Designing the V&A: The Museum as a Work of Art (1857-1909), Julius Bryant, published by Lund Humphries in association with V&A Publishing, May 2017, pp. 176, £35.00 (Hardback)

At the end of June the Victoria & Albert Museum opened its spectacular Amanda Levete-designed new £50m extension beyond the reverent arches of the Aston Webb Screen on Exhibition Road, the biggest new build since the place opened in 1909.

It brings to an end more than 35 years of frequent returns to the drawing board as the museum tried to find solutions to the problem of the Boiler House Yard, and as Julius Bryant’s timely new book shows it is a complement to the original terracotta building that set a South Kensington characteristic.

How the museum ever got built in the first place is a mystery, however, and its tribulations make the Boilerhouse wranglings pale into insignificance.

The V&A owes its existence primarily to Henry Cole, a bustling, liberal, extraordinarily well-connected civil servant-cum-journalist. He also moonlighted as a freelance entrepreneur who did business producing household goods under the happy soubriquet of ‘Felix Summerly’, and commissioned the best artists to design them – Richard Redgrave, William Dyce, J C Horsley (who designed the first Christmas card for him), Daniel Maclise and Milliam Mulready among them. Several of them were involved in the School of Design, opened in 1837, and Cole joined them. He took it over, reformed it, expanded it, created a museum in it, and public design education became his mission.

odfrey Sykes and Francis Fowke, Design for the decoration of the South Kensington Museum, c.1865
© Victoria and Albert Museum, 2017
(Left to right) Sir Henry Cole, Cast Francis Fowke RE, Godfrey Sykes and John Liddell, the chief draughtsman, in approximately1863
© The V&A Library

It was also Prince Albert’s, and the two worked together to create the first world’s fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851, out of the profits of which Cole persuaded the prince and the government to buy an estate at Brompton in which to create an educational precinct.

The first of the institutions to be planned was the museum, and to save money a Royal Engineers captain, Francis Fowke, was commissioned to design it. Cole and Albert were not patient men, however, and Fowke was asked to create a temporary structure to get the institution established; the pre-fabricated iron building he made still stands, but now in Bethnal Green where it houses the V&A Museum of Childhood. It was unkindly dubbed ‘The Brompton Boilers’ by those who thought it looked more like a power station than a place of culture.

But Cole’s insistence on using the building itself to teach design excellence prevailed. There were decorations by Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, Edward Poynter, G F Watts, J M Whistler, Owen Jones and William Morris – though the most famous artist of the time, John Everett Millais declined, saying ‘Show rooms should be made not to assert themselves’ – and Bryant details how it was done in very readable style having had unique access to the V&A’s exhaustive archives, superbly illustrated.

That it did get built is testament to the determination of it progenitors, who succeeded against combinations of bad luck, political parsimony and stifling bureaucracy. Fowke died at 42 in 1865; two months later his chief engineer, Geoffrey Sykes, 41, also died; in 1861 Prince Albert died, then in 1873 Cole resigned over funding cuts; in 1882 Henry Scott, Fowke’s successor and designer of the Royal Albert Hall, was fired (he died a   year later) and at the same time his designer, Reuben Townroe, resigned because he hadn’t been paid. And all the time the collections were growing, changing the space requirements of the museum.

But Scott kept to Fowke’s masterplan and the V&A was built in three phases: 1857-1868 when Cole’s redbrick galleries for showing paintings and giving lectures were built; 1869-1884 when Scott built the architectural courts and National Art Library; the last phase, 1899-1909, saw Aston Webb’s main building completed.

The grand screen Cole envisaged was to be not only a link between the museum and the Science Schools to the north in Exhibition Road, but to shield the boilerhouse that powered the building, and it was eventually created by Aston Webb in the plan’s third phase.

These difficulties were partly solved in 1983 when the Science Schools building, which had become an outstation of the Royal College of Art, became the V&A’s Henry Cole Wing with a new entrance from Exhibition Road. Much needed temporary offices were created where the boilerhouse had stood, and the beginnings of the Design Museum was sparked beneath as the Boilerhouse Project, before it moved to Shad Thames and now Kensington High Street.
By 1996 the V&A was in dire need of expansion on a tight site and the controversial design by Daniel Libeskind for a pyramidal structure, called The Spiral, was to create new exhibition spaces, education rooms and offices, but it was controversially out of rhyme with the ‘South Kensington Style’ established 140 years before and had matched by the Royal Albert Hall and Alfred Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum. It struggled to get funding, and was eventually abandoned in 2004 with its main champion, the director Alan Borg, having moved on in 2001.

And although Amanda Levete’s design is quintessentially of our time, it takes its inspirations from the Victorian museum and from some of the plans that were never realised. The Sackler Courtyard, for instance, has been porcelain tiled, with examples of nineteenth-century decorative ceramics. The Italian mosaics in the entrance lobby echo the restored floors around the museum – made by female prisoners – and the support structure for the balustrade to the staircase leading down to the Sainsbury Gallery also takes its cue from the century-old staircases in the museum.

The Aston Webb Screen encountered on Exhibition Road is back after conservation. Originally envisioned by Cole, and the helter-skelter like tower he wanted at the screen’s centre was never built, nor was the bridge he wanted to connect the museum with the rest of the estate across the road. Levete’s design completes Cole’s vision, she believes.

Before, in her last public act, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of the finished building she had been determined that the South Kensington Museum should emerge as the Albert Museum, but she was persuaded to change her mind so that on May 17, 1899, she declared ‘that in future this institution shall be styled the Victoria and Albert Museum’.

Simon Tait is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. He is a former commissioning editor of the Telegraph Sunday Magazine and arts correspondent of The Times and has contributed features to most national newspapers. He is co-editor of the fortnightly Arts Industry magazine. He is the author of a biography of the painter Philip Sutton among other books, and was President of the Critics’ Circle 2013-15.

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