The Home of Young Royals

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Kensington Palace, set in Kensington Gardens in London, has been a royal residence since the 17th-century. It is currently the home of several members of the British royal family, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the recently married Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Parts of the palace, namely the State Rooms, are open to the public under the care of the independent charity Historic Royal Palaces. These rooms also contain many paintings and objects belonging to the royal collection.

Throughout its 300 year history, Kensington Palace has been a number of things, including army barracks, a museum, a home and, most importantly, a setting for the royal court. Kensington was originally a small, remote village with acres of open fields on which sat a simple squire’s mansion known as Nottingham House. In 1689, a year after James II (1633-1701) had been deposed, the new joint monarchs William III (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-94) purchased the house, thus putting Kensington clearly on the map.

The house was fairly small in comparison to the size of the palace today. Shortly after purchasing the building for £20,000, the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, famously remembered for the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral, was hired to transform the house into a suitable royal residence. Although the Palace has since been extended further, this initial extension added several rooms, for instance, a chapel, kitchens, stables and, most importantly, the State Apartments.

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Staircase leading to the King’s State Apartments

The State Apartments are part of the palace open to visitors and are included in the initial entrance fee. The King’s rooms are located at the top of a painted staircase. When William and Mary moved in at the beginning of the 1690s, this staircase was furnished with plain wooden panels, however, this was replaced with the staircase still in place today during the Georgian-era.

William III had little interest in the palace after his wife died in 1694, although he did entertain the Russian Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) here in 1698. Queen Anne (1665-1714) was disinclined to make any changes to the building when she moved in, however, she did concentrate on the garden, adding an Orangery in 1705. Having no direct heir, Anne passed her throne to Georg Ludwig Elector of Hanover (1660-1727) who was distantly related to James I (1566-1625). George I was later succeeded by his son, George II (1683-1760), and it was during both their reigns that many changes and embellishments occurred at Kensington Palace.

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Georgian designer. Yorkshire-born William Kent

As visitors will see as they ascend the stairs to the King’s State Rooms, the walls are painted with imaginary architecture featuring balconies from which Georgian ladies and gentlemen look down at the passers-by. Yeomen of the Guard in their red uniforms stand among these figures and it is thought some of the characters were based on real members of the royal court. Identified people include the king’s page Ulric, Turkish servants and a feral boy named Peter who had been found living in the woods in Germany.

Interestingly, the artist commissioned to paint the King’s rooms was not Sir James Thornhill (1676-1734), the leading painter at the time, but the lesser known William Kent (1685-1748). The rather arrogant but talented artist included a portrait of himself on the ceiling wearing his artist’s cap and holding a palette.

The first room in the tour of the King’s State Apartments is the Presence Chamber. Sparsely furnished, this is where the reigning king received his important guests whilst seated on a throne under a crimson silk damask canopy. Although the original is either lost or too worn for display, a replica is in place in the Presence Chamber today.

Once again, William Kent produced the ceiling paintings and was inspired by the recently excavated houses on the Palatine Hill in Rome. In the centre circle, the Roman god Apollo is riding his chariot through the sky on a dark cloud. Surrounding the fireplace is a handful of Grinling Gibbons or sleeping cherubs surrounded by roses, which were once painted lead white, however, are now plain limewood.

Those lucky enough to be allowed further into the King’s State Rooms would next enter into the Privy Chamber, which was once Queen Caroline (1683-1737), the wife of George II’s favourite place to entertain guests and family.

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Privy Chamber

Again, Kent is responsible for the painted ceiling, which features Mars, the Roman god of war and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. These mythological figures are said to represent the king and queen. George II was the last British king to lead his troops into battle and Caroline had particular interests in art and science.

The walls of the Privy Chamber are hung with tapestries that come from the Mortlake Tapestry set representing the months of the year, once owned by Charles I (1600-49). These particular draperies show four different months: February, July, August and November.

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The Cupola Room

Following on from the Privy Chamber is the Cupola Room, which was the first room decorated by William Kent and definitely shows off his skill. Through his excellent use of Trompe-l’œil, an art technique which creates the optical illusion that the depicted objects are three-dimensional, Kent recreated a baroque Roman palace with the Star of the Order of the Garter in the centre of the ceiling. This impressed George I and earned Kent the honour of decorating the other rooms.

Today, the decor of the Cupola Room is overshadowed by an intriguing object in the centre of the room. After walking around it several times, visitors will realise that it is, in fact, a clock, albeit with the tiniest clock face. It is also a music box that once played music by Handel (1685-1759) as well as a work of art. The four panels on the upper portion of the object contain paintings depicting four ancient monarchies. Known as the ‘Temple of the Four Great Monarchies of the World’, this clock-cum-music-box was purchased by Princess Augusta (1719-72), the daughter-in-law of George II.

The Cupola Room was usually used for parties and dancing, although in 1819 it was the location for the baptism of the future Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Born to the Duke and Duchess of Kent, it was the Prince Regent (later George IV (1762-1830)) who decided on her name: Alexandrina Victoria, named after the Russian Tsar and Victoria’s mother respectively.

