Decorative sculpture on the exterior of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Aston Webb's changing designs for the southern façade of the V&A.

Aston Webb's changing designs for the southern façade of the V&A.

Although the northern portion of the twelve acres of land reserved for the Museum had been built over by the late 1860s, the long frontage to Cromwell Road remained as a garden littered with wooden huts and other temporary buildings, including the ramshackle and rambling Brompton Park House (once the home of Queen Anne's gardener, Henry Wise), which were used as offices, stores, and the photographers' studio, and there remained also a derelict fragment of the Brompton Boilers. To the passerby, therefore, by 1890 the whole area appeared unimpressive and uninviting.

Since 1860, the Museum's successive architects, Captain Francis Fowke, and Major-General Henry Scott, had both produced designs for imposing extensions, but the government had provided no funds for a new building to relieve pressure on what had rapidly become the extremely overcrowded and cramped South Kensington Museum.

In 1891, however, a competition was at last held for the completion of the Museum, and this was won by (Sir) Aston Webb, R.A. The prominent feature of the southern elevation of his design was a recessed centre, with a massive tower approximately over the site of the present shop in Room 49. Webb also suggested a certain number of sculptured figures along the skyline. The tower, criticised as expensive and unnecessary, was soon abandoned, and economic reasons also forced the government almost immediately to shelve the entire building project until 1899.

By that year, Aston Webb had replanned the building and, bringing the frontage southwards right on to Cromwell Road, had decided to surmount it by a small dome. During 1899, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone (in a different place from where it may now be seen to the left of the main doors), and gave the Museum its present name.

The lengthy period between the appointment of Aston Webb as the new building's architect in 1891and its completion in 1909 gave him plenty of time to modify his ideas about what to do with the important southern façade. In the image at the top of this article, the design on the left shows his initial plan for a massive tower. The design in the centre dates to 1899 and shows that by this time he had decided to surmount façade with a small dome. The design on the right was completed in 1904. With a larger dome and arched doorway, it is closest to the finished building. 

In spite of many uncertainties and frequent changes of decisions, which made life difficult for Aston Webb, building progressed rapidly, so that in January 1905 the architect (who had yet again changed his dome) was able to raise with the Office of Works the question of the external decorative sculpture.

Queen Victoria, with St. George on the left and St. Michael on the right. Alfred Drury, R.A.

Queen Victoria, with St. George on the left and St. Michael on the right. Alfred Drury, R.A.

After much 'consideration and consultation with the Director' he submitted the following scheme:

'The Central Entrance on the Cromwell Road front would have a statue of Queen Victoria supported by St. George and St. Michael over the great arch and the Prince Consort below, as the Founders of the Museum; on either side in niches the present King and Queen.

'The great archway itself would be enriched with symbolic sculpture. The large bosses in the archivolt would represent various crafts; the large spandrils would have figures representing Truth and Beauty; while the two smaller niches on either side would have statues representing Imagination and Knowledge.

'Groups on the balustrade of the Central portion would represent Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and the Crafts; with the Royal Arms in the centre.

'The niches between the windows on the First Floor I propose should be occupied by single statues of 10 English Painters, 6 Sculptors, 6 Architects, 10 Craftsmen...

'I propose that the name and date of each should be carved on the shields in the main cornice immediately over each niche.

'Knowledge' and 'Inspiration' figures, on either side of the main entrance. Alfred Drury, R.A.

'Knowledge' and 'Inspiration' figures, on either side of the main entrance. Alfred Drury, R.A.

'The Painters would occupy the central curtains of the Cromwell Road front, while the Sculptors would have the West and the Architects the East curtains of this front, the Craftsmen occupying the whole of the Exhibition Road front.

'The whole edifice I suggest to be crowned by a gilt bronze winged figure of Fame.

'I propose with the sanction of the Board [of Works] to obtain estimates from sculptors of eminence for the Sculpture on or around the Principal Entrance and to invite promising young sculptors to undertake the range of niches at the sum set down for them in the estimate'.

Officials of the Office of Works, Sir John Taylor, consulting architect, and Sir Schomberg McDonnell, the Permanent Secretary, thought the proposal 'satisfactory', and Sir Schomberg advised the First Commissioner that Edward VII ought to be consulted. The First Commissioner told McDonnell that although it was easy to criticise any list, he found Webb's a good one that could be submitted to the King without alteration. However, a week later McDonnell recorded that 'the King strongly objects to the treatment on the panels East and West of the Entrance. H.M. wants the outside to be as plain as possible, and the money so saved to be spent on decorating the interior. I have asked Sir A. Webb to call and discuss matters on Thursday ...'

The Office of Works, the Museum, and the architect were all decidedly not in sympathy with the King, who withdrew his objection to Webb's decorative scheme, which was approved on 22 February.
Swiftly Webb made enquiries among sculptors: W. S. Frith agreed to execute all the purely architectural carving for £8,991.11 shillings; Alfred Drury, A.R.A. was willing to carve the figures of the Prince Consort (£700), Queen Victoria (£600), St. Michael and St. George (£500), Imagination and Knowledge (£600) and 9 panels in the entrance arch (£1,800), making a total of £4,200. Altogether Aston Webb intended to spend £21,876.11s. Od., slightly over the sum which had been approved in the estimate.

Figures of painters on the eastern portion of the Cromwell Road façade

Figures of painters on the eastern portion of the Cromwell Road façade. From left to right: Lord Leighton by Sydney Boyes, G. F. Watts by R. Goulden, John Constable by Vincent Hill, Sir J. E. Millais by J. A. Stevenson, Building News, 22 February 1907.

