Architectural history of the V&A 1862–1863
The North and South Courts - a double-sided showpiece
Building the courts
Fowke promised the screens would make the court 'as free from mechanical impurity as in the open country'. The North Court was opened in April 1862, and in the following year its first exhibition - a display of the wedding presents given to the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra - brought unprecedented numbers of visitors into the Museum.
The North Court
The original entrance to the Museum was through the north side of what is now the John Madejski Garden. In 1869 all that stood between this door and Cromwell Road was a stretch of grass.
The pediment on the north façade is decorated in monochrome mosaic. Cole intended this to convey the message that the museum was intended for our instruction in art and science in relation to an industrial world, the most important member of which was Great Britain. The background silhouette is of the Crystal Palace, site of the Great Exhibition that celebrated Britain's greatness as a manufacturing nation. Before this stands a goddess-like Queen Victoria, dispensing wreaths. The names of the nations that took part in the Great Exhibition are on the borders of the pediment. On the right are the symbols of Art - palette, violin, etc. On the left symbols of Science and Invention, and possibly the only railway engine ever done in mosaic. To reinforce the educative message, the two sculpted figure groups on top of the outer ends of the pediment represent Instruction.
Warm brick and terracotta, mosaic decoration and pantiled roofs combine to create an imposing frontage for the north facade that recalls the elegant proportions of Northern Italian Renaissance architecture. The choice of building materials, colour and scale contrasts strongly with the later, more formal, buildings. The humanity of this building reflects Cole's character and his desire that this should be a museum for ordinary people.
The bronze doors (made in 1868) were to have been the main entrance of the South Kensington Museum. Three figures from the history of science on the left door are balanced by three from the arts on the right, illustrating Cole's belief that in a modern world art and science should always be taught together. (Ironically in 1893 the South Kensington Museum was split into two institutions, the V&A and the Science Museum, divided by Exhibition Road.) Above the door the inscription `Better is it to get wisdom than gold' is an example of Victorian enthusiasm for a good maxim. Their love of allegory is shown in two terracotta figures, one representing Science, the other Art.
In the profusion of terracotta figures and other decorative details, some elements are repeated. Little cherubs and the casings for the columns were to show the Three Ages of Man. These were sculpted moulds were taken from the originals and then numerous casts were made in clay. After they had been fired in a kiln, they could be used as decorative building components. These reproductive forms were exactly the sort of good cheap design Cole was trying to foster in industry.
Examples of allegory, such as the Three Ages of Man, were widely used at South Kensington as a means of communicating the aims of the Museum. Through biblical characters or classical mythology Cole hoped to reach both the uneducated working classes that he wished to attract to the Museum and the better educated middle classes who made up most of the Museum's visitors. For instance, the three-coloured mosaic roundels underneath the arches of the portico portray the Muses representing Poetry, History and Philosophy. Many nineteenth-century visitors would have recognized them immediately from their attitudes and the objects that they hold.
Later, the North Court was divided into two storeys, with Rooms 103-106 above and an exhibition space below. The South Court was also divided, with storage above and Rooms 38, 38a, 39 below. You can see the roof of the South Court through a peephole in Room 102.
The South Court
The South Court was intended to house smaller items than the North Court, so its layout was different. With its space divided in two by an arcaded corridor, the court had a more intimate feel than its twin. Opened in June 1862, this court was a success with architectural critics, despite the fact that its inaugural show was an awkward jumble of loaned art works.
In the 19th century, convention dictated that public buildings needed to be dignified with fitting ornamentation. The Museum's newest spaces, particularly the bravura South Court, were decorated in an elaborate combination of wallpaper, mosaic, friezes, painted panels, stained-glass windows and dramatic paint contrasts (in the North Court, 'deep blood red' competed against 'cold purple grey').
Fowke sketched out many elements of the decoration, but his untimely death of heart failure in December 1865 (aged just 42, like Prince Albert) passed the responsibility for these plans to his successor, Henry Scott, another Royal Engineer. Many of the decorative schemes in the North and South Courts were the work of Godfrey Sykes, a highly respected young artist drafted in by Cole (it was Sykes who had influenced Fowke's choice of terracotta as the signature decorative material for the Museum). But Sykes was able to complete only a year's work at South Kensington before he himself died prematurely in 1866.
Four decorative schemes in this area of the Museum are particularly important. The first comprised 35 mosaic portraits placed in the arcade niches running around the upper level of the South Court. They were designed by invitation by a number of leading contemporary artists and executed by students of the Museum's art schools in glass or ceramic tile. This sequence was dubbed the 'Kensington Valhalla' by the 'Builder' because it featured members of the artistic pantheon such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Another important mosaic scheme, mounted in a cloister on the ground floor between the North and South Courts, featured portrait heads of the Lords President of the Museum's governing council.
Two lunettes in the South Court featured twin frescoes painted by Lord Frederic Leighton, one of the era's most celebrated artists: 'The Industrial Arts as Applied to War and The Industrial Arts as Applied to Peace'. Created using an experimental medium, spirit fresco, Lord Leighton's epic images were to cause the Museum many problems in later years when cleaners' dusters and the umbrellas of careless visitors dislodged paint from their unstable surfaces.
Most of the mosaics were removed and put into storage at a later date, but the portrait of Prince Albert is still above a doorway in Room 102. The Leighton frescoes, recently restored, can be seen in the same room and also in Room 107.
The North and East Staircases and Secretariat Wing
Other notable additions to the Museum complex during this period are the North and East Staircases (the first is visible from Room 81, the second is now Staircase M). These provided highly decorated access ways to the first floor of the Eastern Galleries. 1862 saw the completion of the Secretariat Wing, a large block of offices built on a site adjacent to that now filled by the Brompton Oratory. This is still used as offices.