A curious trail of architecture at the V&A in 10 objects

Architecture is everywhere at the V&A. Beyond the Architecture Gallery, the building itself is a patchwork of old and new, the visionary and the bizarre. From the comfort of your own home or in person here at the museum, take a journey through some of these more curious architectural highlights, from a smoke-stained wall to a mosaic floor made by prisoners, from a building within a building, to the memorial to two dead dogs.

You can navigate your way to each object on the trail by following the directions in the text or simply click on the link to locate the object on our map.

Stop 1: The 'origin myth' of the V&A
Map link: The John Madejski Garden

Grand pediment, The John Madejski Garden. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Grand pediment, The John Madejski Garden. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The trail begins in the The John Madejski Garden. If you stand in front of the doors that lead into the cafe, you are standing at the original front door to the museum, completed in 1865. At that time, you would have been standing in a garden, stretching all the way to the present-day main entrance on Cromwell Road. Look up, and you can see a grand pediment decorated in black and gold mosaic. This is the origin myth of the V&A. In the centre we see Queen Victoria, who is greeting bearers of science, invention and arts, to be displayed as part of the Great Exhibition of 1851 – the first international exhibition that celebrated modern industrial technology and design. The black shape behind Victoria is the iconic profile of the Crystal Palace, where the Great Exhibition took place, in nearby Hyde Park. The names of participating nations are listed in the border, including 'Prussia', 'Zolverein' and 'British Colonies'.

Find out more about The John Madejski Garden

Stop 2: Memorials to two dead dogs
Map link: The John Madejski Garden

Memorials to Tycho and Jim. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Memorials to Tycho and Jim. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On the other side of the garden, to the left of the doors and tucked around the corner are two small ceramic plaques set into the wall. One is dedicated to Jim, ‘Faithful Dog of Sir Henry Cole’, and the other to ‘Tycho’, also ‘a faithful dog’. Cole was the first director of the V&A (then known as the South Kensington Museum) from 1857 to 1873. He was very fond of his dogs, as captured in this print of Henry Cole from Vanity Fair in 1871, where Jim can be seen behind him, perched on his hindquarters.

Stop 3: Mosaic floors made by women prisoners
Map link: Cast Courts, Room 46

Mosaic floor of Room 46. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Mosaic floor of Room 46. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Leave the garden and head straight, walking through the Shop and taking a left turn as you exit. Walk to the end of the gallery till you reach Room 47g and then turn left into Room 46. Here, in the central nave of the Cast Courts is a wonderful mosaic floor. Known as 'opus criminale', or 'criminal work', the floors were made by female convicts at Woking Female Prison. Design drawings by Frank Moody, one of the V&A's in-house designers, were sent to the prison where the prisoners were to assemble the mosaic. This formed part of the museum's founding vision of social responsibility: that exposure to art and the craft of making could lead to social improvement. It is almost unimaginable that such a workforce would be drafted to perform building work today.

Stop 4: Inside Trajan's Column
Map link: Cast Courts, Room 46a

External (left) and internal (right) views of Trajan's Column. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
External (left) and internal (right) views of Trajan's Column. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Turning left into Room 46a takes us to the largest object in our collection, Trajan's Column. Created in 1864, the V&A's column is a plaster copy of the stone original in Rome, built approximately 1,900 years ago in the years 107 – 113 AD. It is displayed here in two parts, to fit it into the gallery. Find a door into the base of the column, leading to a space that has been used in the past for storage, and even apparently as a room where V&A staff had their hair cut. With the renovation and reopening of the Cast Courts in 2018, this room in the base of Trajan's Column is now open to the public for the first time. A secret nook amongst the towering plaster casts.

Find out more about Trajan's Column and the Cast Courts

Stop 5: A building within a building
Map link: Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64b

(Left) Staircase, Bretagne, France, 1522 – 30. Museum no. A.8-1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; (Right) Detail
(Left) Staircase, Bretagne, France, 1522 – 30. Museum no. A.8-1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; (Right) Detail

Along with architectural drawings and models, the museum's collection also features entire room sets and full-scale fragments of buildings. One of the more intriguing of these is on display in the Daylit Gallery (Room 64b). Head back out to Room 47g and turn left up a flight of steps where you are met by a 3-storey timber staircase. Or for step-free access, continue through to Room 50b, taking the lift up to Level 1. Exit the lift and navigate into Room 64b. Follow around the curve of the room till you see the staircase. The staircase, dated 1522 – 30, was built as part of a townhouse belonging to a nobleman in the town of Morlaix, Brittany, in France. Known as 'ponts d'aller' (literally 'bridges for going') these staircases combined a spiral stair with long landings leading to rooms at the rear. The offset newel post is a single piece of oak, richly decorated with patterns and figures, declaring the owner's political and religious allegiances.

