Happy Birthday, Dames
The dames took no chances with their fifth birthday celebrations this year, making deluge-proof arrangements that would allow for a picnic if the goddesses smiled on our festivities.
A select band of us (one day we’ll break into double figures) gathered at the V&A for a tour of artefacts by or about women. The first bonus was that the V&A has a very accommodating cloakroom where you can leave bags full of sandwiches and chocolate cake for £1 apiece.
Then it was off on our carefully devised and researched tour, cutting an ergonomic swathe through the four floors and far-flung galleries to the treasures on offer.
Stop One was the exquisite piece of embroidery undertaken by Mary, Queen of Scots during her long years of incarceration. It has not survived the ravages of time undamaged, but it’s enchanting nonetheless, with fabulous beasts (including a fish with the face of a worried solicitor) surrounding a central motif.
Moving swiftly on – past the Fluck and Law puppet of Margaret Thatcher – we came to the gallery of Indian artefacts, where Dame B introduced us to sculptures depicting some of the many manifestations of the female principle in Hindu mythology: full-breasted Ambika, the protean ur-goddess from whom all others emanate; the fearsome Durga, crushing the buffalo demon underfoot; and Parvati, consort of Shiva, the two of them sitting with Ganesh, their elephant-headed son.
Ascending in what seemed to be a secret lift to the fourth floor, we headed for the ceramics, starting off with Lucie Rie’s delicate Japan-inspired studio pottery and moving on the factory pottery designed by Stoke’s own Susie Cooper and by Hungarian Eva Zeisel, the first woman to qualify as a journeyman in the Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers, and Potters. It is a sobering thought that we would not have the stunning creations of two of these three women had Britain not had such a welcoming asylum policy in 1938.
,As we neared the furniture gallery, sweet strains from a viol de gamba grew louder – another bonus. This was in effect a music installation, with a musician playing a brief composition as if on a loop to replicate the experience of seeing a domestic artefact, such as a piece of pottery, repeatedly. Whatever the aesthetic intention, it was a delight. In the furniture galleries we admired the chair and lacquer screen by influential Irish designer Eileen Gray – way ahead of her time in enrolling to study at the Slade in 1900. Her chair looked as though it could have been bought in Heal’s yesterday. Across the gallery was examples of the work of Ray Eames, collaborator with her husband Charles in creating some of the most iconic furniture of the 20th century. Then we actually got to sit one on of the exhibits: Gitta Gschwendtner’s wonderful curly bench – a mash-up of furniture styles down the centuries, with chair backs and legs all switched round.
Then it was time for the great schlepp down and across the entire building to the jewellery galleries to see Ernestine Mills’s exquisite enamel brooch – that’s suffragette Ernestine Mills, who may be the woman photographed lying on the ground assailed by policemen on the front page of the Daily Mirror of 19 November 1910.
Next we took in the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer who changed the course of portraiture, taking more than 900 photos over a comparatively short career of twelve years.
We finished off at Opus Criminale, the stunning mosaic floor that is the work of many, many nameless women: the female convicts of Woking Prison. What would they have made of the fact that the V&A now has a paint range inspired by their pavement?
There were distinct signs of sunlight outside, so the dames made for the gardens of the Natural History Museum, where we were outed as the most reprehensible threats to the fabric of society you could imagine: the innocent consumption of our picnic was rudely interrupted by Security guard, a vengeful spirit in a high-vis jacket, who took issue with us toasting our birthday with paper cups full of prosecco. We had to finish it up quick – what else could we do? – and conceal the bottle. Fortunately we escaped her notice later, when we indulged in a spot of firesetting, a.k.a. lighting the candles on our cake.
Thankfully, there was a handy wine bar nearby to which we retreated for our rendezvous with Dame Alan, sometime contributor to damesnet, and living proof that blokes are welcome.