The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose
In the late 1860s, the view of the South Kensington Museum, as the V&A was then called, from Cromwell Road was a ramshackle collection of temporary buildings: offices, stores and a photographers' studio, together with Brompton Park House (once the home of Queen Anne's gardener) and the decaying remains of the original Iron Museum, the 'Brompton Boilers'. Visitors to the Museum were greeted by an unimpressive and uninviting sight. Successive architects, including Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Scott, had produced designs for imposing extensions to relieve the overcrowded and cramped Museum, but the government consistently refused to fund the projects.
In 1891, however, the Treasury and Office of Works reversed their opinion and agreed to fund an extension to the Museum. A competition was held for the rare opportunity to create a truly huge façade in South Kensington, now one of the capital's most prestigious cultural locations. The prominent feature of the winning design, by Aston Webb – a relatively young architect who would later design the façade of Buckingham Palace – was a Romanesque entrance with a recessed centre under a massive tower. The tower, criticised as expensive and unnecessary, was soon abandoned, and economic reasons also forced the government almost immediately to shelve the entire building project until 1899.
By that year, Aston Webb had replanned the building, bringing it southwards right onto Cromwell Road, and replacing the tower with a three-story octagonal structure surmounted by a dome. Over the next nine years Webb would complete the 219 metre-long red brick and Portland stone building, adding from 1905 a wealth of sculptural ornament to its exterior to proclaim the importance of the Museum.
Webb's initial suggestions for exterior decorative sculpture on the façade were extensive:
A statue of Queen Victoria supported by St George and St Michael over the great arch and the Prince Consort below, as the Founders of the Museum; on either side in niches the present King and Queen. The great archway itself would be enriched with symbolic sculpture. The large bosses in the archivolt would represent various crafts; the large spandrils would have figures representing Truth and Beauty; while the two smaller niches on either side would have statues representing Imagination and Knowledge. …The whole edifice I suggest to be crowned by a gilt bronze winged figure of Fame.
King Edward VII, who came to the throne in 1901, initially objected to the decorative plans, suggesting instead that the exterior be as plain as possible, allowing for more money to be spent on interior decoration. The King later withdrew his opposition, and the distinguished sculptor Alfred Drury was chosen to lead the programme of decoration. Other sculptors such as George Frampton and W. S. Frith, along with Édouard Lantéri, a professor at the Royal College of Art and his students, were commissioned to fashion Webb's patriotic vision of a pantheon of British artists in stone, each 2.4 metres (7 foot 9 inches) tall.
Running along the entire length of the façade (and continuing along Exhibition Road) there is a sequence of single statues within niches. These statues represent ten British painters, ten British craftsmen, six British sculptors, and six British architects. Included are luminaries of the highest order – Millais, Constable, Turner, Morris, Chippendale, Wedgwood, Wren, Inigo Jones – and other craftsmen that are lesser known today but were praised during the 18th and 19th centuries for their work in bookbinding, silversmithing and wood carving. The sculptures were meant to articulate a new national consciousness that connected the realms of fine and applied art – also a major aim of the Museum. The artists and craftsmen (as well as the sculptors who carved them) were symbols of interconnectedness and triumph in an industrial world coming to terms with modernity.
Prince Albert stands immediately above the door with Queen Victoria on the arch above, flanked by her protectors St George and St Michael. As per Webb's suggestion, Drury carved the figures of Inspiration and Knowledge in niches on either side of the arch and nine relief panels over the entrance arch. The entrance also carries the quotation from Sir Joshua Reynolds: The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose, which was chosen by Webb in 1906, and which emphasised that this was now a museum for 'every art'. 'Truth' and 'Beauty' round out the symbolic figures over the arch.
The sculptors were given an alarmingly small amount of time in which to finish the work: one month to submit a quarter-size model, then, when approved, two months to create a full-size plaster version to be hoisted into position so that its effect could be properly judged. When the model was approved, carving in situ on the building could begin. Most of the statues of craftsmen were finished by the end of 1905. In 1906 the statues of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were added and the final touch to the exterior of the Museum was made in 1908 when the head of 'Fame' was ceremoniously placed in position, on the summit of Webb's grand entrance, "to mark the character as a great national building".
Edward VII opened the finished Museum on 26 June 1909, more than 50 years after work had started on the first buildings. The new face of the V&A, and what was to be the last major building phase of the Museum for over 100 years, was at last complete.
Audio descriptions of historic locations in the Museum are available for blind and partially sighted visitors to listen to online at home or during a visit to the V&A.