Architectural History of the V&A 1856 - 1861

'Brompton Boilers' - the Museum's temporary buildings fail to impress

Exterior view of the roof of the South Kensington Museum  (the 'Brompton Boilers') under construction, albumen print, 1856. Museum no. 34:966 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Exterior view of the roof of the South Kensington Museum  (the 'Brompton Boilers') under construction, albumen print, 1856. Museum no. 34:966 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A Royal experiment

Prince Albert designed the 'iron house' himself and building began early in 1856. Measuring 81 metres long and nine metres high, it was large enough to house three two-storey galleries. The reaction of the architectural press was vicious. After a first look at the incomplete building, The Builder (the leading architectural journal of the day) declared that 'Its ugliness is unmitigated [...] If the Marlborough House authorities retain their "Chamber of Horrors" [...] Mr. Cole's first act must be to have a model made of this Museum itself.'

A month later, when the structure was clad in corrugated iron, The Builder described it as 'like a threefold monster boiler'. The image stuck. Despite Prince Albert's attempts to prettify the edifice by painting it in green and white stripes, the Museum's purpose-built new home was thereafter popularly known as the 'Brompton Boilers'.

But the building's problems were not only aesthetic. The authorities soon found that the roof leaked, the drainage was poor, the iron made the structure too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, and the floors in the upper gallery were not strong enough to carry the weight of the plaster casts.

Exterior of Brompton Boilers, South Kensington, A.Lanchenick, about 1860. Museum no. 2816 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Exterior of Brompton Boilers, South Kensington, A.Lanchenick, about 1860. Museum no. 2816 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The professionals take charge

While the Boilers were being built, the authorities decided that the School of Design in Ornamental Art should also move to Brompton. Taking no chances this time, they appointed a professional architect, James Pennethorne, to design a temporary home for the School. His deliberately understated brick building linked up the different parts of Brompton Park House and provided room for a lecture theatre, a library and male and female schools. The work was supervised by Francis Fowke, a captain in the Royal Engineers and the inventor of, among other things, the camera bellows and a portable bath. Over the following nine years, Fowke was to shape the evolution of the Museum buildings.

The last temporary structure to be built during this period was the Refreshment Rooms (the Museum of Manufactures was the first in the world to offer refreshments onsite, something that at the time was seen as a daring innovation). Situated near Cromwell Road, next to where the Brompton Oratory now stands, the building was clad in a slightly awkward half-timbered mock-Tudor veneer. It aroused the wrath of both the critics and the Office of Works (the arm of the civil service responsible for the construction and maintenance of government buildings). A leading newspaper described the Refreshment Rooms as 'hideously ugly', while the Office of Works threatened the Museum authorities with legal proceedings for an infringement of building regulations.

Experiments with The Model of The Memorial of The  Exhibition of 1851; showing the Western side of the; Sheepshanks Paintings Gallery, South Kensington Museum, Anthony Carey Stannus , 1861. Museum no. 7851 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Western side of the Sheepshanks Gallery, Anthony Carey Stannus, 1861. Museum no. 7851 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Another structure went up to house a collection of paintings offered to the nation by a wealthy manufacturer from Leeds. Known as the Sheepshanks Gallery, it was a two-storey building, 27 metres long and 15 metres wide, to match the proportions of the Boilers, from which it extended northwards. The new gallery featured a number of innovations, including gas lighting that allowed it to remain open into the evening in winter. This made it easier for the 'working man' to see edifying works of art, a fact that won the Museum praise in the press.

The South Kensington Museum opens its doors

With the completion of the Refreshment Rooms and Sheepshanks Gallery, the Museum was officially opened in June 1857 as the 'South Kensington Museum', the Board of Commissioners having accepted Henry Cole's suggestion that its name be changed. Its original collection of plaster casts and ornamental art works had been augmented by many other items, including some models assembled by the Commissioners of Patents and modern sculptures donated by the Sculptors' Institute.

Interior of The South Kensington Museum: Opened to The Public on Wednesday last; wood- engraving; from Illustrated Times, 27th June, 1857. Museum no. 131198 NAL. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Interior of The South Kensington Museum: Opened to The Public on Wednesday last; wood- engraving; from Illustrated Times, 27th June, 1857. Museum no. 131198 NAL. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Shortly after the Sheepshanks Gallery was completed, space was needed to house paintings that belonged to the National Gallery but were to be given temporary accommodation in South Kensington. Fowke designed two buildings. The first, containing pictures bequeathed by J.M.W. Turner and a Mr Vernon, extended northwards of the Sheepshanks Gallery, and the second (now Room 94), which was to act as an overflow gallery for other National Gallery pictures, then turned eastwards.

As neither was intended to be seen from all sides, the external decoration of these buildings was kept to a minimum. These galleries remain part of the Museum today. Over the years the Turner and Vernon galleries were converted for various uses, but in 2003 they reopened in their original role, as a top-lit space for the display of paintings (now Rooms 81, 82, 87, 88 and 88a).

These galleries were finished in 1859 and two years later the eastern side of the square of new buildings was closed by a further set of galleries (now Rooms 96-101 on Level 3, with offices below). Simply called the Eastern Galleries, they were built to house the Museum's own art collection, which was judged to have suffered long enough in the overcrowded Boilers. This was the last piece of architecture to be completed before Prince Albert died of typhoid in December 1861, aged just 42.

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