Recollections of Victor Percival
Former Senior Research Assistant and Officer-in-Charge of Apsley House
Right time, right place
I joined the museum in 1936, straight from school. Three of us came at the time from Battersea Central school: myself, Jim Strand (who was later in charge of the slide library) and Len Joyce (who became senior research assistant in the Sculpture Department). I was hoping to be a county cricketer, but my father said no. He said: 'It's too precarious a way of making a living. All you'll be doing is bowling to the professionals in the nets. You're not good enough to make a professional cricketer'. So that ended that. Then the school said to me 'there's a V&A job that might suit you, go and have an interview'. I did, and I stayed.
My first day at the V&A was awesome. I didn't really know what I was doing, or who I was talking to. I didn't know how strong keepers were. It seemed to me I might not want to stay, but the place grew on me very quickly.
I started in the Department of Woodwork. Ralph Edwards was my keeper - with John Roberts and Willy Thorpe. They were our three curators. I was in a very humble position. Museum assistant is what it was called in more recent times, but then the title was 'boy attendant'. You knew where you stood. Who was ever going to take any notice of a boy attendant? But it was a job I enjoyed, more and more each day. There were two other assistants above me, and above us the senior museum assistant, who ruled the roost.
The keepers seemed very grand, almost holy. You almost had to have a chit to go and speak to them, Ralph Edwards in particular. Willy Thorpe was under his thumb. Ralph was always shouting at him: 'What are you doing now? I asked you to do so-and-so…'
Not all departments were like that. The best was next door, Metalwork. Basil Robinson was one of the assistant keepers. He was a very nice man, an absolute gentleman. Always had a word to say if he passed in the corridor, almost as if he was in your department and not in the one next door.
When war was declared, I joined the services straight away, because I was already in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. I trained as a telegraphist and then went to sea, spending two years on the mine-sweepers. I went before a commission board and became a sub-lieutenant, serving on anti-submarine and convoy escort vessels, as well as landing craft. I was promoted to lieutenant in 1944 and specialised in communications. In 1945 I joined the staff communications officer, and was then staff communications officer to the flag officer, Western Germany. I was demobilised in June 1946 and went back to the V&A.
I was only a teenager when I started at the V&A, and wasn't all that much older after the war, but I had experienced quite a lot. I came back to an offer of another job, but decided to stay at the V&A, even though it wasn't paying very much. The atmosphere at the museum had changed. The keepers had become a bit more amenable. There was more camaraderie, and they talked to you more politely. And as I was promoted to senior museum assistant and then research assistant, I felt better.
Picking up the pieces
After the war, I went back to the Woodwork Department. However, my life soon changed, because I got involved with temporary exhibitions. There had been a show in connection with the Olympic Games. It was just ending and the space was needed urgently. Ralph Edwards was there tapping his foot. So the director said: 'You're not doing anything special, would you like to lend a hand clearing up the exhibition?' And I did. Then Ashton sent for me and said: 'I've been watching your progress and there's a job coming up that I think might suit you. Be absolutely frank about it. It's exhibitions. They're coming right, left and centre, and I'd like somebody I can rely on to be responsible for receiving the objects, inspecting them and so on'. I said yes, and from then on I was there to help with every show. I did about 60 in the end, over my whole career.
I greeted the people who brought the objects in, signed for them, entered them in a register and arranged for any conservation work that needed doing. That was the sort of practical work I did. On the academic side, a keeper would always be attached to each exhibition. I would lay out the exhibits and then he or the director would say 'this would look nice here', or 'that thing over there, you can't leave it there, it's got to be more prominent'. That was the way the shows were arranged - by us. Later on, exhibition designers came in, but they didn't make a lot of difference to my work.
In 1952 Apsley House came up on the horizon for me. This was the Duke of Wellington's mansion at Hyde Park Corner, which was given to the government to defray death duties. It was taken over by the V&A and opened to the public. [the management of Apsley House was transferred to English Heritage on 1 April 2004]. The director sent for me again and said: 'Would you care to take it on?'. I was responsible for most of the work involved in getting it going as an efficient part of the V&A, and after that for its day-to-day administration. I wrote the document for the Cabinet accepting the house and made a brief list of the objects. Then I took them round to the departments so the curators could do full scholarly descriptions. I tried to get two objects a month catalogued by each department. In 1966 I was promoted to senior research assistant and officer-in-charge of Apsley House.
I became a specialist on the Duke of Wellington, writing guidebooks to the house, giving radio talks and television interviews and supervising many banquets and events. I think that when I was doing the Apsley House work and the exhibitions, it rated a bit more seniority. I always felt a little disappointed that I wasn' t made up to assistant keeper.
Victor Percival, former Senior Research Assistant and Officer-in-Charge of Apsley House. Recounted to Anthony Burton in 2004.