The Victoria and Albert Museum is part of the great complex of museums in South Kensington
The Victoria and Albert Museum is part of the great complex of museums in South Kensington (the others being the Natural History Museum, the Geological Museum and the Science Museum). The idea of the "V and A" came from Prince Albert, and the museum was originally financed from the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Museum was opened in 1857 in the building which now houses the Bethnal Green Museum. The foundation stone of the present building was laid by Queen Victoria in 1899, and it was formally opened by Edward VII in 1909 as the national museum of fine and applied arts. With its extensive collections of material from many countries and many periods it is one of the world's great art museums.
The exhibits are arranged in two groups - the Primary Collections, in which masterpieces in every field of art are brought together by style, period and country of origin, and the Study Collections, in which the objects are grouped according to the material used (wood, metal, ceramics, textiles, etc.). Every department of the museum contains a great range of treasures - whether in the field of Byzantine and early medieval art, ceramics and porcelain, prints and drawings, metalwork or musical instruments. The museum has a valuable collection of paintings, including many works by Constable in the Henry Cole Wing, but it is notable also for its collection of British miniatures and watercolors and for the cartoons designed by Raphael for Pope Leo X in 1516. The textile department is of great interest, but so, too, are the departments of costume, woodcarving, alabasters and ivories. The furniture is displayed in a series of rooms completely furnished in period style. The collections of Islamic and Far Eastern art are of notable quality. Further attractive collections include weaponry and jewelery. Richly decorated rooms to the rear of the ground floor, the Morris Room and Poynter Room, which once housed the first museum restaurant in England, are of particular interest.
With such a wealth of valuable and interesting material, it is not possible within the compass of this guide to list even a selection of the finest exhibits. At first, a collection of this size appears to be a conglomeration and may easily overwhelm the visitor. The best plan - since it is manifestly impossible to get round the whole museum in a single visit - is to study the plans and decide which items or sections you particularly want to see. If you want to study some particular field in more detail it is well worth while purchasing the current catalogue of the museum, which will also give information about new acquisitions or rearrangements of the exhibits.
The Victoria and Albert Museum (often abbreviated as the V&A), set in the South Kensington district of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects.
Named after Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, it was founded in 1852, and has since grown to now cover 12.5 acres and 145 galleries. Its collection spans 5,000 years of art, from ancient times to the present day, in virtually every medium, from the cultures of Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa.
The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The holdings of ceramics, glass, textiles, costumes, silver, ironwork, jewellery, furniture, medieval objects, sculpture, prints and printmaking, drawings and photographs are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world.
The museum possesses the world's largest collection of post-classical sculpture, the holdings of Italian Renaissance items are the largest outside Italy. The departments of Asia include art from South Asia, China, Japan, Korea and the Islamic world. The East Asian collections are among the best in Europe, with particular strengths in ceramics and metalwork, while the Islamic collection, alongside the Musée du Louvre and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is amongst the largest in the world. Alongside other neighbouring institutions, including the Natural History Museum and Science Museum, the V&A is located in what is termed London's "Albertopolis", an area of immense cultural, scientific and educational importance.
The V&A has its origins in The Great Exhibition of 1851, with which Henry Cole the museum's first director was involved in planning; initially it was known as The Museum of Manufactures, first opening in May 1852 at Marlborough House, but by September had been transferred to Somerset House.
At this stage the collections covered both applied art and science. Several of the exhibits from the Exhibition were purchased to form the nucleus of the collection. By February 1854 discussions were underway to transfer the museum to the current site and it was renamed as The South Kensington Museum.
In 1855 the German architect Gottfried Semper, at the request of Cole, produced a design for the museum, but was rejected by the Board of Trade as too expensive. The site was occupied by Brompton Park House, this was extended including the first refreshment rooms, opened in 1857, the museum being the first in the world to provide such a facility.
The official opening by Queen Victoria was on 22 June 1857. In the following year, late night openings were introduced, made possible by the use of gas lighting. This was to enable in the words of Cole "to ascertain practically what hours are most convenient to the working classes"; this was linked to the use of the collections of both applied art and science as educational resources to help boost productive industry. In these early years the practical use of the collection was very much emphasised as opposed to that of "High Art" at the National Gallery and scholarship at the British Museum.
