The Victoria & Albert Museum is, of course, full of wonders - wonder we Londoners tend to take for granted. It's been a few years since I last visited, but I was there yesterday, enjoying the medieval galleries and finding out about enamelling (there's a fascinating video showing how it's done - or how one enamelling technique is done). After an hour and half or so among the medieval marvels, I was nearing overload, so I headed for the cafe for refreshment. On my way, I noticed a small side gallery labelled Golden Spider Silk Cape - and there it was, a new wonder, woven only last year! It is a thing of quite startling beauty, a cape with an ecclesiastical flavour (but not intent), entirely woven from the naturally golden silk of Madagascan orb-weaver spiders, and beautifully embroidered with complex patterns of flowers and, of course, spiders. It is an astonishing sight, with a texture and luminescence that lift it into a realm above the finest silkmoth silk (it is also very much lighter, and stronger).
The cape hangs resplendent in a display case in the centre of the small (too small) gallery, with ancillary material - including a video and a wonderful large-scale working drawing and pattern, much embellished with quotations related to spiders and their silk. Happily, as is often the case these days, most of the people - and there were many, most of them very excited - gravitate to the ancillary stuff, leaving space for those who want to take a good look at the thing itself, the wondrous cape. And there's a handsomely produced and informative book about the whole venture available for just £5. The book looks back at spiders and their silk in myth and metaphor, and traces the history of earlier attempts at weaving with their silk. It even finds space for this wonderful image from a letter of Keats to John Hamilton Reynolds:
'Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the Spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel - the points of twigs and leaves on which the Spider begins her work are few, and she fills the air with beautiful circuiting; Man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of the Soul and weave a tapestry Empyrean - full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wanderings.'
The makers of the cape sum up their aim thus:
'Our objective has been to arouse a real sense of wonder in a world that too often admires the facile and meretricious.'
They have wonderfully succeeded.