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The Raphael Cartoons

March 5, 2017

The museums volunteer tour guide who described them as ‘great treasures’ introduced us to Raphaels cartoons. A room on the ground floor houses 8 pieces by Raphael. The room is big with high ceilings and benches running down the middle, letting you spend time sitting in front of each piece. The cartoons are test paintings made for tapestry designs, used to trace the design when making the tapestries. Tapestries ‘were a principal tool used by powerful Renaissance rulers to convey their wealth and might,1’ and even more valuable than a painting because of the laborious process involved in making them. These paintings were done onto lots of pieces of paper all glued together to make one big canvas. You can see several different styles of painting in each one, suggesting it’s the work of Raphaels various assistants. In their time, they wouldn’t have had the same level of value as they do now, hung on the wall in the V&A Museum. In the gallery space, they are displayed to make room for awe and appreciation. The room is big and quiet, the paintings are hung high on the wall, encouraging you to take a step back or sit on the bench to look at them. It’s as if you’re in a room at the National Gallery, or somewhere else showing fine art paintings, not a museum showing examples of good design. In comparison to the rest of the museum, where a room this big would be filled with cabinets and objects, the paintings are given lots of space. Glass cabinets around the rest of the museum encourage you to look down into them and see the objects, but Raphaels cartoons are hung high on the wall, making you look up to them. The elaborate display of these pieces signifies to the viewer their value as examples of good design and as objects of worth, possibly above the other collections in the museum.

The distinctive difference with the collection in this room, is written in big letters on the wall as you walk in:

‘lent by Her Majesty The Queen’

Our volunteer tour guide concluded at the end of our tour that what is ‘holding the collections together is good design.’ The V&A establishes itself on this intention of bringing together good design. However it is then suggesting some of the best design is to the taste of royalty. The museum is offering an example of good design in the collection of Raphaels cartoons but through the wealthy vision of the royalty who established the museum. By showing the paintings in this way they are suggesting a level of design to aspire to, but this kind of design purely plays into the hands of the wealthy. Intending design to be dictated and created for the rich, making its function to indicate the owner’s opulence. Whilst disconnecting between the artist and the craftsman whose process might be more interesting and inspiring than the finished artwork.


1 – Campbell, T.P., Ainsworth, M.W., White, B. and Metropolitan Museum of Art Staff (2002) Tapestry in the renaissance: Art and magnificence. 3rd edn. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.


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