Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)
- Original design
- Francis Fowke, Henry Scott, Sir Aston Webb, 1856
- AL_A, 2017
The 2018 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2019 programme mid-August.
In 1836 a Government Select Committee recommended the foundation of design schools and museums in Britain to educate public taste and improve the standard of design in manufacturing.
In 1837 the first part of this plan was implemented with the setting up of a Government School of Design at Somerset House in London, followed by regional schools in manufacturing centres around the country. It was not until 1852, following the huge success of the Great Exhibition of 1851, that a museum of manufactures was established - the forerunner of the V&A.
Henry Cole, who had acted as Prince Albert’s right-hand man in the creation and management of the Great Exhibition, suggested, with Albert's backing, that a permanent exhibition should be created. The government agreed and with the profits of the Great Exhibition bought 83 acres of land in South Kensington to create a public museum. Under the directorship of Henry Cole, this was joined with the Design Schools, whose study collections, augmented by purchases from the Great Exhibition, were opened in 1857 as the first museum of Art and Science. Called the South Kensington Museum it was housed in a temporary building on the eastern corner of the site. Prince Albert intended that it should develop on the main site as a University of Science, Art and Design but his death in 1861 stopped this grand plan. Today that 'temporary building' has developed into the Victoria and Albert Museum, and now occupies the whole of its 13 acre site.
Originally these were the grounds of Brompton Park House, and the house became studios for the design students. Nearby the museum was constructed with a frame of cast iron ribs (like the Crystal Palace) but covered with a more permanent roof of corrugated iron rather glass. The lack of temperature control in what was essentially an iron shed was disastrous and not completely resolved until the last vestiges were demolished in 1899 to build the Cromwell Road front of today's V & A.
Inside it contained nine different museums that covered not only the arts and science, building techniques, natural materials used in manufacture, aids to education and much more. This building stood where the Cast Courts stand today, and from that floor level the convoluted buildings that make up the present museum started.
In 1861 an imposing new building was proposed and designed by Francis Fowke, a Captain in the Royal Engineers. His design was approved by Henry Cole and would have created a building in the Northern Renaissance style of brick and terracotta. Unfortunately by 1866 both he and the museums’ decorative co-ordinator, Godfrey Sykes, had died. As a result only the central element of this design was completed and today the garden frontage with its pediment commemorating the Great Exhibition in mosaic, together with some interior decoration, notably the three original and ornate restaurants, are the only major survivors of this scheme.
By the time Henry Cole retired in 1872 a new scheme to complete the site had been started under the architectural direction of Fowke’s successor, General Henry Scott. Unfortunately because of Cole’s retirement and the lack of government money and interest, only the Architectural or Cast Courts were completed. These now contain the remarkable collection of 19th century plaster casts that had originally been used as the design students' inspiration; they are recognised as a unique survival of a style of design training that was universal in the late 19th century.
For nearly 20 years, the completion of the South Kensington Museum stagnated, until in 1889 public pressure forced the government to instigate a competition for its completion. For the next ten years the winner of that competition, Aston Webb, struggled to initiate a start for this building. After much adaptation, to reduce costs, the foundation stone was laid in 1899 by Queen Victoria. It was her last public act in London.
She requested that the name of the museum be changed to the Victoria & Albert Museum to commemorate the involvement of her husband in an institution that was rapidly becoming the foremost international museum of art and design in the world. Ten years later her son, Edward VII, opened the building whose façade on Cromwell Road and Exhibition Roads is so well-known today. It masks five separate building phases over fifty years, all of which are still traceable.
Although much of the original interior decoration by Godfrey Sykes and other tutors in the school of design has been obliterated some has survived and some has been restored. Much of it was executed by the students as a practical exercise in their training and is a continuing tribute to the ideology of Henry Cole and the team of design educators who created the Great Exhibition.
The V&A is now the National Collection of Art and Design, housing some four million objects in its eight miles of galleries. It is still used by countless art students for inspiration, including students of the Royal College of Art who are the direct descendants of the original trainees of the Schools of Design. Although they are now governed separately from the museum, and the Science Museum has taken over and expanded the science element of the South Kensington Museum, they, together with numerous other institutions, remain in South Kensington, retaining Prince Albert's original dream in this part of London.