Nicholas Smith

Title: Archivist
Department: V&A Archive

I’m an archivist based in the V&A Archive where I help manage the institutional records of the V&A and its predecessor organisations. These records date from 1837 to the present day and provide a rich resource for the study of the history of the Museum’s buildings and collections. I enjoy helping researchers navigate these collections and blogging about some of the more unusual moments in the V&A’s long and colourful history. I’m currently writing a book about the library of the celebrated eighteenth-century actor David Garrick.

Back to the blog front page

A Musical Interlude: Henry Cole and Matthew Digby Wyatt

With the London Handel Festival due to start in early March I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite documents in the V&A Archive to get us (well, me!) in the mood: a set of ink drawings of historical musical instruments by the architect and art historian Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877). Henry Cole (1808-1882), the […]

Keep reading

Captain Fowke’s pontoons

As I was leafing through an early volume of the V&A Archive’s collection of Photographic Guardbooks the eclectic parade of historical treasures passing before me was suddenly interrupted by a seemingly incongruous gallery of Royal Engineers testing collapsible pontoons in the Museum grounds! What possible reason could there be for pasting these photographs into the Guardbooks, I […]

Keep reading

Victoria and Albert Museum – what’s in a name?

Few museums in the world can have traded under as many names as the V&A in the first 50 years of their existence! The iconic building that we recognise today as the V&A opened in 1909; however, the museum can trace its physical footprint at South Kensington to 1857, and its intellectual roots to 1837. […]

Keep reading

What lies beneath: Foundation stones and time capsules

On 17 May 1899 Queen Victoria travelled in a semi-state open landau the short distance from Buckingham Palace to South Kensington to lay the foundation stone for the new Victoria and Albert Museum buildings designed by the architect Aston Webb (1849-1930). Part of the elaborate ceremony included the placement of an oblong casket, made of […]

Keep reading

Queen Victoria’s Trowel

In a well-known quotation, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) advises the poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) that ‘when you come to Royalty, you should lay it [flattery] on with a trowel’ (1). Flattery was much in evidence on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s laying the foundation stone of the new buildings at the Victoria and […]

Keep reading

Music for a While: Benjamin Britten at the V&A

While rummaging through a box of old photographs I chanced upon this one of the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986) taken at recital they gave at the V&A. Tenor Peter Pears and pianist Benjamin Britten on stage during a recital in the Raphael Cartoon gallery. V&A Archive, accession no. A0212. © […]

Keep reading

Let there be light! Illuminating the V&A in the nineteenth century

Did you know that the V&A was the first museum in the world to use gaslight in its galleries? This innovation was the brainchild of Henry Cole (1818-1882), the V&A’s first Director, who believed that extending the Museum’s opening hours until 10pm on two evenings a week would further his social reformist agenda by enabling working […]

Keep reading

A Stitch in Time: the V&A and the Bayeux Tapestry (3)

Eliza Stothard received the exaggerated report of her death (see my previous post) with ‘mingled feelings of indignation and amusement’ (1). This humiliation came on the back of a newspaper review of Jules Comte’s La Tapisserie de Bayeux (1878) which had sought clumsily to draw a line under the affair – ‘an offence which, however […]

Keep reading

A Stitch in Time: the V&A and the Bayeux Tapestry (2)

In a previous post I revealed the strange circumstances under which the V&A came to own a piece of the Bayeux tapestry. Here I explain why it was returned to Bayeux and how Henry Cole inadvertently planted the seeds of controversy regarding the identity of the person who spirited it away to England in the […]

Keep reading

Tales from the Archives

Did you know that Henry Cole (1808-1882), the V&A’s first director, started his professional career as an archivist – ‘sub-commissioner’ was his actual job title – in the Records Commission (the forerunner of the National Archives)? Here he undertook the important archival work of calendaring, indexing, sorting, transcribing, and preserving records; and when the occasion […]

Keep reading