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The Victoria and Albert Museum: An Ilustrated Chronology

The Victoria and Albert Museum: An Illustrated Chronology

Richard Dunn and Anthony Burton
Fig.17. Henry Cole & Richard Redgrave

Henry Cole (1808–1882) and Richard Redgrave (1804–1888) were central to the foundation of the Museum. Cole was appointed head of the new Department of Practical Art in 1852; Redgrave, an artist in his own right (see cat. 52), became Superintendent for Art. When the Department of Practical Art became the Department of Science and Art in 1853, Cole became its head and held that post until his retirement in 1873.

Marlborough House was the first home of the Department of Practical Art, which opened a Museum of Manufactures there in 1852. The museum’s educational emphasis was clear, with two libraries (one marked “Public Library”) and study rooms designated for “Casts Used as Examples in Drawing Schools,” “Drawing Room for Students,” “Special Class Artistic Anatomy Modeling,” and “Special Classes of Architectural Details & Practical Construction.” Fig.21. The South Kensington Museum, General ViewMuseum rooms were demarcated by material, with rooms given over to fabrics, metals, enamels, furniture, paper hangings, pottery, works in marble, and casts. Marlborough House also briefly featured the infamous display called on this plan “Decorations on False Principles.”

The museum at Marlborough House included contemporary manufactures, as well as objects purchased from collectors such asFig.22. The educational Museum Ralph Bernal and Jules Soulages. This view, painted in 1856–57, indicates the range of material in the Museum of Ornamental Art (its name since 1853). It also shows that a materials-based arrangement was not rigorously followed. Rather, the room has the feel of an antiquarian interior.

Part of the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851 had gone toward the purchase of land in Brompton where, in 1855, work began on a prefabricated iron structure to house a museum. The buildings were soon christened the “Brompton Boilers,” because they looked like steam boilers lying side by side. They opened on 22 June 1857 as the South Kensington Museum (fig. 21).

Inside, the visitor was presented with a more varied collection than seen previously at Marlborough House. In addition to the art and architectureFig.20. Marlborough House gallery collections, there were displays of Patented Inventions, Products of the Animal Kingdom (see cat. 18), and an Educational Museum (fig. 22). Walking through the latter, the visitor came to the art collections (fig. 23), visible through the doorway in figure 22, where one can see part of the cast of Michelangelo’s David (with fig leaf attached; see cat. 26). The Art Museum contained many notable objects, including the pilasters and lunettes copied from Raphael’s Loggia in the Vatican, a mirror from the Bernal collection, and a Flemish altarpiece previously Fig.23. Interior of Art Museumshown in Marlborough House (fig. 20).

In 1862 two new courts were opened to house the rapidly expanding collection. The interior of the South CourtFig.25. The South Court combined decorated ironwork with murals, notably the cycle known as the “Kensington Valhalla” (see cats. 51 and 52). By 1886 two frescoes commissioned by Henry Cole from Frederic, Lord Leighton—The Industrial Arts of War and The Industrial Arts of Peace (subjects conceived by the late Prince Consort)—enhanced this scheme. Figure 25 shows the “Valhalla” on the left, and Leighton’s “Peace” fresco at the back. The South Court was initially used for an exhibition of works of art on loan to the Fig.26. The North CourtMuseum and served as a gallery for loans for the next forty-five years.

The North Court (fig. 26) contained ceramics as well as the copiesFig.27. The Loan Collection of the lunettes from Raphael’s Loggia (see fig. 81). The opening of these courts also allowed for a return to materials-based systematic ordering; the 1865 plan shows each case in the South Court labeled by material. Despite the creation of these new galleries, however, the Museum remained short of space and had a crowded appearance.

Fig.29. Facade of Lecture Theatre

In 1860, Francis Fowke (the architect respon sible for many of the South Kensington buildings) proposed an ambitious expansion plan. This included a range of buildings centered on a block incorporating a lecture theater and refreshment rooms, completed in 1869 (fig. 29). This served as the main entrance of the Museum until the opening of the Aston Webb building in 1909.
Cole’s intention was that South Kensington should attract the widestFig.28. "The Sunday Question" possible audience. In particular, following the installation of gas jets, he hoped that “the evening opening of Public Museums may furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace.” Although it is not certain what the breakdown of the Museum’s audience was at this time, contemporary illustrations (fig. 28) give the impression that there were visitors of all classes. Also illustrated in the cartoon is the Palissy dish (cat. 71), purchased as part of the Soulages collection.