Next door to the Cupola Room is the King’s Drawing Room, which was also used for parties. The ceiling, once again painted by William Kent, shows the Roman god Jupiter accidentally killing his lover Semele. On the walls hang several paintings, one of which was a particular favourite of George II. Venus and Cupid by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) still hangs in the room today, however, during 1735 when the king was in Hanover, Queen Caroline had it removed in preference of her collection of Van Dyck (1599-1641) portraits. On his return, the enraged king insisted on the reinstatement of his beloved painting.

Whilst the dancing was going on next door, the queen would often retreat to the Drawing Room with a handful of guests to play cards. Visitors to the palace are provided with the opportunity to play three types of games the Royals may once have played. The first is a board game titled Game of Court in which players navigate around the board to be the first to greet the king. Each player starts with twelve coins, although in the Georgian-era they would have played with their own money, and throws two dice to determine how far they travel along the board. Some squares contain instructions that may involve paying money, missing a turn or being rewarded. For example, if you land on 42, you “Lose 200 Guineas playing Cards. Pay a coin and roll a double to move.” On the other hand, landing on 18 “You speak the language of the court, French, superbly. Move forward the same number of squares again.” The player to reach the finish square first wins all the coins that have been put into the pot throughout the game.

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The second green baize card table contains a set of playing cards, which can be used to play a multiple of games. What is interesting about these particular cards is their design. The suit and number appear in the top left-hand corner but the rest of the card contains a verse and music notes. Take, for example, the seven of spades:
Come sweet lass,
Let’s banish sorrow
Till To’morrow;
Come sweet lass,
Let’s take a chirping glass.
Wine can clear
The vapours of despair;
And make us light as air;
Then drink and banish care.

On the third table is a dice game of chance named Hazard. Again, each player begins with twelve coins and the first player throws two dice. The number rolled, so long as it is either the number 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9, decides the game’s “lose” number. The second roll of the dice determines the “win” number, so long as it is the number 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 (but not the same as the “lose” number). Once these numbers have been established, the game can begin. Each player takes turns rolling the dice, putting in one coin in the pot every time it is their turn. If the “lose” number is thrown, that player is now out. When a player throws the “win” number, the game is over and that player wins all the coins that have been put in the pot.

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In the Drawing Room, Cupola Room and one of the adjoining rooms are a few examples of Georgian fashion. Visitors may be shocked by the width of the skirts ladies were expected to wear. Called a mantua, ladies were required to wear a coat-like dress with a train spread out over an enormous petticoat supported by a hoop. Unless they were attending parties at the palace, the wearers had to enter the room sideways because most doorways could not accommodate the width of the skirt. It was also very difficult to walk in and the hooped skirt forced ladies to take tiny steps, making it appear as though they were rolling along on wheels.

The dresses tended to be very frilly, the sleeves having at least three rows of ruffles. When attending the palace, ladies wore their best jewellery and feathers in their hair. They were also expected to carry a fan to be used as a form of sign language. By waving a fan in a particular way, one could signal the message “I am married” or “go away” as well as more encouraging words.

Men, whilst not burdened with a mantua, had other fashion rules to abide. All gentlemen had to wear a wig, regardless of the quality of their own hair. Their suit was embroidered with intricate designs and worn with silk stockings and pumps with glittery buckles. It was also customary to have a sword tied to your waist. While these costumes may sound extravagant today, the Georgian belief was you can never be overdressed.

A small room leading off from the Drawing Room is delegated Queen Caroline’s Closet. At one point in history, William III used this as a bedchamber and George I used it as a storage room for his books. Caroline, on the other hand, used it as a display room for hundreds of small paintings, miniatures and embroidery. The star exhibit was a precious portfolio the queen had discovered hidden in a cabinet. It contained many drawings by the famous Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) of Henry VIII (1491-1547) and his Tudor subjects. These were not finished artworks but studies of sitters for paintings. A couple of examples are on display today.

The final room in the tour of the King’s State Rooms is the King’s Gallery, which was built for William III. Although the walls are now red, it was originally hung with green velvet and the king would meet here with his spies to plan his military campaigns. In the centre of the room hangs a wind-dial made by Robert Morden (1650-1703), which was attached to a weather vane on the roof of the palace. This allowed William to see what direction the wind was blowing and judge whether there was a risk of invasion. While resting in this room after breaking his collar bone in a riding accident, it is believed William III caught a chill, which led to pneumonia and ultimately his death.

The green walls were replaced with red damask for George I and William Kent painted scenes from the life of the Roman hero Ulysses on the ceiling. Many of the picture frames and statues in the room were also designed by Kent. At the eastern end of the room hung Van Dyck’s painting of Charles I, which, in more recent years, has been replaced with a copy.

Other paintings in the room are a mix of religious and classical stories. A painting by Jacopo Bassano (1510-92) depicts the great flood recorded in the story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis 6-9. The painting shows people’s futile attempts to save children and animals from the deepening water. The Flood came into the possession of the Royal Collection when it was purchased by Charles I from the Gonzaga collection in Mantua.

