Lunette paintings in the National Competition Gallery
The long gallery now known as Rooms 100 and 101 was once the National Competition Gallery, where works by art students from government-run schools across Britain were annually judged and exhibited. A photograph from the 1870s shows an examination taking place. The bays around the gallery walls were crowned by 20 large, semicircular paintings illustrating the principles and practices of art education with imagery evoking the highest achievements from the history of art. The young talent of British art and design was measured against examples set by Giotto, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.
The project to commission a decorative scheme of paintings for the gallery was initiated in 1863 as this quarter of the Museum was being planned and built. Leading the project was Richard Redgrave, the South Kensington Museum’s Art Superintendent, who had devised the National Course of Art Instruction, the curriculum taught in all regional art schools. Himself a painter, Redgrave designed at least two of the lunettes. Ultimately, the entire project took eleven years and eighteen artists to complete. As in other decorative schemes around the Museum, art students were employed to help; it was an educative project in execution as well as reception.
On the outbreak of the Second World War the paintings were removed and placed in storage. Thanks to the generosity of The Pilgrim Trust, with further support from The Worshipful Company of Grocers, they have now been conserved and re-installed in their original locations.
Art education at South Kensington
From its foundation the mission of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) was to raise standards of design among British manufacturers. The Department of Science and Art, which ran the Museum, was also in charge of art education and controlled art schools around the country, including the National Art Training School at the Museum itself.
The Department brought a similar reforming zeal to this area of responsibility and from 1852 until the end of the century all aspiring artists and designers in these schools were taught from a single course for drawing, painting, sculpting and industrial design.
This National Course of Art Instruction aimed to impart a thorough grounding through the strict observance of first principles. The 22-part syllabus was organized in four broad sections: drawing, painting, modelling and design.
Drawing, traditionally considered the bedrock of art and design practice, was taught in ten stages which the student would follow in a sequence of logical steps from the simple to the complex, copying patterns, objects and examples of ornament, first from the flat and then from the round. Redgrave saw drawing not as an elevated aesthetic practice, but as a fundamental ‘language’ of communication, useable by anyone. Geometry, measurement, perspective, outline and shade made up a universal, standard ‘grammar’, to be learned before students applied it to composition or design.
The subjects of the lunette paintings were envisioned as illustrations of Redgrave’s curriculum. The first painting, Model Drawing, was executed in 1863 by Godfrey Sykes, who was employed at the Museum and designed much of its decoration. It illustrates stage 3 of the curriculum, ‘ornament outlined from the round’. The objects being sketched – the sphere, disc, cube, cone, hoop and vase-shape – represent ‘type solids’ which were a vital part of basic art education. Students would draw these basic shapes as a way of learning how to represent three-dimensional forms, before progressing to more complex subjects such as the human figure. Examples of these models were even awarded as prizes to the regional art schools whose students excelled at the curriculum and won gold, silver and bronze medals at the National Competition.
The last lunette to be painted, in 1874, was designed by Redgrave himself. Entitled Freehand Drawing, it idealises the student’s first step beyond stage 1 of the curriculum (schooling in the use of drawing instruments such as rulers and compasses) to freehand outlines. Freehand Drawing illustrates the famous legend about the 14th-century painter Giotto, who proved his unsurpassed skill to Pope Benedict IX by sending him nothing but a freehand drawing of a perfectly circular ‘O’.
The close relationship of the curriculum to manufacture is illustrated by the lunette painting Allegory with Putti: Design and Manufacture. Here an Italianate putto on the left, holding a pencil or chalk, is matched by another on the right displaying ornamental tableware, illustrating the beginning and the end of the design process.
Prize-giving ceremonies were depicted in two elongated lunettes, commissioned in 1869 when the gallery was extended. Val Prinsep’s painting The Distribution of Art Prizes even includes a portrait of the Museum’s first director Henry Cole, third from the right, in what is otherwise an Italian Renaissance setting – symbolic of the school’s ambitions.
The St. John’s Wood Clique and art historical allusions
After the designer of the first lunette, Godfrey Sykes, died in 1866 the project was taken over by a group of painters known as the St John’s Wood Clique (after the area of north London where they lived). These artists specialised in historical genre painting and their subjects typically represented scenes from British history, often with a sentimental or anecdotal narrative; one of their most celebrated works, painted in the following decade, was William Frederick Yeames’ Civil War scene And When Did You Last See Your Father (1878, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).
The St John’s Wood Clique brought their own style to the project, and Sykes’s original idea of representing Redgrave’s curriculum in a programmatic and allegorical way was abandoned in favour of a freer, more anecdotal approach.
Most of their lunette paintings loosely illustrate stages of the National Course of Art Instruction using historical references: each artistic practice is placed in an historical context characteristic of its highest point of achievement. Some depicted a celebrated artist at work. David Wilkie Wynfield’s Drawing from Still Life shows a 17th-century Flemish interior, with the still-life painter Frans Snyders (1579-1657) outlining an exuberant display of fruit and game of the kind for which he is best known. Modelling from Life by Eyre Crowe, an honorary member of the St John’s Wood Clique, depicts Michelangelo at work on a sculpture while young students look on.
In Study of Anatomy painted by Frank W. Moody, a teacher at South Kensington, students watch while an anatomist dissects a corpse. On the left, a student compares the arm of the cadaver with that of a human skeleton. Moody’s composition alludes to Rembrandt’s famous picture The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague), in which the doctor manipulates the exposed tendons of the arm like puppet-strings.
The art-historical allusions in the lunettes reflect the aspirations of the South Kensington Museum and its nationwide art schools, that British artists and designers might equal their great continental predecessors. This aspiration is manifest in the Museum’s other decorative schemes, from the names ‘Phidias / Raphael / Titian / Rembrandt / Turner’ in the Ceramic Staircase (between Room 11 and Room 70a) to the inclusion of the 19th-century painter William Mulready beside Leonardo and Dürer in the ‘Kensington Valhalla’ mosaics.
Conservation and re-installation
The National Competition Gallery was opened in 1865. At this time the gallery was also used for the display of framed watercolours, which were concealed behind curtains during the annual competition.
By the late 1880s, however, the display of works by art students was held elsewhere in the Museum, and the National Competition ceased after the outbreak of the First World War. The lunettes themselves, having lost any connection to the gallery contents, were taken down in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. They were to remain in store for over 70 years.
Their absence reflected a widespread shift of taste during the post-war years away from the building’s elaborate Victorian decoration, which was often covered up in favour of neutral interiors that didn’t impose on the aesthetic autonomy of the exhibits.
However, it is now the V&A’s policy to reinstate the Museum’s original decoration where possible.
Between 2009 and 2010 the lunettes were cleaned and conserved. Because they were painted over a considerable period of time by several artists, some of whom were inexperienced students, they presented various challenges to the conservators. The main issue was a lack of consistency in technique. Some lunettes were executed with thick layers of paint and strong brush strokes, while others were painted very thinly, with areas of the canvas left to show through as a base colour.Accumulations of surface dirt had obscured the real colours of the paintings, which have now been revealed. The reinstallation of the lunette paintings has brought one of the Museum’s original decorative schemes back to life, and celebrates the period in which it was the centre of national art education.