Monday, 15 October 2012

Ceramic Tiles: Yellow Stove of von Schroffenburg, V&A, London

My first visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) had been delayed on account of my hip replacement surgery.  The V&A is located in the South Kensington area and faces Cromwell Road (main entrance) with a side entrance on Exhibition Road (Shared Space).  Having initially established email contact and being on the V&A mailing list by email, I had spoken with Suzana and we discussed programmes and the best way of getting to the museum.  There are several entrances to the museum and I have worked out 2 of them. 
On arrival at South Kensington Underground station, the staff asked me if I needed any help and I was taken to the tunnel entrance of the V&A.  The London Underground staff commented that they are used to helping visually impaired visitors through the maze of the tunnel system.  At the security entrance to the V&A the guard called for an escort for me and one arrived to guide me to the information desk. 
I discussed various areas of interest that I had and mentioned Renaissance Art and design.  David, one of their volunteers, took me round the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries and we discussed Giambologna and Donatello sculpture in addition to some reliquaries.  David introduced me to several floors, and I then went to the gift shop and got a postcard.  I wandered around and got more directions to the main bookshop and was helped in some book ideas for follow up.
My second visit was in following up some objects I had visited at the Royal Academy Bronze exhibition.  At the desk I was able to make enquiries about a ceramic tile touch tour I had booked and a workshop in ceramics for the visually impaired or (bps).  On this occasion Graham, another volunteer, searched some items in the database and took me round the smaller Renaissance bronze items such as door knockers (fascinating) and wrote down the relevant V&A numbers for pieces that I found particularly interesting, such as:
Thetis by Giovanni Bolgna – Museum No. 7628-1861
Pacing Horse – Museum No. A148-1910
The Chellini Madonna – Museum No. A1-1976
Donatello Reliefs – Room 64a

(note: for screenreaders, the V&A references are quite long)
The Virgin and Child with four angels: The Chellini Madonna
(gilded bronze, c1450)

There is a story attached to the Chellini Madonna which David had explained on my first visit and Graham found again for me.  There is a glass copy of this roundel which can be touched.  It seems like a very large glass ash-tray.  The reference number system works as the handwritten notes were deciphered by a sighted friend and the relevant pages were located on the museum’s website.  The story was indeed the one which I had been told.  In two visits, I’m beginning to understand both the museum system and how the website works. 
Graham is doing a course in Criminology at the Open University and as I had completed a level 3 course at the OU, we compared notes about lifelong learning and how good (and bad) some institutions could be. 
On this occasion I left by the Cromwell Road exit and turned left and got on a bus (it turned out to be a 74) which I took as far as Knightsbridge underground station and then took the tube to my next destination. 
On the 9th of October I arrived very early for the ceramic tile touch tour and Merry Spence, another volunteer, checked my booking for the workshop and gave me the ticket then and there.  Merry took me to a sunny spot in a courtyard and I had a coffee.  She came back to pick me up and introduced me to Elizabeth Hamilton, our guide for the ceramic tiles. There were two attendees that I recognised as regulars from other events, while others were new “faces”. 
The tour started with some tiles from Spain illustrating the craftsmanship of tile decoration, clay handling and the pigment process (both reduction and oxidation kilns).  We came across some old friends such as Manganese Dioxide which is applied as a resist in painting the colours on to the biscuit before the final firing.  Tin glaze and Lead glaze were described and examples of crazing were found. 
We worked our way through tiles from Delft, London and Bristol and I asked if some of the tiles had been worked with a cartoon in mind, as the painting of each tile was so precise in assembling a grand array.  One of the tile assemblies resembled a Dutch painting of a ship by Willem van de Velde.  There was also a wash basin fitted out with ceramic tiles with niches. 
We gradually worked our way to the stoves on the upper floor and included a bottle green stove from Ravensburg in Germany and the Yellow stove of Josef Konrad von Schroffenburg taken from the Bishops Palace in Regensburg. 
Ravensburg stove
lead-glazed earthenware stove tiles
(c 1450, maker unknown)

Yellow Stove of von Schroffenburg
These stoves stand around 3 metres high and we discussed how they worked, a mix of radiation of heat as well as some convection in the way the air flows have been built.  The Ravensburg item was much plainer than the Regensburg one, which was very highly decorated with mouldings of animals, heraldry, tassels.  Elizabeth described the stove from the top and we could touch the surface features according to our reach.
Elizabeth wrote down the museum reference and a sighted friend found the image of the stove.  (
Most of us climbed up the stairs but got the lift back down. 
This was a very informative tour of the museum ceramic tiles.  The group had previously covered Islamic tiles and the technology evolution neatly dovetails with my visiting the Wemyss ware workshop in Ceres in the summer as well as some ceramics in the Wallace Collection.  Another window into another subject. 
Many thanks to the V&A, their volunteers and the touch tour programme they have developed.