Out of the shadows

The latest stage of the V&A's redevelopment has carved out a new space for its sculptures. Caroline Worthington enjoys the results
Caroline Worthington
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Dorothy and Michael Hintze Galleries, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There is sculpture everywhere in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), from the courts full of plaster casts and copies of Europe's greatest hits, to easily overlooked examples, such as the busts of Heraclitus and Democritus standing sentinel near the cloakroom. With the creation of the sculpture galleries, which opened in March, it could be said that sculpture has come out of the shadows.

The museum talks about the galleries in the plural, although to most visitors it appears to be one long space running along the south side of the museum's inner courtyard. Gallery or galleries, whichever you prefer, it is the latest part of the V&A's FuturePlan, which aims to open up the museum to visitors by creating a direct path from the Cromwell Street entrance to its redesigned courtyard garden.

Arriving through the dazzling new shop, formerly the low-lit medieval treasury, visitors are tipped out into the largely daylit space (named after Dorothy and Michael Hintze, who forked out £1.5m for the honour). There you find mainly neoclassical sculpture dating from the late 1500s to 1900 by British and European sculptors, acquired by British patrons, including work by the greatest neoclassisct of them all, Antonio Canova.

The galleries are bathed in natural light courtesy of some raised blinds that previously partly concealed the courtyard, now the John Madejski Garden. It seems appropriate, then, that the focus of this central section is garden sculpture with subjects drawn from classical mythology.

'On the piers of a garden gate not far from Paris I observed two very coquet sphinxes. These lady monsters [were] … all executed in stone,' wrote Horace Walpole in his 18th-century essay on Modern Gardening.

Instead of a saucy sphinx, though, you are greeted by Giambologna's Hebrew strongman, Samson Slaying the Philistine. Commissioned for a fountain in Florence, the ox-jaw wielding Samson established Giambologna's reputation over here. It was given to Charles I as a gift and became the most famous Italian sculpture in England - at least until the Canovas started arriving.

If Corradini's two marble garden groups - Apollo and Marsyas, and Zephyr and Flora - don't tempt you to stop a moment and admire the vista, there are plenty more that might. There are church sculptures, mainly memorial pieces, at one end of the space, which go rather well with the great carved altarpiece just beyond.

The opposite end of the galleries, which is still a work in progress, features domestic-scale pieces, often on a mythological theme, bought to enhance country houses post-Grand Tour.

Two large glass showcases in bays opposite the gardens provide a setting for smaller-scale works - models and maquettes, or pensieri (thoughts), as the sculptor Nollekens put it.

Particularly sleek and eye-catching is the mounting that forms a cross-beam, on which stand portrait busts at roughly eye level. Sir Thomas Gascoigne - a cultivated Yorkshire landowner who, rather unpatriotically, erected a memorial to celebrate losing the American war of independence - is shown bare-chested and cast in bronze.

Roubiliac, whose reputation was made in 1737 with the unveiling of his statue of Handel for Vauxhall Gardens, shows Robert Raymond, Lord Chief Justice, also in a fashionable classical manner, wearing a toga and cropped hair.

The opportunity to weave in and out of these sculptures and study them in the round is one of the highlights of the new galleries. Even single busts on columns that line the arched windows are set away from the walls rather than pushed up against them.

David d'Angers' portrait bust of Lady Morgan (1830) is one of the few likenesses of a real woman. An Irish novelist who championed the rights of women, Morgan was under four feet tall with a slightly deformed face, but d'Angers is all flattery, and captures her lively spirit. Stylish curls frame her face and she wears a headdress of acorns and oak leafs over a long coiled plait.

Each work is generously spot lit (albeit from ugly, bulbous lights), casting shadows and heightening definition. Nasty black linoleum has been stripped away, which must have been a hell of a job. The black-and-white mosaic floor that was revealed not only bounces light back but also puts the Victorian character back into the V&A. This is in stark contrast with the end of the galleries that still awaits renovation and which remains gloomy.

These new sculpture galleries illustrate the intelligence with which the V&A seems to be going about its refurbishment, using its sprawling building to the best effect - in this case showing work that was always intended to be seen in daylight.

That said, orientation remains a problem. An unattractive piece of signage ruins what should be a good sightline and the text panels, which are commendably understated, have been rather confusingly located.

This will always be more of a circulation area than a destination in its own right, and it can double as a space for functions. When a passing rain cloud dampens an event in the garden, it will provide just the place to sip your martini. (And the empties will collect on the plinths, I fear.)

But those who take the time to pause, however briefly, will find the galleries rewarding. Not only does it help the collections in the massive V&A complex breathe more easily, it might just make visitors notice sculpture elsewhere that they otherwise could have overlooked.

Next spring Rodin's sculptures return from their winter tour of Europe. Here's hoping that they, too, find their place in the sun.

Caroline Worthington is the curator of art at York Museums Trust

Project data

Main funders: Hintze Family Charitable Foundation £1.5m, American Friends of the V&A

Curator: Marjorie Trusted

Architect/designer: Eva Jiricna Architects

Display case supplier: Benbow Interiors

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