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Architectural History of the V&A 1863 - 1873

Fowke's architectural master plan - an interrupted vision

General floor plan for South Kensington Museum, from A Guide to the South Kensington Museum, 1865. Museum no. 99590 NAL. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

General floor plan for South Kensington Museum, from A Guide to the South Kensington Museum, 1865. Museum no. 99590 NAL. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Francis Fowke was a consummate forward-planner. Even before the North and South Courts had been roofed in, he had worked out the details of an ambitious master plan for the Brompton Park House site. Going against the contemporary fashion for Gothic architecture, he proposed to continue the North Italian Renaissance style chosen for the Sheepshanks Gallery across all the new buildings. In this scheme the greater part of the Museum was of two storeys, with a grand Lecture Theatre complex forming its centrepiece.

The first element of Fowke's plan to be realised was the Residences, which were completed in May 1863. They were designed to provide convenient onsite homes for senior members of the Museum's administration.

Plan of new buildings, designed by Captain F.Fowke, 1865. Museum no. E.1352-1979 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Musuem, London.

Plan of new buildings, designed by Captain F.Fowke, 1865. Museum no. E.1352-1979 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Musuem, London.

Kept deliberately plain to save money for the decoration of more visible architecture, the building was tucked deep in the western flank of the site, next to Exhibition Road. Around the same time, much-needed new art schools were built at the top of the Museum site to the north-east of the Residences.

The Lecture Theatre

The next phase of construction centred on the Lecture Theatre building, a complex that formed a grand bridge between the east and west sides of the site. One of the last buildings to get underway before Fowke's death, it was begun in 1865 and completed in 1869, under the supervision of Henry Scott.

The Lecture Theatre building made the most public statement to date of Fowke's vision for the completion of the Museum. It featured a grand doorway (intended to be the principal entrance of the Museum) leading to a suite of three refreshment rooms, with a lecture theatre raked above a ceramics gallery on the first floor. The Lecture Theatre, lit at night by an enormous gaslight with some 700 fishtail burners, had almost perfect acoustics (the public were able to buy tickets to the special sound-testing sessions).

Sketch for the North Side of the inner quadrangle. Watercolour by Captain F. Fowke, c. 1865.

Sketch for the north side of the inner quadrangle, Victoria and Albert Museum by Captain Francis Fowke. Museum no. E.1318-1927

The first part of the embellishment of the Lecture Theatre building, the showpiece southern exterior, was completed when both Fowke and Sykes were still alive. The main feature of the red-brick, terracotta and mosaic-faced façade was its three large recessed arches, supported by four-and-a-half-foot-high terracotta columns bearing figures typifying Childhood, Manhood and Old Age. Portraits of key members of the Museum team (including Fowke and Cole) and representative names from the fields of art and science appeared in the mosaic panels, lunettes and main door panels.

The Ceramic Staircase

The most controversial of the decorations in this complex was the West or Ceramic Staircase (now Staircase I). It was designed by Frank Moody, a master in the Schools of Design, together with his students. He was a decorative artist who played a key role in the embellishment of the Museum. Henry Cole's philosophy of teacher and student participation is therefore demonstrated in the very structure of the Museum. The first two flights of stairs were totally encased in 'Della Robbia' ware and mosaic, while the ceilings, domes, panels and spandrels were decorated with vitrified ceramic painting.

The Ceramic Staircase, Victoria and Albert Museum

The Ceramic Staircase, Victoria and Albert Museum. Designed by Frank Moody.

Much of the meaning of the ceramic paintings on the staircase, which would have been quite clear to someone who had received a classical education in the nineteenth century, is obscure to us today. On the way to the first landing the barrel vault has a painting of 'The pursuit of art by man'. The two domes on the landing show Ceres, Mercury and Vulcan as Agriculture, Commerce and Manufactures around a terrestrial globe in one, with Apollo and Minerva and Poetry, Music and Art around a celestial globe in the other. The floor is a pavement in Roman style, with a river god in the centre, designed by Moody. The pieces of mosaic were cut and assembled by women prisoners in Woking Jail, an enterprise that brought savings in cost.

As with the Lecture Theatre façade, the style was unashamedly grand, with allegorical groupings and stained-glass windows constantly underlining the twin theme of Art and Science. The space on the first floor was known as the Ceramic Gallery and its signature majolica-clad columns featured the names of men associated with the medium, such as Josiah Wedgwood. This gallery was restored in 1995-6 to its original splendour and is now the Silver gallery (Rooms 70a, 65-69 and 89).

Henry Cole memorial

Portrait of Sir Henry Cole by Florence Cole.

