Saturday, 6 February 2010

Missing the V&A? Try the RAM

I had a few hours to spare in London yesterday, so I thought I’d head down to the Victoria and Albert to pay my last respects to their soon-to-be-replaced-by-miniskirts Musical Instrument Gallery. No such luck. It’s not open again until the 19th Feb, when you will have three short days to catch it. (You’ll have to take my word for that, by the way; there is no mention of these opening hours on their website.) So I thought I’d cut my losses and visit the Royal Academy of Music Museum instead.
And what did I find? Lots of violins and lots of pianos. The museum is on three floors: it shares the ground floor with the shop (giving it the unfortunate appearance of the shop’s stock room) then has a first floor devoted to violin family instruments and a second floor devoted to keyboards.

Here is the ground floor display (sorry about the crummy photo). You can’t see this display on a Sunday, incidentally, because it is supervised by the cashier of the shop, who is having a day off. One of the real treasures of the RAM collection (at least to me) is Dennis Brain’s Alexander horn, which is the one at the bottom right of this picture. I’d heard that it had been badly damaged in the car crash on the M1 that killed him in 1952. And indeed it had, but in the intervening years, Paxman have completely rebuilt it. What a shame! I’d much rather have seen it in its mangled state.

Moving upstairs, here is a case of violins, mostly Cremonese makers. There are several members of the Amati and Guarneri families represented (nothing from del Gesù though), and there are a few Stradivaris. What a beautiful display! I love the way you can walk round them and see the sides and backs. If you ask nicely, they let you play them. I didn’t, but one of the students was doing so when I was there. I think this is the most impressive collection of violins I have ever seen (there are another few cases too) and as I say, magnificently displayed.

Here’s a Strad. Check out that slender, curved waist. Lovely!
And so to the top floor. Sorry, I had trouble getting and decent pictures without a flash. This floor is dedicated to pianos and harpsichords (and I think I saw a spinet in one corner). There are some nice square pianos by Broadwood and some interesting 19th century Erards.

The labelling up here was atrocious, by the way; the only way you can find out anything about the provenance of the instruments is by reading the label inside the lid.

Something I really like about the layout of this museum is the fact that both the first and second floors have an instrument repair workshop in one corner, a luthier on the first floor and a piano repairer on the second. So there are students coming and going all the time with instruments and bits of instruments. One guy came in with the back of a double bass. I’m not quite sure what he had done with the rest of it.

All in all, this is a very different experience to the V&A’s gallery. I think you have to be a musician to appreciate the significance of what you are looking at here. And if you’re not interested in violins or pianos, there isn’t much for you. Of course if you are, it’s an Aladdin’s cave, and the violins in particular rank up there with finest collections in the world.

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