George Wallis (1811-1891), the first Keeper of Fine Art Collection, passionately promoted the idea of wide art education through the museum collections. This led to the transfer to the museum of The School of Design that had been founded in 1837 at Somerset House, after the transfer it was referred to as the Art School or Art Training School, later to become the Royal College of Art which finally achieved full independence in 1949.
From the 1860s to the 1880s the scientific collections had been moved from the main museum site to various improvised galleries to the west of Exhibition Road. In 1893 the "Science Museum" had effectively come into existence when a separate director was appointed.
The laying of the foundation stone to the left of the main entrance of the Aston Webb building, on 17 May 1899 was the last official public appearance by Queen Victoria. It was during this ceremony that the change of name from the South Kensington Museum to the Victoria and Albert Museum was made public.
London Gazette of the time ended "I trust that it will remain for ages a Monument of discerning Liberality and a Source of Refinement and Progress." The exhibition which the Museum organised to celebrate the centennial of the 1899 renaming, "A Grand Design," first toured in North America from 1997 ( Baltimore Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), returning to London in 1999. To accompany and support the exhibition, the Museum published a book, Grand Design, which it has made available for reading online on its website.
The opening ceremony for the Aston Webb building by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra took place on 26 June 1909. In 1914 the construction commenced of the Science Museum signalling the final split of the science and art collections, since then the museum has maintained its role of one of the world's greatest decorative arts collections.
At the outbreak of World War II most of the collection was packed away and sent either to an underground quarry in Wiltshire, Montacute House in Somerset, or to a disused tunnel near Aldwych tube station with larger items remaining in situ being sand bagged and bricked in. During the war some of the galleries were used between 1941 and 1944 as a school for children evacuated from Gibraltar.
The South Court became a canteen, first for the Royal Air Force and later for Bomb Damage Repair Squads. Prior to the return of the collections after the war, the Britain Can Make It exhibition was held between September and November 1946, attracting nearly a million and a half visitors. This was organised and held under the auspices of the Council of Industrial Design which had been established by central government in 1944 "to promote by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British industry"; the success of this exhibition led to the planning of the Festival of Britain. By 1948 most of the collections had been returned to the museum.
The Victorian areas have a complex history, with piecemeal additions by different architects.
Founded in May 1852, it was not until 1857 that the museum moved to the present site. This area of London was known as Brompton but had been renamed South Kensington. The land was occupied by Brompton Park House, which was extended, most notably by the "Brompton Boilers", which were starkly utilitarian iron galleries with a temporary look; they were later dismantled and used to build the V&A Museum of Childhood.
The first building to be erected that still forms part of the museum was the Sheepshanks Gallery in 1857 on the eastern side of the garden; its architect was civil engineer Captain Francis Fowke, Royal Engineers, who was appointed by Cole.
The next major expansions were designed by the same architect, these were the Turner and Vernon galleries built 1858-9 (built to house the eponymous collections, which were later transferred to the Tate Gallery, now used as the picture galleries and tapestry gallery respectively), then the North and South Courts, both of which opened by June 1862.
They now form the galleries for temporary exhibitions and are directly behind the Sheepshanks Gallery. On the very northern edge of the site is situated the Secretariat Wing, also built in 1862 this houses the offices and board room etc. and is not open to the public. An ambitious scheme of decoration was developed for these new areas: a series of mosaic figures depicting famous European artists of the Medieval and Renaissance period were produced. These have now been removed to other areas of the museum.
Also started were a series of frescoes by Lord Leighton: Industrial Arts as Applied to War 1878-1880 and Industrial Arts Applied to Peace, which was started but never finished. To the east of this were additional galleries, the decoration of which was the work of another designer Owen Jones, these were the Oriental Courts (covering India, China and Japan) completed in 1863, none of this decoration survives, part of these galleries became the new galleries covering the 19th century, opened in December 2006.
