History of the Paintings Collection

Portrait of John Sheepshanks at his residence, New Bond Street, Mulready, 1832-1834, oil on panel. Museum no. FA.142[O], © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portrait of John Sheepshanks at his residence, New Bond Street, Mulready, 1832-1834, oil on panel. Museum no. FA.142[O], © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The paintings collection was an original part of the Museum of Ornamental Art, later re-named the Victoria and Albert Museum, which opened at South Kensington in June 1857. From the outset, the link between the fine and applied arts was essential to the V&A’s mission.

John Sheepshanks Gift

In that year John Sheepshanks offered the Museum his collection of around 500 modern British oil paintings, watercolours and drawings to found a 'National Gallery of British Art' .

His gift included major works by Turner and Constable, and substantial groups of pictures by a number of important Victorian artists. He preferred the 'open and airy situation' of South Kensington to the polluted atmosphere of central London, and believed in the importance of making art accessible to the public. The first of his galleries opened in 1857 and is the earliest surviving part of the V&A. The building was extended with further top-lit galleries in 1858-65.

Sheepshanks made his gift ‘in the hope that other proprietors of pictures and other works of art may be induced to further the same objects’. The new museum received the seal of royal approval in 1865 when Queen Victoria agreed to lend the Raphael cartoons, the greatest cycle of Italian Renaissance pictures in England. These public-spirited gestures encouraged a series of bequests and gifts, which form the core of the Museum’s collection of pictures.

Read more about the John Sheepshank Collection

Further gifts and bequests

  • Richard Ellison’s collection of 100 British watercolours was given by his widow in 1860 and 1873 ‘to promote the foundation of the National Collection of Water Colour Paintings’.
  • Over 500 British and European oil paintings, watercolours and miniatures and 3000 drawings and prints were bequeathed in 1868-9 by the clergymen Chauncey Hare Townshend and Alexander Dyce.
  • 86 early watercolours were given by the print dealer William Smith in 1871.
  • John Forster, the editor and first biographer of Charles Dickens, bequeathed further paintings and numerous drawings and sketches in 1876.
  • John Jones donated over 260 paintings and miniatures in 1882, including fine French paintings by Boucher and his contemporaries, and miniatures by Oliver and Hilliard.
  • Isabel Constable, the last surviving daughter of the painter, gave the residual contents of her father’s studio, comprising 395 oil paintings and sketches, drawings, watercolours and sketchbooks in 1888. This gift made the V&A the principal collection of Constable’s work. Other smaller bequests of paintings and drawings include those of Henry Spencer Ashbee and Emily Dalton in 1900.
  • The last great gift of pictures was the collection of over 140 oil paintings and watercolours, plus 1000 drawings and prints, bequeathed in 1901 by the Anglo-Greek stockbroker Constantine Alexander Ionides.
    He was a friend and patron of the painters D.G. Rossetti, Alphonse Legros and G.F. Watts, and his collection included old masters such as Botticelli and Tintoretto, as well as major works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Delacroix, Millet, Daumier and Degas.

The foundation collections

Each of the core gifts and bequests is a distinct and recognisable collection. As a group they clearly reveal the enthusiasms of the urban middle classes who had an interest in the arts and a concern to contribute to the public good.

Further collecting by the V&A

Since 1857 the V&A has purchased a wide variety of painted objects including:

  • crucifixes
  • altarpieces
  • banners
  • frescoes and fragments of painted interiors
  • manuscript cuttings and portrait miniatures
  • coffers, trays, decorative fragments
  • a panorama
  • easel paintings, watercolours and drawings

The collection aims to show the full range of painting and its applications in particular. The V&A has always held watercolours to be of equal status with oil paintings, and prized portrait miniatures as an integral part of the tradition of watercolour painting.

The V&A never sought to compete with the National Gallery as a collector of old master paintings and gradually ceased to acquire British oil paintings following the foundation of the Tate Gallery in 1897. It retains the national collection.

Explore paintings in Search the Collections

A gift in your will

You may not have thought of including a gift to a museum in your will, but the V&A is a charity and legacies form an important source of funding for our work. It is not just the great collectors and the wealthy who leave legacies to the V&A. Legacies of all sizes, large and small, make a real difference to what we can do and your support can help ensure that future generations enjoy the V&A as much as you have.

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