There are also biblical scenes from the New Testament, for example, Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Bonifazio de’ Pitati (1487-1553). This was also acquired by Charles I and shows the scene described in John 4:5-26 where Christ rests at Jacob’s well on his way to Galilee. Here he meets and speaks with a Samaritan woman, something that was not allowed at the time, using the water in the well as a metaphor for salvation.

In 1835, the King’s Gallery was converted into three rooms for Princess Victoria while she was growing up. Whilst Victoria loved these rooms, the original gallery was restored a century later.

Adjacent to the King’s State Rooms are the Queen’s State Apartments. These are accessed by an elegant oak-panelled stairway, which is deliberately plainer than the King’s staircase, although still rather grand. Little has changed here since Christopher Wren built them in 1690, however, it is believed to be the first staircase of its kind.

The first room in the tour of the Queen’s Apartments is the Queen’s Gallery, which was designed as an airy space for Mary II to enjoy simple pastimes, such as, reading, needlework and, when raining, walking. Both Mary and her cousin William, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, had been living in Europe before they married and came to England to be crowned as joint rulers. Mary brought with her several treasures she had collected while in the Netherlands, including objects that had been brought overseas by the Dutch East India Company from places such as China, India and Japan. Mary used these items to furnish her new apartments.

Examples of Mary’s vast collection still furnish the gallery today. Originally, over 150 pieces were in this room alone, with oriental porcelain and Delft crammed onto every surface. As visitors will see, she even placed items above the doorways.

On the walls hang a number of paintings, including one of her husband William before he was made King of England. Posed wearing full armour, the Dutch artist Willem Wissing (1656-87) painted the Prince of Orange as an archetypal commander, perhaps foreseeing his future as king.

Another painting in the room is of Mary’s mother Anne Hyde (1637-71), the Duchess of York. Anne was the wife of James II and the mother of two future queens of England: Mary and Anne. This portrait may have been painted by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) who Anne sat for on a number of occasions.

In the corner sits a coloured bust of a Moor, an enslaved man, who has been identified as William III’s favourite personal servant. Although Moors were often kept in slavery, the British royals and upper classes were particularly passionate about their exotic artworks and marbles, such as this example carved by John Nost (d.1729).

The Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by day

The Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by day – Peeter Neeffs

The Queen’s Closet also contains a number of artworks and collectable objects, for example, a couple of paintings showing the interior of Antwerp Cathedral in Belgium by Peeter Neeffs the Elder (1578-1656), although these particular pieces were acquired much later by George III.

Mary II used this room when she wished to withdraw from the social world. Years later when her sister was queen, it was in this room that Queen Anne had a huge argument with her childhood friend Sarah Churchill (1660-1744), Duchess of Marlborough, and ended up stripping Sarah of her high-rank and dismissing her from court.

The Queen’s Closet leads into the Dining Room where William and Mary once shared simple private suppers of fish and beer. Mary could also dine alone here but it was too small for more than a couple of guests.

Again, there are a few pieces of art in this room, including a painting of a much-loved housekeeper above the fireplace. This was Katherine Elliot who had been the nurse for James II when he was a child. She later became both the court Dresser and Woman of the Bedchamber for James’ wives and inevitably had some interaction with his children.

“The Queen brought about the custom … of filling houses with China-ware which increased to a strange degree afterwards piling their China upon the tops of Cabinets, Scutores, and every Chymney-Piece to the tops of the Ceilings.”
– Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

As the author Daniel Defoe rightly commented, Mary II owned a lot of porcelain, which adorns most rooms in the Queen’s apartments. During her lifetime, however, the majority of these ceramics could be found in the Queen’s Drawing Room. Originally panelled, this room was damaged by an incendiary bomb during World War Two, which is why the rooms are now wallpapered.

Although rather sparse in comparison to how it would have looked 300 years ago, the drawing room has a few items of interest, particularly a barometer set in a carved oak and walnut case. Made by Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), the most famous clockmaker in England at the time, the barometer indicates the weather on a silvered and matted gold dial. To the casual observer, the numbers on the dial mean nothing, however, each number is designated a type of weather ranging from Stormy (30) to Settled Fair (270).

The final room in the Queen’s Apartments is the Queen’s Bedroom, although it later became a cosy sociable place where Mary could show off more of her porcelain. The bed which can be found in the bedroom today is thought to be the one in which James Edward Stuart (1688-1766), son of King James II was born, at St James’ Palace, in 1688. How this bed came to be at Kensington Palace is not mentioned.

After visiting both the King and Queen’s rooms, there are still two parts of the palace to explore. One part contains temporary exhibitions where famous paintings, objects and items of clothing, for example, Princess Diana’s (1961-97) wedding dress can be found. Currently, the temporary exhibition is about the life of Queen Victoria, in honour of her two hundredth birthday. Whilst this is a temporary exhibition, the history of Victoria’s life is a permanent feature at the Palace and can be found in the rooms on the first floor.

Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on the 24th May 1819 at 4.15 am. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent had only recently arrived at the Palace and their daughter was born in a dining room that had hastily been turned into a bedroom ready for their arrival so that there would be easy access to hot water from the kitchen nearby.

