow by Elmgreen & Dragset, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Free, until 2 January, 2014.

Photographs courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

London Slant: Where to read the runes in Regent’s Park

It’s amazing what you can stumble upon in London during a Sunday stroll. As I walked along the east flank of Regent’s Park, a church with two rocket-shaped towers in a rose garden caught my eye.

My gaze wandered from the church to three ivy-covered gothic arches to its right. Lit by shimmering shafts of sunlight, they hinted at some ghostly mystery.  What did they lead to? I was intrigued—and set off to explore.

London Slant Jelling Stone

My first glimpse of the Jelling Stone

I was totally unprepared for what I found: a giant rock covered in Nordic runes. Whatever was it? Fortunately a plaque was on hand to reveal all. But before I started reading I stepped round to its other side and was even more surprised.  There stood a figure of a Christ, arms outstretched and swathed in swirling golden bands. To his left was a lion in a scrolling serpent’s grip.

Jellilng Stone

The other side of the Jelling Stone

I discovered that the church, St Katharine’s, serves London’s Danish community and the stone is a cast of a giant runic monument at the town of Jelling in Denmark. The original Jelling Stone was erected by King Harald Bluetooth, grandfather of Canute, in around 965. Such is its significance that the Christ figure appears on Danish passports.

The replica was made in Denmark and brought to London for an exhibition on Danish art and culture at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1948. But at 11 tons it was too unwieldy to transport back. So it remained in London and was erected at St Katharine’s in 1955.

Jelling Stone St Katharines' church

St Katharine’s, the Danish Church, on the east side of Regent’s Park.

After viewing the stone I wandered around the gardens, looking at the 200-year-old Gothic revival houses in the precinct around the church.  Despite having visited Regent’s Park umpteen times, I had never come across this place before, or heard of this stone.

That evening I hunkered down to read a magazine, and what should I see but an advertisement for one of these houses up for sale. Not surprisingly, price is upon application for this former grace-and-favour residence of senior clerics and members of the royal household. Let’s hope that the new owner makes the most of living within a stone’s throw of the Jelling Stone. As the gloriously named antiquary Ole Worm wrote in his Monumenta Danica in 1643, people from other nations should take an interest in Denmark’s runic stones.