From its beginnings, the Museum displayed casts as part of its educational role (see figs. 6, 18, 52). The 1860s and 1870s witnessed an ambitious program of acquisitions, including casts of the huge Portico de la Gloria from Santiago de Compostela (see cat. 25) and of Trajan’s Column. By the mid-1860s this expanding collection was mostly on display in the North Court (see fig. 26), but space was so tight that the Portico de la Gloria had to be shown in sections. In 1873, therefore, the Architectural Courts, designed by General Henry Scott, were opened. The Builder remarked that “the height of the apartments, the magnitude of many of the objects . . . and the beauty of others, all concur to produce a lasting effect.” Casts and photographs of European works (as well as original objects) were displayed in the West Court; Indian architecture was displayed in the East Court. The theme Fig.32. Plan of the ground floor of the V&Abegun with the “Kensington Valhalla” was continued in the display around the West Court of the names of cities celebrated in the history of art. A photograph taken in 1920 shows casts of objects from Renaissance Italy, including Michelangelo’s David (with fig leaf attached; see cat. 26).

By 1905, although the Victoria and Albert Museum (as renamed in 1899)Fig.33.  Buddha from The Sphere was reorganized into five curatorial departments—ceramics, woodwork, metalwork, textiles, and sculpture—its arrangement remained confusing. One attempt to solve this problem was the provision in Museum guides of a “red line,” a suggested route that was intended to turn the chaos into an intelligible narrative.

Fig.34. Ceramics gallery

In 1890 the British government decided that the Museum’s premises should be properly expanded; the resulting competition was won by Aston Webb. Construction did not begin until 1899, however, and ten years elapsed before the opening in 1909.

One result of the new building was that much-needed space became available. Consequently, a major reorganization of the Museum was possible and in 1908 Robert Morant, secretary of the Board of Education, set up a Committee on Fig.35. The East HallRe–arrangement. The Committee considered the possibilities for display in the Museum, notably the choice between a materials-based arrangement and an aesthetic/historical presentation (placing together objects of different mediums but of the same period and style) that many European museums had adopted. The final report opted for materials-based displays, however, and this arrangement (as seen in the 1918 plan) remained for forty years. Although Fig.36. The West Hallrigidly didactic, this system of classification was in accord with contemporary studies of the decorative arts by material, important contributions to which were made by V&A curators.

The Museum received much publicity following its rearrangement and expansion, in particular concerning the acquisition of important objects. One of the most impressive of these was a twenty-foot-high bronze statue of Buddha (fig. 33). This object has been displayed in many different galleries in the Museum—even in the courtyard—and has recently goneFig.37. The entrance hall of the India Museum on long-term loan to a Buddhist temple in Birmingham, England.

The Museum’s new galleries alternated long galleries and corridors with lofty courts. The former presented rows of cases containing objects of similar appearance (fig. 34). The displays were set against plain walls, so as not to crowd exhibits. This contrasted dramatically Fig.38. The Octagon Courtwith displays created under Cole, which had elaborate settings in bold colors. The new displays were not universally applauded. The Daily Telegraph, for instance, thought that the V&A had taken a retrograde step, complaining, “For one technical student or artificer who will derive instruction . . . a thousand visitors bent on deriving pleasure . . . will be repelled and disconcerted.”

The 1909 building provided huge halls on either side of the main entrance. The East Hall (fig. 35) was devoted to European architecture and sculpture. The West Hall (fig. 36) containedFig.39. Display of English art in the Octagon Court examples of architectural woodwork, including a fifteenth-century minbar (pulpit) from a Cairo mosque and the Gwalior Gateway, made specifically for the Museum and presented by the Maharaja Scindia in 1883. An Egyptian mosque lamp (cat. 102) can be seen in a case in the foreground of figure 36.

The Museum acquired most of the collection of the East India Company’s India Museum in 1879–80 when the company’s holdings were divided between the South Kensington Museum and the British Museum. (The South Kensington Museum retained the name India Museum.) The early displays echoed the imperialistic notions that underpinned the India Museum’s formation, with weapons and other artifacts displayed as trophies. Following the opening in 1888 of the Imperial InstituteFig.41. The dining room at no.95 Piccadilly and the foundation of the Society for the Encouragement and Preservation of Indian Art around 1890—both institutions on the South Kensington site—a reappraisal of the collections took place, leading to increased emphasis on the representation of traditional life and industries. The Oriental collections remained Fig.42. The Jones collectionin these galleries (fig. 37), called the Eastern Galleries, until 1955, when, after the demolition of the Imperial Institute, they were moved to the main Museum building.

