Albertopoulis…the V&A…and an “extremely capacious handbag”

by Sally Steele


Happy & Beautiful Holidays to all our Boulevardiers & Readers…thank you for another inspiring year!



The Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London

The Boulevardiers recently did London, from top to bottom, Shakespeare to the Houses of Parliament, to Bond Street & Saville Row, to museums, many, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is really one of the wonders of the art world. We are still reveling in its exquisiteness, and gasping at the treasures seen within.

When you combine the regal collection, the imposing building, with it’s quirky history, you get one of the richest art museum experiences possible. This is a must visit when in London, we went twice during one week!

The V&A can and does speak for itself, literally, with wit and style, and in so many ways, including on it’s glorious website. Read, revel, escape, visit, and give generously when you do!

The raincoat and headscarf worn while riding in a British tank in Germany in 1986 are also up for sale

The raincoat and headscarf worn by Dame Margaret while riding in a British tank in Germany in 1986 are up for sale.

BBC, November 6, 2015:

The Victoria and Albert Museum said it was “stupefied'” by reports that it had turned down the chance to exhibit Margaret Thatcher’s clothes. Earlier this week, it was reported that the London gallery had turned down the opportunity to acquire some items from Baroness Thatcher’s wardrobe. The museum was quoted as saying it only collected items of “outstanding aesthetic or technical quality”. But Nicholas Coleridge, chairman of the V&A, said no offer had ever been made. Coleridge, who took up the role of chairman on Tuesday this week, said there was “stupefied surprise” at the V&A about the Daily Telegraph story. He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme there had been “no letter, no meeting, no judgement… no overture of any kind… and no turning down of her clothes at all”. He added that neither he, nor the previous chairman, nor the museum’s trustees knew anything about it…More than 300 items are due to be sold at auction next month instead. Lady Thatcher died two and a half years ago. She was the longest-serving premier of the 20th Century and Britain’s only female prime minister to date. The clothes, to be auctioned by Christie’s, include her blue velvet wedding dress and various power suits worn during her tenure in Downing Street, plus handbags and jewellery. “Lady Thatcher was an iconic figure who used fashion as a political weapon and certainly knew the power of clothes”, said Coleridge. “It seems to me rather appropriate that one or two of those power dresses and Thatcher handbags should be there alongside Elizabeth the first’s clothes and Charles the first’s execution shirt”.


Silver Collection, The Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s collections span two thousand years of art in virtually every medium, from many parts of the world, and visitors to the museum encounter a treasure house of amazing and beautiful objects. The story of the V&A’s foundation helps to explain its astonishing richness and diversity.

The Museum was established in 1852, following the enormous success of the Great Exhibition the previous year. Its founding principle was to make works of art available to all, to educate working people and to inspire British designers and manufacturers. Profits from the Exhibition were used to establish the Museum of Manufactures, as it was initially known, and exhibits were purchased to form the basis of its collections.

The Museum moved to its present site in 1857 and was renamed the South Kensington Museum. Its collections expanded rapidly as it set out to acquire the best examples of metalwork, furniture, ceramics,textiles and all other forms of decorative art from all periods. It also acquired fine art – paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture – in order to tell a more complete history of art and design.

Generous funding and a less competitive art market than today’s meant that the young Museum was able to make many very important acquisitions. The Museum itself also grew, with new buildings being added as and when needed. Many of these buildings, with their iron frames and glass roofs, were intended to be semi-permanent exhibition halls, but they have all survived and are one of the finest groups of Victorian buildings in Britain.

In 1899, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of a new building designed to give the Museum a grand façade and main entrance. To mark the occasion, it was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum, in memory of the enthusiastic support Prince Albert had given to its foundation.

Throughout the 20th century, the collections continued to grow. While expanding its historical collections, the V&A also maintained its acquisition of contemporary objects, starting with a collection of Art Nouveau furniture in 1900.

The Museum’s ceramics, glass, textiles, dress, silver, ironwork, jewellery, furniture, sculpture, paintings, prints and photographs now span the cultures of Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa, and date from ancient times to the present day.