Professor Edouard Lanteri of the Royal College of Art told Webb that he was prepared, for £600, to undertake four figures on the facade, 'placing each under a separate advanced student, while taking the general control himself'. Several other sculptors agreed to carve two figures each 7ft. 6in. high, for £150 the pair, and as there were to be 34 statues, Webb asked for £5,100 to pay for them. At that time Webb had not found sculptors for the two spandrils (£1,500), 15 seated figures below the domes (£1,500), Fame on the top of the central dome (£150), and the statues of King Edward and Queen Alexandra (£400). The various contracts were signed during the early summer of 1905, the only one to be revised was that with Lanteri.

He had found four students - Vincent Hill, Sidney Boyes, Reginald Goulden and J. A. Stevenson - but because they would be doing the actual carving it was established, with Treasury approval, that Lanteri's fee would be £80, the remaining £520 was to be divided among the students, after expenses had been deducted. The contracts made it dear that the figures along the facade were to be carved in situ. Selected Portland stone had been built in where necessary, and coursed with the rest of the masonry. Each sculptor was asked to submit a small model, of one quarter real size, placed within a model of its niche. When this has been approved, they had then to model a full-size version in plaster to be hoisted into position in order that its effect could be judged. Very little time was allowed; the smaller model had to be ready within one month of the artist signing the contract, and two months later the larger model had to be finished.

'As soon as the full size is approved, the carving on the building is to be commenced and to be completed within 3 months of that date. The Sculptor will be asked to complete the stonework of the niche when the figure is finished and to leave it all complete and perfect for the agreed sum'. By the end of 1905 most of the facade figures of artists and craftsmen were finished.

Figure of Architecture by students of the Royal College of Art under the supervision of Professor Lanteri.

Figure of Architecture by students of the Royal College of Art under the supervision of Professor Lanteri.

Almost at once, during January 1906, Webb asked Lanteri if he would undertake three more figures on the central dome for another £600. Lanteri agreed to supervise for a fee of £140, the remaining £460 to be allocated in the following way - carving £325; casting £48; armatures etc. £17 and 'payments for assistance to former students of the Royal College of Art £70'. 

When asked for sanction, the Board of Education had no objection, as it was understood that Lanteri would be working 'out of College hours for which he receives his salary.'

However, the Office of Works officials professed to be surprised and to know nothing of this additional sculpture. Aston Webb had to remind them that he already had approval, but that he had 'postponed making any recommendation until it was ascertained whether the Board of Education would approve of the employment of Professor Lanteri & finding that they do I beg to recommend him for the work. It would have the advantage of giving the Students of the School work & interest in the building.'

When the scaffolding in the region of the Main Entrance was removed, the carving of the spandrils was revealed.

Figure of Beauty, relief in the eastern spandril over the main entrance. Sir George Frampton, R.A.

Figure of Beauty, relief in the eastern spandril over the main entrance. Sir George Frampton, R.A.

This was the work of (Sir) George Frampton, R.A. Webb had suggested Frampton to the Office of Works in May 1905 as the 'best suited', and a sculptor 'specially endowed with an architectural feeling'.

Webb went on to say that Frampton was willing to model and carve these spandrils for £1,000 apiece - 'They include figures of heroic size and great importance'. Among the carvings now completed were the Royal Arms by W. S. Frith, high above the Main Entrance, monograms in the parapet, and the artists' dates in cartouthes beneath the main cornice of the facade, all by W. S. Frith. These perhaps were a waste of time and labour for, being some seventy feet above the ground, they are not easily read, nor would many suspect they were there.

Figure of Queen Alexandra, Sir John Goscombe, R.A.

Figure of Queen Alexandra, Sir John Goscombe, R.A.

There now remained only two figures to be considered. Webb notified the First Commissioner of Works in May 1906 that he still required statues of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. He nominated (Sir) Goscombe John, R.A. for the work, as he had not yet done anything for the building and was very willing to carve the figures for 'the low price named', £200 each. 'I fear,' sighed the First Commissioner to his Permanent Secretary, 'that we can only approve'. Sir Schomberg McDonnell agreed with an equally unenthusiastic, 'I suppose so.'

The last phase was reached in December 1906 and concerned the nine panels in the arch of the Main Entrance. Webb's original idea had been for figures holding scrolls, on which would be carved the names of various crafts. But now that his scheme of sculptured decoration had matured, Webb thought his original suggestion did not seem worthy of the prominent position. Instead he proposed a passage in Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses, in letters of gold, - 'The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose' - and obtained Alfred Drury's approval.

The nine panels which Drury carved show a woman, accompanied by one or more children, together with an attribute (except for two of them), which are, from west to east, 1. a mirror, 2. an apple tree, 3. books, 4. (none), 5. an Ionic capital, 6. (none), 7. an oak tree, 8. a statue of Venus, 9. a rising sun.

The Imperial Crown above the main entrance.

The Imperial Crown above the main entrance, surmounted by 'Fame'.

None of the figures planned for the bases of the various domes was executed, nor was Lanteri's figure of Fame either cast in bronze or gilded. The final touch to the exterior of the Museum was made on 11 October 1908 when the head of Fame was ceremoniously placed in position, on the summit of what by then Webb had made into an open Imperial Crown 'to mark the character as a great national building.'

Thus was completed the extention to the Museum, so eagerly awaited and which the writer M. H. Spielmann (for years a bitter critic of the administration), in a spirit of surprising generosity, described as displaying 'in fullest measure the marvellous ability and ingenuity of planning, which in Sir Aston Webb amounts almost to positive genius.'

John Physik, 1978.
Published in the V&A Masterpieces series.
Revised 2007.

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