Taking advantage of the increased space in the 1909 building, the large Octagon Court became the new Loan Court (figs. 38 and 39). Loans have been important in the history of the V&A, particularly in its first eighty years, accounting, for instance, for between a quarter and a third of the displays in the 1860s and 1870s.

Subsequently, the Octagon Court has served other purposes. In 1936 it became the stage for an innovative contextual display of eighteenth-century English decorative arts, mixing for the first time objects from different departments (fig. 39).

Fig.44. Part of the Jones Collection

The gallery was hailed as a revolution in the Museum, and set the tone for the changes that were to occur after World War II. Following the success of this move away from materials-based displays, the Octagon Court had an upper gallery added in 1962; the lower space was turned into the Costume Court, which remains its purpose.

George Salting was a prolific collector in a number of areas, includingFig.45. Museum Objects Chinese and Japanese ceramics and European art. By 1874 his collection had outgrown his residence in St. James’s Street, prompting him to lend items to the South Kensington Museum. After his death in 1909, the majority of this astonishing collection passed to the V&A, where it was shown in its own galleries. Cats. 70, 75, 107, and 121 came from the Salting bequest.

The Jones collection was almost equal in size to Salting’s, although more focused in scope. After retiring, John Jones, a former tailor and army clothier, lived at No. 95 Piccadilly, where he amassed his Fig.47. South Courtcollection (fig. 41). He died in 1882 and left his collection, valued at £250,000, to the Museum. The collection was composed largely of French furniture, porcelain, miniatures, bronzes, paintings, and sculptures of the eighteenth century. Initially it was displayed in the southwest corner on the first floor of the Museum and was hailed as a major addition; an 1883 article in The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher, for instance, stated: “No wonder that the South Kensington authorities can hardly find words to express their delight, for the Sheepshanks, Dyce, Forster, and Townshend legacies fall far short in value to the Jones Collection.”

Following the rearrangement and expansion of the Museum in 1909,Fig.46. Bomb damage the Jones collection was moved to the former ceramics galleries on the first floor (fig. 42). After World War II, it moved again to the ground-floor galleries near the main entrance, where it remains (fig. 44). This photograph shows two Sèvres vases from the collection (cat. 86); these are illustrated in place at No. 95 Piccadilly a century before (fig. 41). Cats. 60, 84, and 85 also come from the Jones collection.

At the outbreak of World War II, the risk of bombing led to the decision in 1939 to evacuate the galleries (fig. 45). In order to encourage public morale, however, Fig.48. Display of sixteenth century Mannerismthe V&A reopened in 1940. Only a limited number of objects were displayed, although according to The Connoisseur these were “just sufficient to make an hour’s relaxation from our ceaseless vigilance and obsession with war concerns.” The Museum also served as a school for evacuees from Gibraltar and as a canteen for the Royal Air Force (fig. 47). The V&A did, however, suffer a bomb blast to its west end (fig. 46), after which the decision was made to leave the damage as “a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict.”

Toward the end of the war, the Museum began to consider the options for rearrangement madeFig.49. "Style in Sculpture" possible as a result of the evacuation of the galleries. It was decided to break away from a single, materials-based approach. Director Leigh Ashton chose to divide the galleries into two types: the Primary Galleries would contain displays by style, period, or nationality; the Secondary Galleries retained materials-based displays. Figure 48 shows a Primary Gallery of sixteenth-century Mannerism, containing the so-called Michelangelo Cupid (cat. 58) alongside other works from the same Fig.50. "The Destruction of the Country House"artistic context. As the architect of this shift in display philosophy, Ashton was hailed as an innovator. Indeed, Ashton took great care over the new displays, experimenting with colors in order to choose those that best complemented particular exhibits. His taste led him toward spacious galleries with walls of pale colors.

Ashton was also conscious of the V&A’s public role. Keen to promote it as an exciting place to visit, he instituted a vigorous exhibition program, producing about four exhibitions each year. Indeed, before the rearrangement could begin, the Museum was largely taken over by the Council of Design’sFig.51. "A Gothic Passion" massive 1946 exhibition, “Britain Can Make It,” whose aim was to promote postwar British industry. The more academically substantial “Style in Sculpture” of the same year (fig. 49) offered a survey of the development of style from the Romanesque to the present day, concentrating on historical context, an indication of the Museum’s change of approach. Among the exhibits displayed was the so-called Michelangelo Cupid.