Portrait of Sir Henry Cole by Florence Cole.

The monument to Henry Cole installed on the landing in 1878 is by Florence Cole, his niece. This mosaic portrait is a very appropriate testament to an extraordinary Victorian character.

Henry Cole's achievements included setting up the first publisher of children's illustrated books, commissioning the first-ever printed Christmas card and a single-handed attempt at improving the commercial design of household objects through his company, Felix Summerly Art Manufactures. These were activities conducted in his spare time, for Cole was a full-time civil servant who, before he became director of the Museum, re-organized the Public Record Office.

Reliefs depicting some of the South Kensington enterprises he was involved in, including the Royal Albert Hall, are shown in the arch at the top of his monument.

The Refreshment Rooms

The Gamble, Poynter and Morris Rooms are interlinked rooms that made up the restaurant of the South Kensington Museum. These rooms are today again being used as part of the Museum's Café. Although they were functional spaces, the Refreshment Rooms belonged to the Museum's public face, so they were also given some extremely lavish decorations. The westernmost room, originally called the Green Dining Room (now the Morris Room), was designed by William Morris and remains today as an important feature. The deep colours of the scheme show that at the time he was still under the influence of the Gothic Revival. He embellished the walls with Elizabethan-style panelling below a section of green plaster with a low relief of olive branches, while the stained-glass windows bore female figures painted by Edward Burne-Jones and Philip Webb.

The Gamble Room

The Gamble Room.

The Gamble Room, Victoria and Albert Museum.

This was the original Refreshment Room. It would have been the visitor's first view of the Museum's interior and even the Victorians would have been struck by the extraordinary decoration. The main doors to this room were immediately opposite the main entrance of the Museum. Cole's concept of a museum restaurant was completely new, a world first for South Kensington, yet another way of getting people to enjoy culture.

Henry Cole was responsible for many innovations: the V&A was the first public museum in the world to be artificially lit so that workers could come in the evenings. (In the ceilings of some rooms the ornamental metal gratings which took away the heat and fumes from the open gas jets can still be seen.) The ventilation grilles in the ceiling of the Gamble Room are surrounded by enormously heavy and ornate enamelled iron plates. Cole is thought to have got the idea from the enamelled name plates on railway stations. Here, with the ceramic tiled walls and columns, they were a hygienic, washable covering for an eating place and also formed a fireproof cell within the museum. The Victorians were very conscious of the dangers of fire. It would have taken horse-drawn fire engines a long time to reach South Kensington, still a very rural place in the 1860s. As an additional precaution, food for this main refreshment room was prepared in kitchens outside the walls.

The windows are full of Victorian maxims and mottoes about the joys of eating and drinking, such as such as 'Hunger is the best sauce' and 'A good cup makes all young'. The frieze with its inscription from Ecclesiastes II, 24 reads 'There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy the good of his labour - XYZ.'

If this central room, with its immensely complicated decoration, represents standard high Victorian values through opulent display, the two flanking rooms show Cole and the Museum's designers in a more reflective mood. The use of alternative styles of decoration illustrates how the nineteenth century was capable of complex responses to history and design.

The Poynter Room

Etching of the Poynter Room by John Watkins, c. 1876-81.

Etching of the Poynter Room by John Watkins, c. 1876-81.

The easternmost room (now the Poynter Room) was originally called the Grill Room because it was fitted out to 'broil chops and steaks'. It was designed by Edward Poynter using a scheme centred on blue Dutch tiles, and was furnished with little tables of iron with white marble tops and decorated in a similar style to the great iron stove.

Visitors could come here for breakfast when the Museum opened at 9am, watching the white-hatted cook prepare it on the stove.

Fred Hill, a catering contractor from the Oval, offered a long menu divided according to social standing. When you consider that in the 1860s an unskilled labourer might earn £1 a week, the food was not cheap.

The Poynter Room, showing the grand iron stove.

The Poynter Room, showing the grand iron stove.

In 1867 the first-class menu included:

  • Steak pudding  1/ -
  • Sausage and mashed potatoes  1/ -
  • Veal cutlets and bacon  1/3
  • Jugged hare  1/6
  • Cold chicken and ham  2/ -
  • Tarts in season  6d
  • Ices or jellies  6d
  • Stilton, cheshire, pickles, celery salad  3d

The second-class menu included:

  • Minced beef  8d
  • Veal cutlets  10d
  • Stewed rabbit  10d
  • Poached egg and spinach  1/ -
  • Steak pudding (large)  9d
  • Steak pudding (small)  6d
  • Buns and sponge cakes  1d
  • Bread, butter, cheese  1d

This room shows that in the latter part of the nineteenth century many designers, no longer content to draw inspiration only from European decorative styles, were influenced by the east and especially by Japan. The wave patterns on the doors of the stove, the peacocks on the frieze and in some of the tile panels, the flower motifs on the blue-and-white tiles, which all come from the east, are combined with the more conventional classical style of the figures representing the seasons and months of the year. Here again Cole involved both public and students in the Museum building.