The V&A also reflects the diverse nature of contemporary Asian cultures, collecting contemporary Asian art and design as diverse as Japanese studio crafts and Indian film posters.

Contemporary design has always been at the heart of the V&A’s work and the Museum remains true to its founding mission of promoting excellence in design and manufacturing. It works hard to encourage contemporary designers, acquiring their work, and providing inspiration through its displays.

Many of Britain’s most successful designers have used the V&A as a source of ideas and stimulation and visitors to the V&A have the opportunity to see their work alongside the historic collections which helped shape them.

Henry Cole, the V&A’s first director, declared that the Museum should be a ‘schoolroom for everyone’. The V&A today offers visitors the chance to explore more deeply by using its study rooms, guided tours, gallery activities, lectures and special events. Whether you want to enjoy the galleries independently, or get more closely involved, there are many ways to discover the delights of the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Holiday cheer, The Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London

Fun Facts:

~Queen Victoria really wanted to call the V&A the ‘Albert Museum’.

~The Museum was built in part of Brompton, in the western outskirts of London, but the Museum authorities re-christened the area South Kensington, which sounded more fashionable.

~The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 owns the site of the V&A, and of the nearby Science and Natural History Museums, Imperial College, the Royal Colleges of Art and Music and Royal Albert Hall. The area, dubbed ‘Albertopolis’, was bought partly out of the profits of the Great Exhibition.

~The first Director, Sir Henry Cole, described the Museum in 1857 as ‘a refuge for destitute collections’. More than a century later Sir Roy Strong called it ‘an extremely capacious handbag’.

~The South Kensington Museum was the first museum in the world to provide a public restaurant.

~Some of the mosaic floors in the Museum were made by ‘lady convicts’ in Woking Prison. Museum staff jokingly gave the mosaic a Latin name, ‘opus criminale’.

HORSLEY, John Calcott, R.A. (1817-1903), Christmas card, design in 1843. Reproduction of the first Christmas card, published by Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., London, c.1945, Colour process engraving. E.1993-1953, Bequeathed by Guy Tristram Little

HORSLEY, John Calcott, R.A. (1817-1903), Christmas card, design in 1843. Reproduction of the first Christmas card, published by Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., London, c.1945, Colour process engraving. E.1993-1953, Bequeathed by Guy Tristram Little

~The V&A owns a copy of the first commercially produced Christmas card, which was invented in 1843 by the Museum’s first Director, Henry Cole.

~The V&A was the first museum in the world to collect photographs as art, beginning in 1856.

Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square, daguerrotype by de Ste Croix, M.

Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square, daguerrotype by M. de Ste Croix

~The V&A has the earliest photograph of London, a view down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square (before Nelson’s Column was built), a daguerreotype taken by a M. de St Croix in 1839.

~Queen Victoria was said to be shocked by the nudity of a full-size plaster-cast of Michelangelo’s ‘David’. A suitably proportioned fig leaf was made, and hung on the figure using a pair of hooks when dignitaries visited. Today, the fig leaf is no longer used.

Raphael, born 1483 - died 1520, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (Luke 5: 1-11)

Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (Luke 5: 1-11)

~Contrary to popular belief, hardly any of the V&A’s collections belonged to Queen Victoria or Prince Albert. The most notable exception is a famous series of paintings, the Raphael cartoons, which were loaned by Queen Victoria and are still on loan from the present Queen. The Raphael cartoons were too large to evacuate during the War II and were bricked up into a protective shelter.

~In 1913 militant suffragettes threatened to vandalize collections in public museums and galleries. The V&A considered banning women visitors, but instead decided to protect the collections by increasing visitor numbers. Entrance charges were dropped to help achieve this.

~As part of its outreach programme to young people, the V&A became the first museum in Britain to present a rock concert in July 1973. The V&A presented a combined concert/lecture by British progressive folk-rock band Gryphon.