The last work by Fowke was the design for the range of buildings on the north and west sides of the garden, this includes the refreshment rooms, reinstated as the Museum Café in 2006, with the silver gallery above, (at the time the ceramics gallery), the top floor has a splendid lecture theatre although this is seldom open to the general public.
The ceramic staircase in the northwest corner of this range of buildings was designed by F.W. Moody; all the architectural details are produced in moulded and coloured pottery. All the work on the north range was designed and built in 1864-1869. The style adopted for this part of the museum was Italian Renaissance, much use was made of terracotta, brick and mosaic, this north façade was intended as the main entrance to the museum with its bronze doors designed by James Gamble & Reuben Townroe having six panels depicting: Humphry Davy (chemistry); Isaac Newton (astronomy); James Watt (mechanics); Bramante (architecture); Michelangelo (sculpture); Titian (painting); thus representing the range of the museums collections.
Godfrey Sykes also designed the terracotta embellishments and the mosaic in the Pediment of the North Façade commemorating the Great Exhibition the profits from which helped to fund the museum, this is flanked by terracotta statue groups by Percival Ball. This building replaced Brompton Park House, which could then be demolished to make way for the south range.
The interiors of the three refreshment rooms were assigned to different designers. The Green Dining Room 1866-68 was the work of Philip Webb and William Morris, displays Elizabethan influences, the lower part of the walls are panelled in wood with a band of paintings depicting fruit and the occasional figure, with moulded plaster foliage on the main part of the wall and a plaster frieze around the decorated ceiling and stained glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones.
The Centre Refreshment Room 1865-77 was designed in a Renaissance style by James Gamble, the walls and even the Ionic columns are covered in decorative and moulded ceramic tile, the ceiling consists of elaborate designs on enamelled metal sheets and matching stained glass windows, the marble fireplace was designed and sculpted by Alfred Stevens and was removed from Dorchester House prior to that building's demolition in 1929.
The Grill Room 1876-81 was designed by Sir Edward Poynter, the lower part of the walls consist of blue and white tiles with various figures and foliage enclosed by wood panelling, above there are large tiled scenes with figures depicting the four seasons and the twelve months these were painted by ladies from the Art School then based in the museum, the windows are also stained glass, there is an elaborate cast iron grill still in place.
With the death of Captain Francis Fowke, Royal Engineers the next architect to work at the museum was Colonel (later Major General) Henry Young Darracott Scott, also of the Royal Engineers. He designed to the north west of the garden the five-storey School for Naval Architects (also known as the science schools), now the Henry Cole Wing in 1867-72.
Scott's assistant J.H. Wild designed the impressive staircase that rises the full height of the building, made from Cadeby stone the steps are 7 feet (2.1 m) in length, the balustrades and columns are Portland stone. It is now used to jointly house the prints and architectural drawings of the V&A (prints, drawings, paintings and photographs) and Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA Drawings and Archives Collections); and the Sackler Centre for arts education which openned in 2008.
Continuing the style of the earlier buildings, various designers were responsible for the decoration, the terracotta embellishments were again the work of Godfrey Sykes, although Sgraffito was used to decorate the east side of the building designed by F.W. Moody, a final embellishment were the wrought iron gates made as late as 1885 designed by Starkie Gardner, these lead to a passage through the building. Scott also designed the two Cast Courts 1870-73 to the southeast of the garden (the site of the 'Brompton Boilers'), these vast spaces have ceilings 70 feet (21 m) in height to accommodate the plaster casts of parts of famous buildings, including Trajan's Column (in two separate pieces).
The final part of the museum designed by Scott was the Art Library and what is now the sculpture gallery on the south side of the garden, built 1877-83, the exterior mosaic panels in the parapet were designed by Reuben Townroe who also designed the plaster work in the library, Sir John Taylor designed the book shelves and cases, also this was the first part of the museum to have electric lighting. This completed the northern half of the site, creating a quadrangle with the garden at its centre, but left the museum without a proper façade.
In 1890 the government launched a competition to design new buildings for the museum, with architect Alfred Waterhouse as one of the judges; this would give the museum a new imposing front entrance.Source: openbuildings.com