The Victoria and Albert
Museum: An Illustrated Chronology
Richard Dunn and Anthony Burton
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
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 as
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 architecture
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
in Marlborough House (fig. 20).
In 1862 two new courts were opened
to house the rapidly expanding collection. The interior of
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
and served as a gallery for loans for the next forty-five
The North Court (fig. 26) contained
ceramics as well as the copies
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.
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
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
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
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)
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.
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 Re–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
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
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
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
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) contained
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 Institute
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
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).
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, including
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
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. 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,
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,
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 made
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 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
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’s
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
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 and
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.