Architectural History of the V&A 1899 - 1909

Webb completes the new building

Official programme for the laying of the Foundation Stone of The Victoria & Albert Museum,  1899. Museum no. E.1458-1984 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Official programme for the laying of the Foundation Stone of The Victoria & Albert Museum,  1899. Museum no. E.1458-1984 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In May 1899, in what was to be her last public ceremony, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for Aston Webb's new scheme. The occasion also marked the changing of the Museum's name to the 'Victoria and Albert Museum' (the queen had advocated the 'Albert Museum', but changed her mind at the request of the Duke of Devonshire). This stone-laying ceremony had been timed purely to fit in with the queen's schedule and in fact the building work only began in February 1900.

As the building slowly grew, its sheer scale became apparent. In its final form, the Museum's new Cromwell Road frontage was 219 metres long, and the one on Exhibition Road, 84 metres long. The galleries on the perimeter of the site combined with the long gallery running behind the front of the building were over one mile in length. In the first written guide to the Museum, Webb explained that the key benefit of his plan was that it enabled the visitor to orientate themselves inside the building and get a quick feel for the displays in each room.

Main doorway. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Main doorway. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A grand façade

Although changing fashions meant that the new scheme deliberately rejected Cole's belief in complex interior decoration, the building's stone frontage used a wealth of sculptural ornament to proclaim the importance of the Museum. Its climax was a statue of Queen Victoria in place of honour over the great arch of the main doorway, with Prince Albert below and Edward VII (who came to the throne in 1901) and Queen Alexandra in niches to either side of the entrance.

The 19th century fondness for  displays of 'appropriate taste' was in full evidence in a sequence of single statues spaced out along the frontage. These represented ten English painters, ten English craftsmen, six English sculptors, and six English architects. One of the last things to be completed was the inscription round the main door arch, which was adapted from Sir Joshua Reynolds: 'The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose'.

Opening the new building

As the building neared completion, a 'Committee of Re-arrangement' looked at the question of how all the empty new galleries and courts should be filled. It was a chance to restate the Museum's purpose, which over the years had become increasingly uncertain. The Committee concluded that its chief aim should again be the improvement of the artistic quality of British design and production.

West Central Court as newly laid out, 1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

West Central Court as newly laid out, 1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The work of the Committee also uncovered some worrying faults in the as yet still unopened building. There was too much gallery space in the form of courts, Webb's great North-West or Octagon Court was already a slightly redundant space, the Library blocked the connection between the eastern and western sections at the back of the Museum, and there was no direct communication between the eastern and western block of galleries on the first floor of the south front. According to the The Times, the problems were 'those of the department which failed to form a clear idea at the outset of what the functions and organisation of the Museum were to be and to instruct their architect accordingly'.

The Museum was also criticised for being too plainly decorated. Claude Phillips, Keeper of the Wallace Collection and the art critic of the Daily Telegraph, declared: 'The general impression [...] is that of some immense, finely-appointed modern hospital for the analysis and dissection of applied art rather than that of a temple of the higher delight.

Despite this negativity in some quarters, the state opening of the finished Museum on 26 June 1909 (over 50 years since work had started on the first buildings on the site) revealed the new complex to be an astonishing achievement.

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