Architectural History of the V&A 1873 - 1899

The great design competition

In 1870 the Treasury had announced that the erection and maintenance of all public buildings would now come under the direct control of the Office of Works. This decision stemmed from Acton Smee Ayrton, the newly appointed First Commissioner of Works. He was a man who prided himself on knowing nothing about art but saw it as his duty to ensure that 'people who had fancies did not indulge them at the public expense'.

South Kensington Museum, buildings as proposed, 1874. Museum no. E.1357 - 1979 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

South Kensington Museum, buildings as proposed, 1874. Museum no. E.1357 - 1979 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Whitehall blocks new building work

When Henry Cole retired in April 1873, the new director, Philip Cunliffe Owen, was faced with what looked like an irreversible shift in bureaucratic power. He therefore focused on trying to increase the amount of new building work the government would sanction. It took three years to get an agreement for another new building - the Art Library (now the National Art Library). Begun in the summer of 1876, it was a two-storey block of library rooms and exhibition space that replaced the link building of 1857 and closed the southern side of the quadrangle. There were also two new display courts extending southwards at either end of the main block.

The Art Library was the last building to be achieved in accordance with the Fowke/Scott plan. The Treasury and Office of Works blocked all attempts to complete the scheme and in 1882 (the year Henry Cole died) they decided that Scott and his department should go. The Museum authorities fought back, arguing that the surroundings and exteriors of the buildings were in such a bad state that something had to be done to improve them. The stagnation of his career and unpleasant personal criticisms took their toll on Scott, who died in April 1883.

The competition for a new design

Sketch of the Old Drive, 1891.

Sketch of the Old Drive, 1891.

The Treasury and the Office of Works remained unmoved by more pleas for new space, until they suddenly relented in 1890. All existing architectural plans for the Museum were to be abandoned and arrangements made for an architectural competition to produce a new design.

Although the eight selected architects had a hard task in bringing coherence to a site full of awkward gaps and still featuring decaying houses left over from the Brompton Park era, the competition did offer a rare opportunity to create a truly huge frontage in what was fast becoming one of the capital's most prestigious locations.

The brief for the new building was perfunctory, with the only real aesthetic requirement being that the external façades should be executed in 'red brickwork with stone dressings, red brickwork with terracotta dressings, or stone only'. The judging panel was headed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of the recently completed Natural History Museum.

It awarded marks for elements such as elevation, light, wall space, cost and (given the most emphasis) 'Excellence of Plan'. In July 1891, the panel announced the winner as Aston Webb - a relatively young architect who had just been chosen to redesign the Birmingham Law Courts (and who would later design the façade of Buckingham Palace).

The principal merit of Webb's plan in the eyes of the judges was the free flow of space from one huge court into another, and Waterhouse was no doubt pleased by the fact Webb's 'rich variety of Romanesque' was deliberately intended to fit well with the outline of his own brand new museum building. But despite the fact everyone was keen to get started, bureaucratic indecision and budgetary problems meant that Webb's plan was to become something of a political football for nearly a decade.

Sir Aston Webb, photographed by Frederick Hollyer, about 1890. Museum no. 7753-1938 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sir Aston Webb, photographed by Frederick Hollyer, about 1890. Museum no. 7753-1938 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Breaking the deadlock

The basic problem was that during the 1890s the Department of Science and Art (the body that ran the Museum) had become more focused on its main sphere of responsibility: the promotion of technical education. This meant the bureaucrats at South Kensington were increasingly unsympathetic to the arts in general and the plight of the Museum in particular. Instead, they put most of their energies into endeavours such as the setting up of a national system of scientific education and the Royal College of Science (later to become Imperial College).

A solution came in 1898, when it was confirmed that a new Board of Education would soon amalgamate the Department of Science and Art and the Education Department into a single body. The bureaucrats would move out of South Kensington, leaving the site free for the use of the Museum alone. In February of the following year, it was announced that all buildings on the east side of Exhibition Road (with the exception of the Royal College of Science) were to be devoted to the art collections and that a separate building to accommodate all activities related to science was to be erected on the western side.

Design for the South Kensington Museum, by Aston Webb, 1891.

Design for the South Kensington Museum, by Aston Webb, 1891.

The plans for the Museum, which Aston Webb had had ample time to revise, now showed the site in virtually its final form. The large central tower had gone, to be replaced by three-storey octagon surmounted by a small cupola; a long gallery had been inserted behind the Cromwell Road façade, extending the entire length of the building; and on the west, a large square court (eventually octagonal) balanced the Architectural Courts on the east.

 

 

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