This work was put on display in 2007 as part of the opening up of this light well by MUMA Architects, who devised the undulating frameless glass roof above.

Stop 6: Sir Joseph Paxton's 'napkin' sketch
Map link: Britain 1760–1900, Room 122

Architectural sketch, The Great Exhibition building, Sir Joseph Paxton, 1850. Museum no. E.575-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Architectural sketch, The Great Exhibition building, Sir Joseph Paxton, 1850. Museum no. E.575-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Navigate your way to the Grand Entrance on the ground floor. Take the lift, located to the right of the entrance, up to the British Galleries on Level 3. Turn right out of the lift and head to Room 122. On a wall in between Rooms 122c and 122d is a delicate scrap of history. Here, behind a small door, is Joseph Paxton's original sketch of the Great Exhibition building of 1850. Drawn in blotchy ink onto a telegraph sheet, this is an archetypal 'napkin sketch', capturing the moment of intuition and inspiration. We see the repeating arched bays and grand vaults of the building, which would be completed the following year, becoming one of the most iconic buildings of the industrial era.

The British Galleries have a number of other highlights for the architecture enthusiast, including furniture and designs by William Morris and Charles Rennie Macintosh.

Stop 7: 'Sgraffito' wall, revealed
Map link: The Sackler Courtyard

Sgraffito covering the Henry Cole Wing, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sgraffito covering the Henry Cole Wing, V&A. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Go back down to the ground floor and head past the Information Desk and through the Shop. Turn left into the Sculpture Gallery and at Room 21, turn right into The Blavatnik Hall. As you pass through the glass doors out into the V&A’s new white porcelain Sackler Courtyard, look up to your right, you can glimpse a unique part of the original 1873 building, only recently revealed to the public. This is a large wall of 'sgraffito', a decorative technique from the Renaissance, made by 'scratching' a design into layers of plaster. This wall is only now visible with the opening of the Sackler Courtyard, which was once full of boilers, and not accessible to the public.

The new design by Amanda Levete Architects was a major piece of engineering and design, digging down 40m into the earth to carve out space for a new underground gallery for temporary exhibitions, as well as forming a new connection to Exhibition Road.

Stop 8: Bomb damaged walls
Map link: Exhibition Road

Bomb damaged walls. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Bomb damaged walls. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From the white porcelain courtyard, step out onto Exhibition Road and turn left. You will see great violent chunks taken out of the carved stone wall. This damage was caused by a bomb landing in Exhibition Road, as part of the German air raid campaign in World War II. Two bombs landed in November 1940, destroying all windows, frames and grilles on this side of the building. As the damage to the stonework did not compromise the structure of the building, it wasn’t repaired. Some years later, in 1987, a plaque was added to recognise these scars, which were kept as a 'memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict'.

As part of the opening up of the new entrance and courtyard in 2017, parts of the damaged wall were removed. The patterns of these scars were used by the architect Amanda Levete as design inspiration for the solid aluminium gates onto the courtyard.

Find out more about the history of the V&A on Exhibition Road

Stop 9: Ceramic Staircase
Map link: Ceramic Staircase

The Ceramic Staircase. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Ceramic Staircase. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Retrace your steps back across the courtyard and into The Blavatnik Hall. Turn left into Room 18 and head straight to the end of the gallery where you will arrive at the foot of the Ceramic Staircase. Part of the first stage of building in the 1870s, Henry Cole intended that the entire museum be decorated in such an opulent manner. But spiralling costs meant that only a small portion was completed, and changing tastes meant that even rooms that were completed in this style were stripped back in the 1914. The scenes depicted in the Ceramic Staircase remain as a manifesto of the lofty ambitions of the founding principles of the museum. The whole composition is an historical allegory of the sciences and the arts, represented by the interwoven letters 'S' and 'A' seen throughout.

Final stop: A grimy stripe in the museum café
Map link: The Morris Room

The Morris Room. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Morris Room. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The final stop on our tour of curious architectural secrets of the V&A takes us into the museum café. The green room to your left is one of the first public commissions awarded to the then relatively unknown William Morris. At only 31, with the help of his friends the architect Phillip Webb and painter Edward Burne-Jones, Morris conceived of a highly-decorated room, defined by natural elements of leaves, flowers, animals and starbursts.

In the 2000s, this room was painstakingly cleaned and restored to its original splendour. But, look closely, there’s a grimy stripe behind the door. This dark brown section, set aside by the conservators, stands as a reminder of what the room had come to look like after more than a century of residue from the gas lighting and cigarette smoke.

Find out more about William Morris and the history of the museum café