The South Kensington site architect was Captain Francis Fowke (1823-65), Inspector of Science and Art. Ignoring the contemporary fashion for Gothic architecture, Fowke chose a North Italian Renaissance style, two storeys high, with a grand Lecture Theatre complex forming the centrepiece.
In 1861 designer Godfrey Sykes (1824-66) was invited by Henry Cole to assist Francis Fowke on the buildings connected with the gardens and the arcades. Many of the decorative schemes in the North and South Courts were Sykes’ work, as was the choice of terracotta as the museum’s distinctive decorative material.
The first decoration in the Lecture Theatre building, the showpiece southern exterior, was completed by Fowke and Sykes. The main feature of the red-brick, terracotta and mosaic-faced façade was its three large recessed arches, supported by terracotta columns bearing figures. Portraits of key members of the Museum team and from the fields of art and science appeared in the mosaic panels and lunettes.
The Gamble, Poynter and Morris Rooms were the three interlinked rooms that made up the lavishly decorated Museum restaurants.
The walls and columns of the original Refreshment Room/now The Gamble Room, influenced by the Prince Consort's completed dairy at Frogmore, were faced with majolica created by Minton. Much of the decoration was planned by Sykes, just before he died (1866). The room was opened in 1867, when the décoration was still incomplete.
John Everett Millais (1829-96) selected the original colours. But in 1874–5 the Gamble Room’s plaster ceiling was replaced by the Enamelled Iron Co; they used sheet-iron enamelled in colours suggested by the metal advertisements on railway stations. Thus the ventilation grilles were surrounded by very heavy, ornate enamelled iron plates.
The windows and frieze were full of Victorian mottoes about the joys of eating and drinking. With ceramic tiled walls and columns, they were clean and easily washed for dining. As a precaution against fire, food for this main refreshment room was prepared in kitchens outside the walls.
Henry Cole was also responsible for other innovations: the V&A was the first public museum in the world to be artificially lit so that workers could come in the evenings. This was to “furnish a powerful antidote to the Gin Palace”, to give working families culture instead of booze. Cole's concept of a museum restaurant was completely new; as a way of getting people to enjoy culture, it was a world first for South Kensington. Even the Victorians, used to dazzle, would have been struck by the decoration.
For the decoration of the smaller flanking rooms, in quieter colours, other talents were called in. Edward Poynter (1836-1919), recently successful at the Royal Academy, was invited in Nov 1865 to decorate the easternmost restaurant, the Grill Room/Poynter Room. Students were involved on a practical level because the glazed blue Dutch tiles, designed by Edward Poynter, were painted by a special tile-painting class for ladies at the Schools of Design. It was rare for women to train professionally, so for them to be engaged in this very public commission was progressive. This radical spirit at South Kensington possibly predicted the Arts and Crafts designs of the 1880-1910 era.
Poynter designed the windows and also the iron and brass steaks grill which The Building News thought showed 'the hands of a first rate Gothic architect rather than those of a painter'. The Poynter Room was opened in 1867, furnished with little tables of iron with white marble tops and decorated like the great iron stove.
Visitors could come here for breakfast when the catering contractor offered a long menu, divided according to social standing. The 1st class menu was elaborate and expensive; the 2nd class menu was more limited and cheaper. The 3rd class menu was only available to workmen at the Museum.
The westernmost room, originally called the Green Dining Room and now the Morris Room, was designed by William Morris himself. The subdued colours of the scheme show that at the time he was still under the influence of the Gothic Revival. He decorated the walls with panelling below the green plaster, and a low relief of olive branches. William Morris had been Pre-Raphaelite friends with Philip Webb, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in 1861, they all became partners in the interior decorating and furnishing business. Thus the stained-glass windows bore female figures painted by Edward Burne-Jones and Philip Webb.
Towering stain glass windows, lavish dark teal-stained wood and gold painted panelling adorned the Morris Room walls. Crisp linens covered the circular tables with matching green British Burleigh crockery.
The Museum bought some stained glass from Morris, Marshall & Faulkner Co. and, along with the ceiling and panelled dados, the work was finished in 1868–9. Burne Jones' figure-panels in the dado, which were completed soon after, were based on the signs of the zodiac, and his windows designs showed medieval domestic tasks.
The rest of the decoration was by Morris' friend, architect Philip Webb. Webb took his inspiration from medieval and clerical sources for the frieze, and medieval manuscripts for the ceiling decoration. The four hanging lights were designed much later, based on a drawing by Philip Webb, and were installed in 1926. The only part of the decoration that was influenced by Morris’ pattern-making was in the plaster-work on the walls - leaves, flowers and berries.
"The Building News" in 1870 found the rooms bright and cheerful, like the richly and gaily-adorned cafés of Paris. But after Cole's retirement in 1873, his planned building programme stopped. It was only in 1889 that public opinion demanded that the building of the Museum be completed .. somehow. The facades of the Victoria and Albert Museum built in 1899-1909 displayed the museum as a treasure house of priceless objects in marble halls.
The lavishly decorated, historic refreshment rooms that stunned and delighted visitors in the Victorian era were way beyond my personal taste. But as works of Victorian art in their own right, they are well worth visiting.