When Alexandrina Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne. Prince Edward (1767-1820), the Duke of Kent was the fourth son of George III and his wife, Victoire (1786-1861) was the widow of Emich Carl (1763-1814), the Prince of Leiningen. Although Victoire had two older children from her previous marriage – Prince Charles (1804-1856) and Princess Feodora (1807-72) – they did not have any claim to the British throne.

The Duke of Kent died after a short illness before Victoria’s first birthday, thus putting his daughter fourth in line to the throne. Victoire, despite speaking mainly German, decided to stay at Kensington Palace and provide her daughter with a royal upbringing.

As a young child, Victoria was happy and lively, playing with hundreds of toys, for example, her beloved dolls house, and being spoilt by everyone around her. She had a vivid imagination and was always making costumes for her dolls, dressing herself up, or inventing stories. As she grew older, she began producing drawings, many of which can be seen at Kensington Palace. Victoria was always dressed as a princess and was given a ring made of gold, emerald and ruby at a tender age.

She was, however, prone to tantrums, which led to her mother’s advisor Sir John Conroy (1786-1854) inventing a set of rules known as the “Kensington System”. These rules required Victoria to behave like a queen in every aspect of her life from diet and exercise to social engagements and religious observance. She was also taught a variety of subjects including the usual drawing and music as well as more masculine lessons, such as arithmetic, history and Latin. Whilst Conroy claimed to have Victoria’s education at heart, some people thought he was trying to control the princess. She was never allowed to be on her own or walk down the stairs without assistance. Nor did she have many friends her own age. Naturally, one of the first things Victoria did as queen was to get rid of the detested Conroy.

It was at Kensington Palace where Princess Victoria met her future husband. For her 17th birthday, her mother invited Victoria’s uncle and cousins to Kensington Palace. It had long been hoped that Victoria would marry her cousin Albert (1819-61), although, the present King William IV (1765-1837) had other ideas. Fortunately, Victoria and Albert fell in love during this visit and the princess wrote in her diary that Albert was “extremely handsome” and that she admired his good-naturedness and intelligence. After becoming queen, Victoria was able to take the initiative and propose to Albert with whom she lived happily until he died from typhoid in 1861.

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The First Council of Queen Victoria by Sir David Wilkie

“I must say, it was quite like a dream.”
– Victoria’s journal, 21st June 1837

On the 20th June 1837 at 6am, less than a month after Victoria had turned 18, she was woken up by her mother with the news that “my poor Uncle, the King, was no more … and consequently that I am Queen.” Her first Council meeting took place on the same morning in the Red Saloon, which is the final room in the tour of the Victoria Rooms. Unfortunately, Victoria had to leave her childhood home and move to Buckingham Palace, never to live at Kensington again.

Since Queen Victoria left Kensington Palace, many royals have moved in and out and a number of children have grown up in the same rooms as their ancestors. Many elderly descendants of Queen Victoria were granted apartments at the Palace, including two of her daughters: Louise (1848-1939) and Beatrice (1857-1944). Louise moved in while her mother was still alive and Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “happy to think one of my daughters shd. live in a part of it.”

Many of Victoria’s grandchildren lived at Kensington at some point, including her last surviving grandchild Princess Alice (1883-1981). Another granddaughter, Victoria Mountbatten (1863-1950), Marchioness of Milford Haven moved in after the death of her husband and often had her grandson Philip come to stay. This is the very same Philip who went on to marry the future Queen Elizabeth in November 1947.

In 1960, the newly married Princess Margaret (1930-2002) and Lord Snowdon (1930-2017) made Kensington Palace their home. Here they raised their children David and Sarah. In 1982, the residents of Kensington Palace welcomed the new Prince and Princess of Wales (Charles and Diana). Both of their sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, grew up here and Diana remained at the palace after her divorce from Prince Charles in 1992, who moved to Clarence House. Both young princes returned to the palace in adulthood and Prince William remains living there with his family today.

Before leaving Kensington Palace, visitors have the opportunity to purchase souvenirs in the gift shop or have a bite to eat in the cafe. There is also a beautiful garden to explore that has been developed over the past three hundred years and includes a sunken garden, orangery and a statue of Queen Victoria. These gardens are available to all visitors and can be explored without having purchased a ticket to enter the palace.

Kensington Palace is a wonderful place to visit and has been the home of many royal children over the past three centuries as well as the home of kings and queens. It is steeped in history but, as a working palace, it has also been brought into the contemporary era. The entry fee is quite expensive but it is a price worth paying. Cheaper tickets can be purchased online for £17.50 (adults) and £8.70 (children), however, they are more expensive if bought directly from the palace.

Russia in London

This winter, Russia has come to the UK capital with a double exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The two exhibitions explore Britain’s relationship with Russia through works of art belonging to Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. The contrasting displays show two sides of a relationship between two countries: war and peace, positive and negative, dynasty and military. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of the Russian monarchy, the Royal Collection Trust reflects on the past and examines our ties with the world’s largest nation.

