Sunday 26 September 2010

The South Kensington Museum

Another Leisure Hour article, this time on the new museum at South Kensington in 1859, now the V&A. Check out the picture below, to see how it's changed (it was, of course, entirely rebuilt in the late 1890s). The principal building, known without affection, as the 'Brompton Boilers', is clearly visible on the right ('B') - this whole structure was reconstructed as the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green (click here for the whole story).


A: Entrance; B: Museum; C,D,E, Galleries for the Sheepshanks, Vernon and Turner Pictures; F,G: Schools of Art; H,J,L: Central Hall, Library, Offices and Stores; K: Lecture Theatre; M: Entrance to Museum for Patents; P: Museum for Patents; R: Refreshment Rooms
GREEN lanes! green lanes! how I regret to see you improved into fine streets, with big mansions all up and down. It must be, I suppose. The woodman's axe, little heeding my rural tastes, will sharply fall on the trunk of many a tall elm-tree, endeared to my memory by old association. London expands, and must still go on expanding. It is its fate and fortune so to do; and if former residence, with its train of old associations, has endeared to me the umbrageous network of paths leading from Brompton to Kensington in times that were, my perhaps too selfish self must not repine and grumble at the destruction of their sylvan beauty, wrought out for the public good. Old Brompton may be said, to exist no .more. It is New Kensington now. Big mansions stud the way where once grew tall elm-trees. Cabby points his knowing finger, and wags his saucy tongue, on the very spot where I remember well to have gone collecting wildsflowers in times that were; and a certain pretty villa, with its velvet lawns and gay flower-beds, that I well remember in the year 1842 coveting for my own, is now swept away, demolished to make room for an edifice - fantastic somewhat, but pretty in the main - to wit, the South Kensington Museum.
    It is, in the widest sense, an educational establishment, and no person who goes through it with moderate attention will go through it in vain. Should you wish to learn what to eat, drink, and avoid, pay a visit to the South Kensington Museum. Should you desire to know the philosophy of china or crockery, from Samian vases or Etrurian coffins, down to Wedgwood, Parian, and encaustic tiles, a ramble through the museum will bring you au courant. Venetian mirrors may be your weakness, perheaps, or the tapestry of Gobelins; or, haply, antique Flemish wood carvings may be what your heart desires to linger upon. Well, there they are all—there, in the- museum. The two Siamese kings awhile ago presented to her Majesty the Queen certain curious articles of luxury—a state-chair to sit upon, a golden canopy to loll under, and vestments of peculiar golden tissue, only made in Siam. Would you like to see them? Ay. Then go to the museum; for there they are, properly laid out, and labelled to please and instruct the visitor. Multifarious the contributions are — an omnium gatherum, reminding one of the cabinet of the virtuoso. I bethink myself of the cabinet of curiosities described by. the poet Burns as appertaining to Captain Grose, of antiquarian renown, and fancy this must be like it. Even in the matter of house adornments, such as buhl and marqueterie, glass, ornamented . metals, porcelain, carpets, and so forth, a long succession of pretty things meets the eye of the visitor. A lady might linger over them lovingly for hours, and sometimes, I fear, she would depart with notions of the elegant in art manufacture, sorely trying to her powers of endurance under temptation to the cash in her purse. A visitor, in short, to the South Kensington Museum may come away all the better for the visit having enlightened his understanding on a vast number of useful matters. But before asking you, my reader, to accompany me in an ideal ramble through the rooms and galleries, I must crave your patience while I describe very briefly the history and the purpose of the museum—very important matters to be clearly understood.
    The origin of the institution can be set forth in few words. The close of the Great Exhibition in 1851 was attended with the pleasing result of surplus cash in the money-box. The question then arose, what was to become of it? Some advocated one thing, some another. There were many differences of opinion, as, indeed, usually happens when money has to be disposed of. Eventually the South Kensington Museum sprang out of that money, and sure I am no reasonable person will grieve at the result. The ground, at least, was bought with the money in the hands of the Commissioners, and a good investment the purchase has been. It is a noble estate, with soil, site, and aspect all that could be desired, and, from the proximity to Kensington Gardens, safe from being surrounded by buildings. The present structures and arrangements can only be regarded as provisional and temporary, until suitable permanent edifices can be erected. By successive additions to the buildings that were on the estate when bought, the structure has gradually assumed its present form and dimensions. The old brick houses, formerly tenanted by Judge Gresswell and Lord Talbot,. supplied the nucleus of the group of buildings now occupying the south-east corner of the estate, and known as "The South Kensington Museum." Now offices were erected by the Board of Works ; the wooden sheds used by the pupils of the Schools of Design were moved from Marlborough House; a commodious, if not elegant, iron structure was raised by the Commissioners of the Exhibition of 1851; and brick galleries have been since constructed for the reception of Mr. Sheepshanks' munificent gift of pictures and drawings. More recently, extensive new galleries have been added for the pictures from the Vernon and Turner collections. There have also been erected refreshment rooms, storehouses, and various other structures, all of a temporary and economical kind, yet, in the internal fittings and arrangements, admirably adapted for every object in view. What if the buildings are not very symmetrical, and the business transacted in them of a miscellaneous character the museum is in this respect a true off- shoot of the British constitution itself, in its gradual and irregular growth, but its sure and practical usefulness.
    The nominal suzerain of the establishment is the President of the Committee of the Privy Council on Education. The business of that important committee is twofold, the primary division having reference to government aid of the education of the poor, and the secondary division is represented by the "Science and Art Department," the object of which is to diffuse among all classes of the community those principles of science and art which are calculated to advance the industrial interests of the country. At the South Kensington Museum this science and art department has its head-quarters, with corresponding schools of art in the provinces. The central training institute for artists, with its schools, lectures, models, and library, is here located, and good work it is now doing, the influence of which is felt throughout the kingdom, both by diffusing knowledge of art, and by encouraging rising talent pupils being sent up from provincial schools as the reward of merit and industry, as tested by competitive examination.
    Under the shelter of this Science and Art Departrnent, sundry other institutions have found a temporary home. The Commissioners of Patents have transferred their collection of models and drawings to South Kensington, and a part of the museum has been assigned for their exhibition. The Architectural Museum, formerly in Cannon Row, has been removed to this place. The Institute of British Sculptors have contributed their collection, and other societies, as well as liberal individuals, have helped to enrich the museum. We hope yet to see a range of buildings worthy of the nation, erected on the South Kensington estate, rich in objects for exhibition, and furnished with every appliance for popular instruction. Although the annual display of paintings by the Royal Academy, or the exhibition of a National Gallery of pictures by old masters, may be elsewhere, it is here that there ought to be the People's Palace of Art, with its galleries, collections, schools, libraries, and all accompanying. arrangements.
     Already, even in the infancy of the museum, its popularity and usefulness are apparent. There are upwards of forty thousand visitors monthly on the free days of admission, and on the students' days a goodly number are also in attendance. The museum has not yet been open two years, and, when it is better known, it will be one of the most favourite places of resort. One thing will be admitted by every visitor, that there is no public institution in the kingdom where the convenience and comfort, as well as the amusement and instruction of the people, are more efficiently provided for. The directors and officials of all the departments are zealous and attentive, and the civilian staff is ably reinforced by a detachment of the Royal Engineers, whose useful services at the Exhibition of 1851 will be always remembered with satisfaction.
      Next week we shall commence our ramble through the Museum.

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