Fig.52. The Casts Courts

The V&A presented the exhibition “The Destruction of the Country House” in 1974 (fig. 50), signaling the Museum’s commitment to preserve intact important country house collections in Britain. In the 1970s V&A curators were heavily involved in a campaign to avert the breakup of the Rothschild collection, for example, which included the Medici Cabinet (see cat. 77).

The need for profile-raising exhibitions remains high on the agenda. The V&A now regularly mounts major exhibitions, intended to be both popular andFig.53. The Glass Gallery of high aca-demic quality. The Pugin exhibition (fig. 51) was an important element in the reappraisal of nineteenth-century decorative arts, in which the V&A has played a major role, as well as a rare opportunity to view an extensive representation of work by the extraordinarily influential English designer A. W. N. Pugin.

As well as maintaining a program of major exhibitions, the V&A has continued to rethink and refurbish its permanent displays. Recent gallery developments have modified Ashton’s guidelines; the division is now between Materials and Techniques Galleries, which focus on the production of objects, and Art and Design Galleries, which examine the uses of objects within the cultures for which they were produced. The year 1994 saw the completion of the Glass Gallery, a reconfiguration of an important Museum collection into a Materials and Techniques Gallery (fig. 53). Conversely, the decision was made to redisplay the Cast Courts in the spirit of their original arrangement. Opened in 1982, the gallery (fig. 52) is a partial recreation of the original displays of the casts, though not the objects or photographs previously shown (see fig. 76).

The V&A is looking ahead to the next millennium and toward creating displays that will maintain its profile and emphasize its commitment to the promotion of contemporary design. In 1995–96 a competition was held in order to select an architectural design for a new building (the Boilerhouse Project) to occupy the one remaining undeveloped site at South Kensington. The winning design by Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind, a startlingly modern seven-story structure in glass and tile with a spiral silhouette, is intended both as an architectural statement and as a center for innovative displays and exhibitions.

Fig.18. The East Cast Court
The Victoria & Albert Museum: A Summary Time Line
1835-36 Select Committee of Arts and Maunfactures
1837 Foundation of the Government School of Design in Somerset House, London
1851 The Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park

Henry Cole appointed general superintendent of the Department of Practical Art

The Department, including the Museum of Manufactures and the School of Design, moves into Marlborough House


Department of Practical Art becomes Department of Science and Art

Museum of Manufactures renamed the Museum of Ornamental Art

Publication of the National Course of Art Instruction

John Charles Robinson appointed first curator ("Superintendent of Art Collections")

1855 Building work begins on the South Kensington site

South Kensington Museum opens

Sheepshanks gift


Opening of the North and South Courts

Loan exhibition takes place in the South Court

1864 Loan of the Raphael Cartoons from the Royal Collection
1869 Central Lecture Theatre block opened
1872 Official opening of the Bethnal Green Museum

Opening of the Architectural Courts

Retirement of Henry Cole


Science Schools building completed

Philip Cunliffe Owen appointed director

1876 Forster bequest
1879 Collections of the India Museum largely transferred to the South Kensington Museum
1882 Jones bequest

Art Library building completed

Schreiber gift

1888 Opening of the Imperial Institute

Art Museum and science collections given seperate directors

John Henry Middleton appointed director of the Museum


Caspar Purdon Clarke appointed director of the Museum

Division of the museum into five curatorial departments by material

1897 Government Select Committee set up to investigate the South Kensington Museum

Foundation stone for the new Aston Webb building laid by Queen Victoria

South Kensington Museum renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum

1900 Ionides bequest
1905 Arthur Banks Skinner appointed director
1908 Committee on Re-arrangement formed

Opening of Aston Webb building

Cecil Harcourt Smith appointed director

1910 Salting bequest
1924 Eric Maclagan appointed director
1939 Museum closed at the start of World War II due to fear of bombing
1940 Museum reopens with limited displays
1945 Leigh Ashton appointed director
1947 Apsley House, the nineteenth century residence of the Duke of Wellington, placed in the care of the V&A
1948 Division into Primary and secondary Galleries announced
1955 Cross Gallery (housing the Indian collections) closes

Trenchard Cox appointed director

Hildburgh bequest

1967 John Pope-Hennessy appointed director
1974 Roy Strong appointed director
1975 Bethnal Green Museum relaunched as the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood
1978 Final closure of Regional Services (formerly Circulation Department)

The Henry Cole Wing (previously the Royal College of Science) opened

V&A accorded trustee status under the National Heritage Act

1987 The Theatre Museum opens in its new premises in Covent Garden
1988 Elizabeth Esteve-Coll appointed director
1989 Reorganization of the Museum's curatorial departments
1995 Alan Borg appointed director