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The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887 – Laurits Regner Tuxen

The earliest links between Britain and Russia date back to the mid-sixteenth century through trade relations. In later years, political and military alliances formed, particularly during the Napoleonic War (1803-15), however, it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) that strong connections began to form. The Queen was the matriarch of a remarkably large family, as can be seen in Laurits Regner Tuxen’s (1853-1927) painting The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887, in which 54 members of her family surround Victoria in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61) were the parents of nine children who went on to provide them with 42 grandchildren. Subsequently, this generation went on to provide the Queen with 87 great-grandchildren, many of whom belonged to foreign royal houses through intermarriage. Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969), for example, Victoria’s great-granddaughter, the small child on the far right of the painting, went on to marry Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark (1882-1944) in 1903. Of their five children, their youngest went on the become the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip (b.1921).

At the back of the painting on the far left are two cousins who, unbeknownst to them at the time, would grow up to become monarchs of two warring countries. These are the future George V (1865-1936) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) of Germany. The year 2018 also marks the end of their battle, World War One.

Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs

Royalty and the Romanovs begins with a bust of William III (1650-1702) who was on the throne at the time Tsar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) visited England in 1698, the first Russian ruler to do so. Peter later went on to proclaim the establishment of the Russian empire in 1721, thus becoming its first emperor.

The portrait of Peter the Great was painted during his stay in England by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the leading portrait painter in the country at the time. It was gifted to William III who hung it in the Drawing Room at Kensington Palace. Peter’s visit was part of his ‘Grand Embassy’ of 1697-8 in which he aimed to discover more advanced information about countries of Western Europe. He was particularly interested in the ship-building of the English and the Dutch, having set up the Russian Navy a few years previously.

This initial contact was the start of a new, dynastic relationship between Britain and Russia and the portrait of Peter I was not the only painting of a Russian ruler to be gifted to a British monarch. Other gifts also found their way into Britain, for example, a box featuring the profile of Peter the Great on a Renaissance style medallion, which Queen Mary (1867-1953) gave to George V on his birthday in 1932.

The exhibition features a large number of portraits of Russian royals that now belong in the Royal Collection. One of the most significant of these is the coronation portrait of Catherine II (1729-96), Empress of Russia painted by the Danish artist Vigilis Eriksen (1722-82). Twice a day, a short talk is given by the gallery staff about the clothes Catherine the Great is wearing, her crown and the objects she is holding. The orb and sceptre are symbols of rulership, just as they are in Britain, thus emphasising her power. Her silver brocade robe also emphasises her leadership with numerous hand-stitched embellishments of the imperial double-headed eagle.

Unlike many other monarchies who pass their royal crowns down from one ruler to the next, the Russian monarchs each had their own personal crown. In the portrait, Catherine II is wearing her imperial crown, which had been made especially for her by the court jeweller, Jérémie Pauzié (1716-79). It was an extremely valuable item, decorated with over 5000 diamonds.

It is uncertain how this portrait found its way into the Royal Collection, however, the most likely explanation is that it was a gift for either George III (1738-1820) or the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762-1830). Records state that it was eventually relocated to Carlton House in 1813 where it furnished the royal apartments in preparation of Alexander I’s (1777-1825) visit the following year.

Portraits of the Russian monarchs’ families are also in abundance at the exhibition. Positioned opposite Catherine II is Elizabeth Alexeievna (1779-1826), previously known as Princess Louise of Baden until her marriage to Tsar Alexander I. The demeanour and dress of the Russian empress starkly contrasts the opulent outfit of Catherine the Great. This painting was produced by George Dawes during the interim period between Alexander’s death on 1st December 1825 and Elizabeth’s on 16th May 1826. She is dressed in typical black mourning clothes and clutches her heart as if in grief. Standing next to a bust of her late husband, it is not certain whether her facial expression is one of mourning or perhaps something of the opposite since it is believed the couple’s relationship was rather unhappy. Nonetheless, Queen Victoria was inspired to purchase the painting a mere six months after her own husband’s death.

Hanging next to Elizabeth is the Emperor of Russia himself, Alexander I, also painted by Dawes. Dawes spent ten years in the service of the Tsar and this is one of his highest quality paintings. It shows Alexander in the uniform of a Russian field marshal decorated with the star of St Andrew of Russia with the Order of the Garter, badges of St George of Russia and Maria Theresa of Austria, the Iron Cross of Prussia and the 1812 medal. He also has the Sword of Sweden on his hip, adding to his majestic pose and emphasising his height. Queen Victoria was offered this portrait in 1861 and it was eventually hung in the Household Corridor of Buckingham Palace.

Also by George Dawes is a portrait of Charlotte (1798-1860), the wife of Nicholas I (1796-1855), with her two eldest children. The daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was betrothed to the future Tsar for political reasons, however, the marriage was a happy one and the couple produced seven children. Rather than painting her alone, Dawes had Charlotte pose with her two eldest children, Alexander and Maria. The restless young boy would one day be Emperor Alexander II (1855-81), also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland.

