V & A: the Greatest Hits

I took a break from watching yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee proceedings and, on my last day of a long stay in London, strolled through South Kensington to the Victoria & Albert Museum.  After watching the octogenarian phallocrats dodder in and then lift themselves creakily up from the dais for the pause in the hearing, I was feeling extraordinarily fit, if only by comparison.

During the first stretch of the spectacle on Capitol Hill I had played my usual game of imagining the soundtrack. Just as sports teams and political candidates have taken to entering the arena along with carefully chosen songs, so too our exalted leaders could do with ritualistic music to accompany their arrivals, pronouncements, and gaffs. Chopin’s piano dirge would have been fittingly lugubrious for these cryogenic proconsuls, though Chuck Grassley’s opening address made its own compelling sort of music: a dull and droning, mesmeric racket rather like a bagpipe slowed down to half speed. If I’d been at the CNN control panel, I might have queued up Billie Holliday doing “Strange Fruit” as an anti-homage to Clarence Thomas’s infamous outrage at his “high-tech lynching” more than a quarter century ago.  Later in the day Kavanaugh may well have yearned for something heroic like the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to bolster his testimony, but during his performance I kept hearing other instrumental classics: “Wipe Out” and “Tequila.”

But I wasn’t whistling as I skipped out the door and into a cloudless afternoon with temperatures in the mid-70s. I was in London reprieved from my computer screen streaming images from that mausoleum of the undead in Washington, DC. It was good to be alive and, for a few hours more, beyond the borders of the Land of the Free. While the Senate did Q & A, I was off to the V & A!

As I sallied forth, I imagined myself a rather-less-than-natty Bertie Wooster, though he never had to lug a fifty-pound backpack around the tonier districts of London, as I had done on my arrival and through various stops on my couch surfing tour. Fortunately, I was, for the moment, free of my voyager’s ballast, having stashed the pack nearby at the house of my brother-in-law, the a lawyer for Honeywell Europe. Needless to say, he fully supports Trump making NATO pay its own way. It’s a matter of principle, you see, and Honeywell’s share price has responded accordingly. While my brother-in-law loathes Trump the man, he loves Trump’s bombs. That much he has in common with the Democrats of the United States Senate.

No longer thinking of Grassley or Kavanaugh, Feinstein or Ford, I sauntered down the Old Brompton Road past the colorful shops, nodding good day to the super rich denizens of this overpriced patch of London, and all the while making sure I dodged the Bentleys, Lamborghini SUVS, and other gleaming Chelsea Tractors, as these hulking doomsday machines are colloquially known. These tanks constantly menace the pedestrian, especially on Exhibition Road. Since 2012 or so, this thoroughfare, named after the Great Exhibition of 1851 that spawned the V & A and the neighboring Science and Natural History museums, has been paved smartly in black-and-white flagstones and shared by automobiles, cyclists, and walkers. All are left to their own devices rather than herded by “nanny state” traffic signs and signals. This experiment in coexistence—a kind urban enactment of laissez-faire capitalism—was given the imprimatur of the then-mayor of London, Boris Johnson, better known these days as the most limelight-loving of the Brexiteers. When he’s not mouthing off, Johnson still cycles about the city, his big head (“big” in both figurative and literal senses) protected both by a bike helmet and his helmet of bright blond hair.

I was without incident that I arrived at the museum and ambled up the fronts. Since museums in London are free, I immediately turned left into one of my favorite exhibits, the so-called British galleries—a kind of greatest national hits of the V & A meant to offer a view both panoramic and specific of culture, politics, and art in Britain beginning in 1500.

These galleries are dimly-lit, partly, I’m sure, to preserve the objects, but also, I suspect, to augment the sense of peering back into the past.

The very first object encountered stands out in the shadows. It is a small, close-up portrait by an anonymous artist of a young Henry VIII. I studied the pale and fulsome face, and suddenly I was thinking of the hearings again. Here before me was one the most notorious sex criminals to brandish orb and scepter—a maniac sanctioned by the state and the church he founded.

Feeling somewhat creeped out, I continued on, past woven Tudor bed valances depicting the conception of Adonis and other erotic scenes, and to the Bed of Ware built in 1590. It’s twice as big as two California Kings (mattresses, that is) and probably twice as debauched, at least back in bawdy Elizabethan days. Studying the hulking structure,. I thought of Kavanaugh’s laughter and heard Senator Hatch calling Dr. Ford an “attractive witness.”

I moved along to the displays dedicated to the Puritan interregnum. Coming after the lavish and louche Stuart kings, Cromwell’s rule is often thought (mistakenly) to have been decade-long dark age for the culture, especially the theatre, which he banned, but also for the must sensuous of the arts—music.  Yet here in this gallery is to be seen—though, sadly, not heard—a virginal (a rectangular harpsichord) from 1654 by the Exeter master John Loosemore. He was an organ builder, but given Roundhead strictures against elaborate church music he had to concentrate his efforts on the production of domestic musical instruments. Richly decorated, his virginal is a glorious affront to austerity: its oak case is meticulously ornate with filigree of gilded paper; the keys are of durable boxwood and ebonized oak, and the soundboard is spruce painted with flowers and birds according to an elegant and artful Flemish scheme.  A small square mirror, now cracked along one edge, is placed in the center of the keyboard so that player’s fingers would appear to dance across the keys from inside the instrument— music emanating from within as if conjured by magic, disembodied hands.  The virginal’s lid hosts a painting of a naval engagement (likely a recent English victory of the Dutch) and is flanked to one side by a pastoral scene of grazing deer and to the other by the beasts of the Garden of Eden with naked Eve taking a bite of the apple plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. These images suggest the diversity of keyboard music’s own pictorial power—from the cannon’s roar to the sweetness and pain of love. Indeed, contemporary composers evoked battles at the virginal, and also played their own versions of erotic madrigals, which, though textless, made clear their intimate message. Looking out from above the now-silent strings, Eve bites into the apple’s flesh and in so doing seems to celebrate music as a delicious sin, even more so in Puritanical times.

Hanging down from below the virginal’s keyboard is a board that can be raised to enclose the case completely when the lid is also shut. This so-called “fall-board” provides still more space for visual opulence: another pastoral and hunting scene that presents perhaps of the first European depictions of a turkey. On the other end of the tableau a peacock struts. Both birds brought Kavanaugh to mind.

Marching on through the British decades, I paused before theStoning of St. Stephen—a panel in deep perspectival relief some six feet square made in the later seventeenth century by history’s greatest woodcarver, Grinling Gibbons. This arresting drama in limewood is as much about the martyrdom as it is about the spectatorship of the crime. Just to the side of the male mob bludgeoning their victim with rocks, stand a pair of women, one perhaps pitying the victim, the other indifferent to, or maybe even enthusiastic about, his fate. More onlookers gaze down from far above from balcony in the vaults of the temple. This, I thought, is how Kavanaugh will want us to see him if his judicial ambitions are indeed slain—a C-Span St. Stephen.

It was too dark and Kavanaugh and the Senators were everywhere in the shadows.  I’d been in the museum for only a half-an-hour, and there was still forty minutes till closing. But I headed out towards the light—and back towards the live stream from DC. It wasn’t British music I was hearing now, but French:  Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold.



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com