by LEIGH HATTS
YOU may recall that August 1 was a hot day. In London it came as a shock then to visitors arriving at the Victoria and Albert Museum to find that the main entrance was powdered with snow and decorated with Christmas trees.
The members of the public had stumbled into the launch of the museum's Christmas catalogue which is now one of the most important events in the V & A's year. Those of us who have always opposed museum entry charges as "a charge on knowledge" have often suggested that there is a strong .argument for running a tempting museum shop rather than an off-putting ticket office which reduces visitor numbers. With a few exceptions, gallery shops offer good quality and are worth supporting.
At the V & A you can buy reproductions of the first Christmas card published in 1843 and featuring, interestingly, a scene of feasting rather than the crib. As might be expected William Morris seems to have quite a grip on the shop with stacks of his diaries, cards, tea trays, wrapping paper, tags and a William Morris Source Book of his distinctive patterns.
Probably only the latter would meet with his approval.
The great champions of free entry are the National Gallery, the Tate .and the British Museum. At the National Gallery even its special Impressionism exhibition featuring Monet, Renoir and Cezanne is free.
Director Neil MacGregor says that profits on its shop help to support the "policy of free admission to the gallery for all". Always well known for its fine Christmas cards it now sells a delightful card Duccio triptych of The Virgin and Child with Saints for just £1.25. Renoir's Umbrellas from the Impressionism show can be bought either in a thousand pieces as a jigsaw (£11.95) or as a framed print (£75).
Thanks to British Steel sponsorship, the Tate's current William Coldstream exhibition is, like the rest of the gallery, free. But director Nicholas Serota has recently admitted that there is a severe shortage of cash which threatens the safety of paintings and prevents the purchase of such works as Constable's The Lock recently sold for £9.8 million.
The Tate shop has a good selection of Turner souvenirs as well as a wide range of modern reproductions. Its new Illustrated Compendium (£9.95) with over 300 colour illustrations of the collection would be a much appreciated present. The desk diary has
colour plates showing details from works relating to music and dance.
The British Museum, where Director Sir David Wilson threatened to resign if entry charges were introduced, is offering Egyptian Mummy pencil boxes and see-through hieroglyphic lunch boxes to catch the younger market.
One of the highest admission charges is at the Natural History Museum where the shop has gone down market with duvet covers and even Dinosaur chutney. You may be tempted to buy one of the "I escaped from the Natural History Museum" badges (50p) before fleeing.
In Covent Garden there is the handy Museum Store (opposite the Rock Garden) which sells items from the less well known provincial galleries. Charles Rennie Mackintosh prints (for just £5.95) are from Glasgow's Hunterian Art Gallery and postcards come from Birmingham Art Gallery. The shop's net even embraces the Art Institute of Chicago Tshirts.
Brighton's splendid new Art Gallery and Pavilion Shop is not represented at London's Museum Shop but its dragon jewellery by Lexi Dick can be bought on Saturdays in December at her stall outside the Dairy Centre in Covent Garden's market. Dragon pendants, broaches, earrings and cuff links are available in hallmarked sterling silver starting at £40. Brighton is one of the few museum shops which promotes young living artists.
Those wanting to support today's artists whilst Christmas shopping should not be put off looking around commercial galleries. Margaret Delfanne's fourth icon exhibition opens on December 18 'at Canterbury's Chaucer Gallery in St Peter Street (daily except Sunday). Those who know her large abstract canvases will be surprised by her icons which are her own designs rather than the perpetuation of an image. However, she paints with the traditional medium of egg tempera on gessoed wood.