The clothing of the Russian royals, particularly the women, were particularly elegant and adorned. In a portrait of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), the only daughter of George IV and wife of the future king of Belgium, a particular style of Russian dress can be seen. The gallery not only has this painting on display but also has the very same dress in a display cabinet nearby. Manufactured in England around 1817, this dress, a Sarafan-style ensemble, is made of French silk and comprises of a blue bodice and skirt with gold and red highlights, a gold fringe, and high, drawstring waist.

The royal men, however, were always painted in military clothing, for example, Nicholas I in the red uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guard. He is also shown wearing the badge of the Order of St George, and ribands and stars of the Order of the Garter and St Vladimir. The purpose of this was to emphasise the sitter or poser’s status. Whereas women were respected for their grace and beauty, men were exalted for their military achievements.

The outfit of Nicholas II (1868-1918) is far more familiar to the British public than the uniforms of the previous Tsars. Here, Nicholas wears the uniform of the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment of the British Army) to which he had been appointed colonel-in-chief in 1894 by Queen Victoria. This particular painting, however, was not completed until 1908 and, therefore, it was King Edward VII (1841-1910) who received it as a gift from the Tsar.

Of the numerous portraits, many of them help to identify the connections between the families of the Russian and British monarchies. Many of these occurred through marriages, both before and after the reign of Queen Victoria. One example is Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1781-1860) whose portrait the Queen had copied in 1844. Juliane was Victoria’s aunt who married into the Romanov family in 1796. By marrying Grand Duke Konstantin (1779-1831), she became the sister-in-law of Alexander I and Nicholas I.

The captivating portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra (1830-1911) has connections to today’s royal family. Alexandra, or Sanny as she was often known, was the fifth daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Amalie Therese Louise, Duchess of Württemberg. In 1848, she married Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827-92), the second son of Nicholas I, with whom she had six children. One of these, Olga Constantinovna (1855-1926) became the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, thus completing the connection to the British royal family.

In stark contrast to the bold, vibrant paintings of the 19th century, two watercolour paintings by the Russian painter Savely Abramovich Sorine (1878-1953) show two important members of the British royal family. These are HRH The Duchess of York (1900-2002) and HRH the Duchess of Edinburgh (b.1926), or as they are known today, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Her Majesty the Queen. It is believed that the soon-to-be Queen Mother commissioned these portraits, although over 20 years apart.

It is without a doubt the extensive family of Queen Victoria marrying into foreign families that strengthened the ties between other countries, particularly Russia. Two famous wedding paintings are on display, the most significant, perhaps, being the marriage of the Queen’s second son Alfred to Maria (1853-1920), the only surviving daughter of Alexander II. Initially, Queen Victoria had misgivings about the match, stating in her diary that she:

“Felt quite bewildered. Not knowing Marie & realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts & feelings are rather mixed, but I said from my heart ‘God bless them’, & I hope and pray it may turn out for Affie’s happiness.”

Queen Victoria’s Journal, 11th July 1873

The wedding took place at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 23rd January 1874, directly uniting the British and Russian royal families for the first time. Unable to attend the wedding, Queen Victoria was provided with a series of watercolours of the marriage ceremony that Prince Alfred had commissioned the Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) to produce. From these illustrations, the Queen commissioned an oil painting, which hung in Buckingham Palace from 1901.

Another wedding painting, also commissioned by Queen Victoria, was of her grandaughter’s, Princess Alix of Hesse (1872-1918), marriage to Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace on 26th November 1894. The artist, Tuxen, beautifully highlights the faces of the bride and bridegroom with the soft glow of the candles they are holding. Known as Alexandra Feodorovna throughout Nicholas’ reign, she was assassinated in 1918 along with her husband and immediate family while in Bolshevik captivity. Thus ended the Russian monarchy. Princess Alix has since been canonized as Saint Alexandra the Passion-Bearer.

Not all the items in the exhibition are paintings. Within the Royal Collection are a number of objects that have been collected, bought, or gifted over time by the British royal family. Displayed amongst the paintings are a range of things that originated in Russia, for example, a number of malachite vases, candelabra, and columns.

Russian jewellery is also presented within display cases, the most famous being the Vladimir tiara. Made for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1890-1958), wife of Grand Duke Vladimir (1847-1909), it consists of converging circles studded with diamonds and adorned with green pearls. It eventually made its way into the Royal Collection after being given as a gift to Mary of Teck (1867-1953), the wife of George V, in 1921.

Other jewellery included brooches, such as the Diamond Jubilee Brooch given to Queen Victoria by Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and her other grandchildren to celebrate the 60th year of her reign. Made of diamonds and sapphires, it features the Slavonic symbol for the number 60 within a heart-shape.

Finally, there were many items made by the most notable Russian jeweller, Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). Famous for the Fabergé egg, he and his company also produced other pieces, including chalcedony figurines, ladies’ fans, and cigarette cases.

Russia: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea

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Self-portrait dressed as an Algerian Zouave

The second exhibition is far less glamorous than Royalty and the Romanovs, focusing on the aftermath of the Crimean War. Commissioned by the Manchester-based publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons, Roger Fenton (1819-69) went out to the areas affected by the conflicts and captured the scenes and people involved for consumption by the public. Until then, the true effects of war had been concealed from society, often being glamourised in paintings of war heroes.

