12 December 2017

V & A Museum restaurants - high Victorian art in London

When a new home for the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert) was needed, they used the estate rec­ently bought by the Commissioners for the Great Exhib­ition of 1851. The Museum was established in 1852 and funded by the financial surpluses from the Great Exhibition - to educate working people with works of art, and to insp­ire British designers and manufacturers. Sir Henry Cole (1808–82) be­came first dir­ec­tor of the V & A, with the approval of Prince Albert.

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.

Gamble Room

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.

Poynter Room

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.

Morris Room

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.


Train Man said...

When we looked at the main World Fairs that had been arranged since 1851, I don't remember too many examples of recycling. Buildings were often pulled down and contents were often sold.

On the other hand, saving objects for the V & A seemed like a cool idea.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, In the Cleveland Museum of Art, the eating areas were mostly utilitarian, so I never thought of investigating the restaurants in other museums, especially since I would rather spend time looking than eating. However, it does not surprise me that in the V&A, which is so beautiful in every respect, the dining rooms would be works of art in themselves. Since a return trip to the V&A is definitely on my list, I'll plan to spend some more time there investigating these rooms.

Hels said...

Train Man

I remember the lectures too. France had held manufacturing exhibitions earlier, but nothing was as impressive and as global as Crystal Palace in 1851. As you noted, there was an agreement to pull down the exhibition buildings in most cities after six months, so they were built to be easily dismantled. Thank goodness the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne are still beautifully intact.

Many of the British objects from Crystal Palace were used as the first collection for the South Kensington Museum/V&A which opened in 1857. I wonder what happened to the displays and products from overseas countries.

Hels said...


Since the V & A calls itself the world's leading museum of art and design, it became very appropriate to display great design at every opportunity. The Gamble, Poynter and Morris Rooms are the three interlinked rooms that have perfectly tasty lunches and afternoon teas. But I suspect the museum actually wanted visitors to learn from the decorative arts chosen by William Morris and his colleagues. There is nothing like absorbing education in situ :)

bazza said...

Leah and I find the V and A to be our favourite London Museum. She gets a new Membership on her Birthday every year (from me)! They have just opened the new members dining room - haven't seen it yet but hope to soon. The building is worth going to see just for itself.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s seasonally adjusted Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Intriguing. I like the V&A on the whole - not sure whether the building is lovely or impressive, or both - but I wouldn't want to live in it anyway. More importantly, I didn't get to the Pink Floyd Exhibition..!

Hels said...


The members' dining room, just opened in September, does not reflect high Victorian art because Aston Webb’s wing was built just before WW1. From the photos, what stands out are the glass panels down the centre of the gallery for natural light, the parquet flooring, one long terrazzo bar and dark 1930s furniture.

We have membership of our NGV in Melbourne so presumably we would enjoy reciprocal rights for the V & A in London. I will check that out.

Hels said...


The V & A blog mentioned hugely popular exhibitions such as David Bowie Is, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. But we can't always get what we want.

However I did! The V & A's silver art collection examines the development of European styles and skills, and shows the stunning work of Huguenot silversmiths who fled France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685).

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Hels said...

piseth san

Thank you. Did you get the chance to visit the V & A? What was your impression?

piseth san said...
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