Museums – don’t you just love them? Cultivators of the arts, preservers of history, story tellers of civilisations. In the V&A, such as in many of the world’s great art museums, every corridor, every nook, every tile is an artefact just waiting to be pored over, learnt from, enjoyed.
Taking our time to happen across individual pieces and study them is not the common museum experience though. Mostly it involves getting the hot ticket for the latest blockbuster exhibition, snaking round, sneaking a shot for Instagram to prove what cultural beings we are, before traipsing out – after a spot of refreshment in the café of course.
Whilst these major exhibitions are often brilliant, an institution like the V&A has a treasure trove of artistic and historical gems patiently waiting away from the cordoned-off queues to enrich your cultural coffers. When you decide not to simply rush through the retrospective but take your time to wander through the permanent collections, and cross continents and centuries as you do, a whole new museum experience presents itself.
This is what we set out to do with illustrator Eleanor Taylor. To be, in the term of Baudelaire, a flâneur within the museum’s walls. To go get lost, and in doing so, find some eye-catching pieces of art that we wouldn’t have otherwise glanced upon, and let Eleanor create her own illustrated interpretations in her sketchbook from the V&A inspired collection with Papier.
As an editorial, picture book and book cover artist, Eleanor’s enigmatic and richly textured illustrations add a visual depth to Penguin novels, articles in The New York Times, The Guardian and much more. She’s no stranger to the V&A, having often visited when she was a student at the RCA – taking time out in the Morris Room café after class before wandering round the collections. So, with no particular destination in mind, and the whole of the museum to explore for the day, off we went.
Pottering up the museum’s six floors, we found ourselves in the bright idyll of the ceramics galleries. Being at the very top of the museum, the throngs of exhibition-goers on the ground floor had ebbed away with each passing level to virtually no one up there. They are missing something special though. When you first enter, with cabinets upon cabinets of plates, vases and ornaments, you’re hit with the sense of walking into your grandmother’s front room dialled up to 11. Then, slowly, the different eras distinguish themselves, and individual designs make themselves known to you and you realise, no, this is definitely not like granny’s collection of porcelain milkmaids.
From the 1300s to the present day, Britain to the Far East, the ceramics galleries are a fascinating journey through the lives of the peoples of the world in decorative objects and everyday utensils. But although the collection deserves to be viewed by more visitors, we can’t say we weren’t selfishly pleased with the tranquility we enjoyed – it was the perfect place for Eleanor to delve into her pens and pencils, sit down and start sketching.
She was immediately drawn to the Staffordshire pottery in the Harry and Carol Djangoly Gallery. “I’ve drawn a lot of Staffordshire ceramics before, I like the naivety of them. They were painted very crudely, in factories, one after the other, and that is kind of what makes them so endearing and interesting – they’re all a bit wonky. And some of them are incredibly schmaltzy and over-romantic.”
The piece Eleanor sketched was a deer reclining under a tree, painted sparingly in colours similar to the blue, green palette she often favours in her work. “I guess I draw a lot of the natural world. I did a whole painting series last year called Water’s Edge – I did a lot of wild swimming and I just got caught up in ponds, algae, lakes and reflections and this whole idea of a body of water being a portal to another world. When I’m walking home, I’m always looking at trees – I like to look at the foliage and the shadows and it all gets a little bit dotty and a little bit hazy. That whole idea of when you’re a bit knackered and it’s the end of the day, it’s getting into dusk and you start looking and lots of colours are swimming around in the shadows. With work you should always be trying to enquire and find out something new and I’m still excited by how it feels.”
Ambling back along the ceramic timeline of cabinets in the Curtain Foundation Gallery, a more modern piece caught Ellie’s eye – a foot in a gilded sandal by mid-century Italian designer Pierro Fornasetti, which reminded Ellie of another Italian creative who was rather partial to a bit of gold. “I love this one which looks like a Versace shoe. I was drawn to the strong graphic elements of it. I just thought ‘yeah!’ – I wanted to get out my black pen.”
Winding our way back down the ornamental staircases, strolling across illuminated galleries and stopping for a while in the John Majdeski Garden where small children splashed in the fountain, we rested our legs – and tended to our caffeine needs – in the ornate surroundings of the V&A café while looking through Eleanor’s sketchbook.
As someone who puts pen, pencil and paintbrush to it every day, paper is a topic that is close to Eleanor’s heart. “I think there’s something a little bit seductive about the way paper reacts with different materials. If you get a nice big juicy pen and it doesn’t end up streaking then I’m just praising the heavens. I love it. It’s terrible, sometimes I can get so distracted by paper, I need to tell myself ‘just make the work!’ and stop getting caught up in the paper. I’ll be on the hunt for the perfect paper that works with colour pencil and watercolour. When you find your favourite paper and then you find out that the factory has stopped making it and they’ve replaced the rollers… I can get obsessive about that.”
“I think different papers can provide different things so I have a lot of different sketchbooks – some for quick notes and line drawings and others for more finished pieces. The thing I like about these plain paper notebooks is they are a manageable size so you can produce a really lovely little project or a portfolio of drawings in not very much time. It’s really nice to have that.”
Suitably reenergised to continue this little project of V&A drawings, we sauntered over to the T.T. Tsui Gallery, a collection of ancient to modern Chinese art encompassing mesmerising textiles, ceramics, and furniture. While sketching a delicate snuff bottle, Eleanor pondered the happy accidents that happen when, unimpeded by deadlines, she creates work just for herself. “It’s those moments of exploration and discovery when sketching on your own – that’s what I like. When you’re on an illustration job it’s more pressured and you don’t have time to have that moment of discovery. What’s nice about keeping a sketchbook is that no one has to see it. You can make a fool of yourself and do whatever you want and that often frees you up.”
Betty Woodman was a visionary ceramic artist from America
On the other side of the gallery, Eleanor was transfixed by the wavy lines of a late 17th/early 18th-century wine pot shaped like the Chinese character shou, meaning long life. “It looks so contemporary, it actually reminds me of a Betty Woodman sculpture and I was just so drawn to the shapes. So I thought I would do a line drawing for that one because sometimes when you look at things that have a lot of detail you can be overcome with it, so occasionally it’s best just to pick out what interests you about that piece of work and simplify it.”
As the gallery attendants started to politely usher visitors towards the exits, Eleanor made her final pencil strokes, and reflected on the day. “It’s been amazing coming back. You can’t really plan for what you’re going to see, the best thing is to just walk around and be open and then you find yourself drawn to different objects and then you question why you were drawn to these things. And it could just be the placement of a certain group of colours or something quite abstract but you can always take something from it – it’s an incredibly inspiring place.”
Draw your way round a museum with one of our V&A plain paper notebooks. Each features an exquisite pattern by architect and designer, Owen Jones (1809-74) from the V&A's rich archive. A founding member of the museum, and another diligent sketcher – he studied the intricate decorations of the Islamic Alhambra palace in Granada every day for six months.
To see more of Eleanor's alluring work, take a wander over to her Instagram.