The Crimean war began in 1853, pitching the allied nations of Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Russian Empire. Despite the previous exhibition suggesting a positive relationship between British and Russian families, Britain and her allies were determined to prevent Russia from gaining territorial control of various regions in eastern Europe, including on the coast of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Many people when talking about the Crimean War, think of people like Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81), who played a vital role in caring for the injured troops. Fenton, however, concentrated on the soldiers and the major battles of 1854, including Alma (20th September), Balaklava (25th October), and Inkerman (5th November).

Photos include landscapes of the war-torn land, such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which Fenton titled after the passage in Psalm 23, suggesting that the barren scene full of spent cannon balls shows that humanity is walking a fine line between the realms of life and sudden death. With no sign of civilisation, this photograph evokes a feeling of the loss and destruction experienced in that area.

Fenton also captured shots of soldiers within their camps, revealing a role women played in the Crimean War. In the photo of the Camp of the 4th Dragoons, a woman can be seen serving refreshments to the troops.

A significant photograph Fenton managed to take is a portrait of Captain Alexander Leslie-Melville (1831–57), also known as Lord Balgonie. The Scotsman stands staring away from the camera, his clothes unkempt and his expression rather shaken, as if he had only momentarily stepped away from the battlefield. Today, this image is regarded as the first photographic portrait of shell-shock.

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The Queen inspecting wounded Coldstream Guardsmen in the Hall of Buckingham Palace – John Gilbert

As part of this exhibition, some focus is given to the British royal family’s involvement in the years after the war. This painting by John Gilbert (1817-97) shows a crowd of injured Guardsmen in the presence of Queen Victoria. This meeting took place at Buckingham Palace on 20th February 1855. Shortly after, the Queen awarded the first Victoria Cross, which is currently the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system, awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

With an audio guide, which is provided free of charge for both exhibitions, visitors can listen to Prince Harry’s (b.1984) thoughts and opinions on the photographs, artwork and items featured in Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. Having been a Cornet in the Blues and Royals and an Apache co-pilot/gunner in the Army Air Corps during the Afghan War, he is sympathetic towards the soldiers, understanding what they had gone through and the way it would have affected the remainder of their lives.

Critics accused Fenton of staging many of the photographs he took in the Crimea, however, regardless as to the truth of this, they provide information about the war that no written account could ever hope to achieve. Through his photographs, the gallery has created a timeline of the war and helps visualise the scenes that are only ever heard about or even forgotten about, overshadowed by the two World Wars.

Whilst it is a pleasure to view the photographs of Roger Fenton and look at items in the Royal Collection as part of the Royalty and the Romanovs exhibition, both lack a sense of narrative. One feels as though they are going from one image to another thinking, “here’s a painting of a dead Tsar, and here’s another … and that’s so-and-so’s wife.”

The Crimean War almost has a narrative in that there is a clear timeline of events, however, the other exhibition has no sense of continuity. Being the centenary of the assassination of Nicholas II, the opportunity to focus on the lives of the Romanovs, their successes and their inevitable demise, would have been an obvious route to go down, however, the curators failed to rise to this occasion. Whilst this is a great shame, it is fascinating to see how far Queen Victoria’s immediate family stretched across Europe and Russia.

The Royal Collection Trust arguably has some of the finest works of art in the world and it is always a pleasure to view them at the Queen’s Gallery. Despite not quite living up to expectations, these two exhibitions are great for art lovers and historians with an interest in royalty and the Crimean War.

At £12 per adult, one ticket gives you access to both Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. These exhibitions are open to the public in London until Sunday 28th April 2019. By asking the Gallery to treat your ticket purchase as a donation, you receive free access for the following twelve months.

Splendours of the Subcontinent

For over 400 years, Britain has had connections with the Indian subcontinent, beginning with the East India Company in 1600. After the trading company was dissolved in 1858, two-thirds of the subcontinent became part of the British Raj, a union of the London India Office, the British Indian Government and Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Through this connection, Britain became the owners of many Indian works of art, paintings and manuscripts, which are still part of the Royal Collection today.

Some of the manuscripts and artworks were given as diplomatic gifts to the British Sovereign, whereas, others were given to individual British officers visiting the subcontinent. Queen Victoria was the recipient of many of these offerings, as was King George V (1865-1936) in the 20th century.

Recently, the Royal Collection showed off the brilliance of its Indian collection of art in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Splendours of the Subcontinent introduced the public to past relations with the Indian subcontinent and the style of art unique to Asia. Split into two halves, the exhibition examines Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts and explores A Prince’s Tour of India. The latter reveals the diplomatic tour Queen Victoria’s eldest son took around the subcontinent, covering 21 regions and culminating in hundreds of artworks.