~In the late-19th century the Museum consulted expert outsiders to help assess new acquisitions. They were called ‘Art Referees’, and included artists and designers such as William Morris, Owen Jones, Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

~The worst scandal in the V&A’s history occurred in the 1950s when a member of staff was found to have stolen several hundred objects, including a number of swords which he smuggled out of the Museum down his trouser legs.

~When the V&A first displayed examples of Art Nouveau furniture in 1901 there was such controversy in the art establishment that the furniture was banished to Bethnal Green. It was displayed with a notice warning design students not to imitate this radical new style.

~In the early 1980s, after a flood in a basement store, damaged books were taken and put in freezers at Harrod’s department store until they could be restored.

~A rare incident of a V&A object self-destructing occurred in 1998. A tin of Biba-branded baked beans, part of an archive of Biba packaging and graphic design, was found to be corroded, but before conservation could take place the tin exploded.

~There are seven miles of galleries in the V&A.


Public Library, The Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London

The origins of the Museum are as complex as the building itself. They date back ultimately to 1836, when a report by a House of Commons Select Committee concluded that the arts were not receiving enough encouragement in Britain and little attention was being paid to the importance of good design.

In response, the government decided to set up a network of design schools and establish ‘museums of art’ that, unlike most other institutions in Britain at the time, would be open to the public without charge. They would contain examples not only of ancient art but also of ‘the most approved modern specimens, foreign as well as domestic’.

The first school opened in London in 1837. Called the School of Design in Ornamental Art, it was housed in the top of Somerset House on the Strand and had a collection of plaster casts and ornamental art works for the instruction of students. By 1851, however, the School no longer had enough space for its students or its growing collection. A young civil servant called Henry Cole was asked to look into the problem and in 1852 he took over as General Superintendent.

The First Room at Marlborough House, watercolour, William Linnaeus Cassey, 1856. Museum no. 7279 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The First Room at Marlborough House, watercolour, William Linnaeus Cassey, 1856. Museum no. 7279 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London







With a commitment to reform and an interest in the improvement of artistic taste, Cole made some decisive changes. The most significant was to move the plaster casts and ornamental art works to Marlborough House, a property in Pall Mall that Prince Albert loaned to the School. The collection was called the ‘Museum of Manufactures’ and was soon joined by the School itself.

Cole and his chief ally, Richard Redgrave (a former temporary headmaster of the School of Design), then assembled a display of what they judged to be outstanding items of pottery, porcelain, majolica, glass and metalwork. This, they hoped, would create public demand for ‘improvements in the character of our national manufactures’.

To prepare visitors for this lesson in good design, they set up the first room as a ‘Chamber of Horrors’ with a range of ‘utterly indefensible’ everyday decorative objects, such as a burner condemned for the fact its ‘gas flamed from the petal of a convolvulus’.

TSir Henry Cole, photograph, unknown photographer, about 1858 - 1873. Museum no. E.207-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sir Henry Cole, photograph, unknown photographer, about 1858 – 1873. Museum no. E.207-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London









By 1854, the collection of the Museum of Manufactures was so large that Cole and Redgrave decided they needed new premises. They found a solution in ‘Albertopolis’, a site just south of Hyde Park that had been purchased with profits from the 1851 Great Exhibition. Here, Prince Albert intended to combine all Britain’s learned and artistic societies on one vast site, but the plan had stagnated in the face of political hostility and indecision.

In February 1854 Cole (who had been a key figure in the development of the Great Exhibition) approached the prince about the possibility of a temporary museum building in the south-east corner of the site. This was then a rural, out-of-the-way area on which stood four buildings that made up Brompton Park House, originally built for Queen Anne’s gardener. The buildings were now empty and decaying, and by June of the following year it was decided to erect an ‘iron house’ in their place.

Today’s V&A is a sumptuous & serious testament to its history and to its founders. The V&A is what all museums should aspire to. It has withstood the test of time. Here’s to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, good taste, and their museum!

1854: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in a re-enactment of their marriage ceremony. Prince Albert is in military uniform and is wearing his medals

1854: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in a re-enactment of their marriage ceremony. Prince Albert is in military uniform and is wearing his medals.



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