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Build­ing with Light

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.

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’.

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