The public were encouraged by example to adopt this modem decoration in their homes. Students were involved on a practical level because the tile panels, designed by Edward Poynter, were painted by a special tile-painting class for ladies at the Schools of Design. The ladies' tile-painting class was a bold move in 1860s society. It was unusual enough for women to train professionally, for them to be engaged in so public a commission was very forward-looking. This radical, free-thinking spirit at South Kensington was an element that was to find popular expression in the alternative 'Art' designs of the 1880s.

The Morris Room

The Morris Room.

The Morris Room.

Henry Cole was truly avant-garde in his determination that these three eating rooms should reflect the whole of contemporary design theory. William Morris is one of the most famous designers of the Victorian period. Although some of Morris's ideas were foreign to Cole's concept of progress, he recognized the truth and simplicity of Morris' design ideas, and commissioned the interior of this room from Morris' company, its first major work.

The room is subdued compared with the other two we have looked at. It shows the interest in myth and legend held by Morris and his friends, especially Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones' dado rail paintings are based on the signs of the zodiac and his designs for the windows show medieval domestic tasks. The rest of the decoration was probably by Morris' friend the architect Philip Webb. Webb took his inspiration from a wide variety of medieval and ecclesiastical sources, including a font in Newcastle Cathedral for the frieze, and medieval manuscripts for the ceiling decoration. The only part of the decoration that is familiar Morris pattern-making is the repeat of leaves, flowers and berries in the plaster-work on the walls. Contemporary critics described the effect as 'Tudor', we would probably consider it another example of the rich eclecticism of the Victorian period.

After Cole's retirement in 1873, his planned building programme was heavily curtailed. However, in 1889, public opinion demanded that the building of the Museum be completed, although not according to the original plan. The facades of the Victoria and Albert Museum built between 1899 and 1909 are an indication of the changing attitudes to museums at the end of the nineteenth century. There was a return to an earlier idea of the museum as treasure house, with an overawed public gazing at priceless objects in marble halls.

The Science Schools and Architectural Courts

Ground plan of the South Kensington Museum, 1873.

Ground plan of the South Kensington Museum, 1873.

During the latter half of the 1860s, three large building projects were begun under Henry Cole's supervision - the last he would be involved with before his retirement in 1873. One was fairly straightforward, being the demolition of the Boilers and their removal to Bethnal Green, but the others - the Science Schools and the Architectural Courts - became some of the Museum's most impressive and best-loved structures.

The Science Schools (now the Henry Cole Building) were built to house laboratories and teaching rooms for a School of Naval Architecture. They were completed late in 1872. Because Francis Fowke had died before the plans became more than tentative, this was the building on which Henry Scott was able to really stamp his authority. Occupying an extremely conspicuous site at the north end of the site next to Exhibition Road, it had to be another showpiece.

View of the Architectural Courts, by Henry Tidmarsh (1855-1939). Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour.

View of the Architectural Courts, by Henry Tidmarsh (1855-1939). Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour.

The decorative scheme for the Science Schools, supervised by Frank Moody, was based on that of the Lecture Theatre. The main features of the façade of what was then the highest building in South Kensington were the round-headed colonnade and, at the top of the building, an open arcaded balcony. The terracotta columns on the ground floor are identical to the ones designed by Godfrey Sykes for the Lecture Theatre façade.

The Architectural Courts (now Rooms 46a, 46 and 46b) were to occupy part of the site of the Boilers and be an extension of the permanent buildings that now ran south from the Sheepshanks Gallery. Consisting of two huge halls (41 metres long and 25 metres high) running north-south and separated by a narrow three-storey gallery, the space was designed to contain the Museum's collection of large-scale architectural features, such as Trajan's Column. Both courts were open by the summer of 1873.

Although in May 1872 the painter John Millais wrote to Cole to advise that 'Show rooms shd [sic] be made not to assert themselves', the Architectural Courts followed the precedent set by the Museum's other public spaces. There was decoration, and lots of it. The high walls were distempered in olive-green and purple-red, and the columns of the central passage were finished in white, chocolate and gilt, with the ceiling formed by girders painted in blue and white. 'Opus Criminale' (a type of mosaic made offsite by female convicts) washed in geometric splendour across the floors.

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