The V&A's buildings were intended to be a work of art in themselves, reinforcing the museum's mission to educate and inspire its visitors. This trail explores five unique spaces around the museum – each one representing both a chapter of the V&A's story and a moment in British design history.
In 2017, Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) revealed the historic buildings on this side of the museum to visitors for the first time. AL_A provided the V&A with a new entrance – The Blavatnik Hall; a contemporary courtyard – The Exhibition Road Courtyard; and a purpose-built exhibition space – The Sainsbury Gallery. These are set within the existing buildings which were begun here in the 1860s. Together, the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter combines architecture from three phases of the buildings' history, demonstrating the museum's evolution and changing character.
The Henry Cole Wing
The tallest building to the north, the Henry Cole Wing was designed by one of the museum's in-house architects, Henry Scott. Completed in 1873, it was constructed of brick and adorned with terracotta sculpture, imitating Italian Renaissance examples. Look out for the 'sgraffito' on the back of the building – decoration made of multiple layers of plaster and carved by students at the Art School that was once here.
The Aston Webb buildings
On the other three sides of what is now The Exhibition Road Courtyard, the eclectic Aston Webb buildings draw on varied historical styles, with sculpture in Portland stone. The buildings are named after the architect, who also designed the façade of Buckingham Palace. They were completed in 1909 as part of a scheme to unify the museum's jumble of earlier Victorian buildings and present a grand view to the street.
The Exhibition Road Courtyard
In the space between the buildings, the Exhibition Road Courtyard, designed by AL_A, is the UK's first porcelain-tiled public courtyard. Incorporating 10,000 bespoke ceramic tiles, the design responds specifically to the fabric of the original 19th-century buildings, in which decorative ceramics featured prominently.
The buildings around the garden look unified in style, but in fact it took nearly 50 years to complete them. The building to the east was built first in 1857 as a paintings gallery. The garden began to take shape when a block was built opposite on the west side in 1863, which provided galleries and residences for staff. The grand north side followed in 1865, originally intended to be the main entrance for the museum, with gardens stretching down to Cromwell Road. It was not until 1884, when the Art Library Range was completed to the south, that the enclosed courtyard we see today was formed. In 2005, the landscape architect Kim Wilkie designed the pool, lawns and planting which can be seen today.
Inspired by 15th-century architecture in northern Italy, the sculptural details on the façades of the buildings are not carved but are modelled in terracotta. This was partly to save money – each piece of sculpture could be repeated many times by casting from the same mould.
The triangular pediment of the Lecture Theatre Block on the north side celebrates the origins of the V&A in the Great Exhibition of 1851. It features a silhouette of the Crystal Palace, where the Exhibition was held, and Queen Victoria awarding laurels to the prize-winners.
To showcase the best of art and design through its buildings, the museum had an in-house team of architects and designers. One of the mosaic panels on the Lecture Theatre Block wall (to the left of the Café entrance) depicts some of them, including Henry Cole, the museum's first director, third from the left.
Memorial plaques to Jim and Tycho
Henry Cole lived in the museum with his faithful friend Jim the dog. You can find memorial plaques to Jim and Tycho, Henry's son's dog, in the garden where they are buried. Look to the left of the entrance to the Sculpture gallery.
Stop 3: Ceramic Staircase (currently Level 0 only)
The Ceramic Staircase is one of the most elaborately decorated parts of the V&A's Victorian buildings. Completed in 1869, it was once the principal route from the original main entrance, opposite the public café, leading up to the Ceramics galleries and the adjoining schools of art and science that shared the site. The decoration was designed by teacher and designer Francis Moody, a member of the museum's staff, in collaboration with his students.
Hexagonal ceiling tiles
One of the museum's aims was to experiment with cutting-edge materials and techniques in the fabric of its buildings. The Staircase demonstrates the application of a new invention: painted panels fired onto hexagonal tiles. These were easier to use on the curved ceiling than square tiles, and more durable than painted plaster.
The shiny ceramic reliefs are lead-glazed earthenware. They are a revival of a historic technique – the 'Della Robbia' style – copied from the Italian Renaissance. The letters 'S' and 'A' in the decoration of the Staircase stand for 'Science' and 'Art' – the collections that were first displayed at the museum, and the disciplines taught in the schools here.
The Cast Courts were purpose-built in 1873 for the museum's collection of copies of art and architecture. Originally known as the 'Architectural Courts', these galleries were richly decorated like the museum's other Victorian buildings, to provide suitable context for the architectural objects on display. The V&A's cast collection, including the cast of Michelangelo's David, is one of the most impressive to survive – many similar holdings formed by other European museums have since been destroyed or dispersed. In 2018, the Cast Courts went through an extensive programme of restoration to preserve their historical fabric.
When it was first acquired in 1857, only part of the cast of Trajan's Column could be displayed properly. The North Court, the largest available space in the museum at the time, was not tall enough. The immense height of the Cast Courts, built specially in 1873, was dictated by the need to display Trajan's Column in just two sections.
The mosaics in the ground floor Central Gallery (Room 46) were devised by in-house designer Francis Moody and made by prisoners at Woking Female Prison as part of a social reform scheme. Museum staff jokingly referred to the mosaics with the Latin nickname Opus Criminale, 'Criminal Work'.
The names of architects and cities famous for their art and architecture were inscribed around the walls of the Cast Courts. One is still visible within the modern decoration of The Weston Cast Court, Room 46b, today: William Chambers.
The last stop on the trail includes features to look out for on the outside of the building when you leave.
For the last 20 years of the 19th century, the museum buildings presented a chaotic and unfinished appearance to visitors arriving on Cromwell Road. Following public campaigns, an architectural competition was held in 1891. Construction work began in 1899 and it took ten years to complete the buildings and façade seen today. Opened in 1909, the Cromwell Road entrance gave the building a dignified and unified front. Unlike the Victorian parts of the museum, which were the work of in-house engineers and designers, the Edwardian entrance and galleries were designed by a professional architect, Sir Aston Webb.
Victoria and Albert's initials
In 1899, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the new buildings. At this moment, she renamed what had been the South Kensington Museum as the Victoria and Albert Museum. She had wanted to name it solely the 'Albert Museum' to mark her husband's part in its creation, but protocol demanded her name be included. The pair's initials can be seen within the architectural decoration of the Aston Webb entrance – on either side of the Cromwell Road foyer – above the entrances to the Medieval & Renaissance and Europe galleries.
The decoration of the Edwardian entrance and galleries is not as rich and colourful as that of the museum's earlier Victorian buildings. A writer in the Daily Telegraph said that they gave "the impression of some immense, finely appointed modern hospital for the analysis and dissection of applied art". However, as The Times summed up in 1909, "At last, with all its faults, the Museum building gives us the elbow-room and the light that we want. The result is a brilliant and overpowering display".
Once you've left the museum on Cromwell Road, look up at the external decoration on Aston Webb's buildings. They include a sequence of 34 statues of well-known male British artists, architects and craftsmen, including J.M.W. Turner, John Constable and William Morris. Figures of royalty and carvings of roses, thistles and shamrocks complete the patriotic sculptural scheme, designed as the 19th century came to a close.