Architectural History of the V&A 1836 - 1854

Finding a home - how the V&A ended up at South Kensington

School of Design, Somerset House, Illustrated London News, 1843. Museum no. 172935 NAL © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

School of Design, Somerset House, Illustrated London News, 1843. Museum no. 172935 NAL © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Victorians decide they need a 'Museum of art'

The origins of the Museum are as complex as the building itself. They date back ultimately to 1836, when a report by a House of Commons Select Committee concluded that the arts were not receiving enough encouragement in Britain and little attention was being paid to the importance of good design.

In response, the government decided to set up a network of design schools and establish 'museums of art' that, unlike most other institutions in Britain at the time, would be open to the public without charge. They would contain examples not only of ancient art but also of 'the most approved modern specimens, foreign as well as domestic'.

The first school opened in London in 1837. Called the School of Design in Ornamental Art, it was housed in the top of Somerset House on the Strand and had a collection of plaster casts and ornamental art works for the instruction of students. By 1851, however, the School no longer had enough space for its students or its growing collection. A young civil servant called Henry Cole was asked to look into the problem and in 1852 he took over as General Superintendent.

The First Room at Marlborough House, watercolour, William Linnaeus Cassey, 1856. Museum no. 7279 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The First Room at Marlborough House, watercolour, William Linnaeus Cassey, 1856. Museum no. 7279 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With a commitment to reform and an interest in the improvement of artistic taste, Cole made some decisive changes. The most significant was to move the plaster casts and ornamental art works to Marlborough House, a property in Pall Mall that Prince Albert loaned to the School. The collection was called the 'Museum of Manufactures' and was soon joined by the School itself.

Cole and his chief ally, Richard Redgrave (a former temporary headmaster of the School of Design), then assembled a display of what they judged to be outstanding items of pottery, porcelain, majolica, glass and metalwork. This, they hoped, would create public demand for 'improvements in the character of our national manufactures'.

To prepare visitors for this lesson in good design, they set up the first room as a 'Chamber of Horrors' with a range of 'utterly indefensible' everyday decorative objects, such as a burner condemned for the fact its 'gas flamed from the petal of a convolvulus'.

TSir Henry Cole, photograph, unknown photographer, about 1858 - 1873. Museum no. E.207-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sir Henry Cole, photograph, unknown photographer, about 1858 - 1873. Museum no. E.207-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Beginnings of the 'Albertopolis'

By 1854, the collection of the Museum of Manufactures was so large that Cole and Redgrave decided they needed new premises. They found a solution in 'Albertopolis', a site just south of Hyde Park that had been purchased with profits from the 1851 Great Exhibition. Here, Prince Albert intended to combine all Britain's learned and artistic societies on one vast site, but the plan had stagnated in the face of political hostility and indecision.

In February 1854 Cole (who had been a key figure in the development of the Great Exhibition) approached the prince about the possibility of a temporary museum building in the south-east corner of the site. This was then a rural, out-of-the-way area on which stood four buildings that made up Brompton Park House, originally built for Queen Anne's gardener. The buildings were now empty and decaying, and by June of the following year it was decided to erect an 'iron house' in their place.

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