 

A PRINCE’S TOUR OF INDIA 1875-6

On 8th November 1875, Albert Edward (1841-1910), the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – arrived in Bombay, starting off his four-month tour of the subcontinent. Travelling by boat, rail, or even elephant, the Prince visited over 90 Indian rulers or maharajas, presenting them with British jewellery, books and gifts and receiving local gifts of art in return.

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Peacock barge inkstand 1870-76

The first object in the exhibition is an impressive peacock barge inkstand made of gold and decorated with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and pearls. This was given to Prince Albert as a memento of his trip down the River Ganges on one of the state barges that it replicates. Complete with oars, an anchor, flagpole and mast, the stand separates into nineteen pieces, revealing two inkwells, a pair of scissors, a penknife and two pen nibs.

The prow of the barge represents the state bird of India, the Indian peafowl or peacock, with its tail spread and inlaid with sapphires and diamonds.  On the opposite side, the stern takes the form of the head of a Makara, a dragon-like mythological creature associated with Hinduism. Birds and flowers decorate the deck and the mast is engraved with a dedication to the Prince of Wales, making it a personalised gift from Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (1855-1931), the Maharaja of Benares.

Most of the gifts that Prince Albert received had been carefully thought out by the Indian rulers to ensure that they showed off the range of techniques and skills of their craftsmen as well as reflect the regions he visited. They expressed the culture and customs of the Indian population, which was becoming popular amongst Europeans at the time, since the 1851 Great Exhibition in London where Indian artwork was greatly admired.

A typical gift for royalty at the time was weaponry, particularly ceremonial swords and daggers. Presented by Ali Murad Khan I Talpur, Amir of Khairpur, Prince Albert received a foot-long sword made of fine watered crucible steel. This material gives the blade a unique rippled water-like pattern typical of bladesmiths in Iran, where it was most likely produced. The hilt, however, is more European in style and may even have been welded by a European metalworker. The hilt was engraved with a leaf-like pattern, decorated with diamonds, rubies and pearls, and finished off with a silk tassel that remarkably still remains attached to the pommel after 150 years. The scabbard is wooden, covered in deep-blue velvet with golden mounts and jewels arranged to look like flowers.

Royal CollectionThe Prince received a large number of swords, daggers and knives from all over the Indian subcontinent. This was probably of no surprise to him since he would also have been presenting gifts of this nature to the rulers he met. There were, however, a few more unusual presents.

Whilst in Jaipur, Prince Albert was presented with a silver astrolabe inscribed with the coordinates for Greenwich, the British centre of time-keeping. An astrolabe is a scientific instrument that can identify stars and planets as well as be used to navigate.

The significance of this gift was its connection to the city of Jaipur. Although astrolabes had been introduced to South Asia as early as the 14th century, it was during the reign of Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur (1688–1743) that the instrument became highly valued. The Maharaja was a keen astronomer, which led to the development of five observatories, one situated in Jaipur itself.

An intriguing gift, one that must have appealed to any children visiting the exhibition, was a set of eleven brass military figures. The Prince is thought to have received them whilst visiting Madras during the second month of his tour. They were originally part of a much larger set commissioned by the Raja of Peddapuram, Timma Razu (d.1796) but, after his death, the figures were separated, with many ending up in personal collections in both India and Britain. The figures reveal the many people and animals that made up the Indian military.

The majority of gifts the Prince received contained a remarkable amount of jewels and gemstones. In order to magnify their beauty, Indian craftsmen backed the stones with reflective foil, which enhanced their colour. The framework of the items was generally gold, either 22 or 24 carats. This showed the wealth and opulence of the rulers at the time.

Prince Albert received a lot of jewellery on his trip, however, the item the Royal Collection focused on was a piece he bought himself. Purchased from a peddler or boxwallah in Trichinopoly, the Prince of Wales presented his mother, Queen Victoria with a gold bangle on 24th May 1876 for her 57th birthday. “I received a number of lovely things. Arthur gave me a charming old Spanish fan from Seville & Bertie 2 beautiful Indian bracelets from Trinchinopoli & Jeypore.” [sic] (Queen Victoria’s journal)

The bangle looks rather large and heavy, made from gold and fashioned to look like the heads of several Makara (dragons). The two largest heads have been given rubies for eyes and a ruby-topped screw holds the hinged bracelet together. It is similar in style to that of Rococo, which had been introduced to Europe during the 18th century.

Many of the gifts, including jewellery, were purpose-made presents to welcome the Prince of Wales to India. One example is a red glass scallop-edged brooch decorated with a gold portrait of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This was presented to the future king by Ranjit Singh, Raja of Ratlam, along with a matching necklace.

Other presents the Prince brought home with him included a number of ornate address cases – boxes or pouches to keep the written welcome address he received at each location. Another box he was presented with was a small opium box, a traditional item in central India where the drug was harvested. The golden design was produced in a similar manner to the brooch received in Ratlam, however, this time it depicted Krishna, one of the Hindu gods.

Prince Albert departed from India on 13th March 1876, loaded down with the hundreds of gifts he had received. Knowing they were of extraordinary quality and design, he felt it right that the objects should be admired by the British public. Shortly after his return, the gifts went on display at the Indian Museum in South Kensington (now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum) where they were viewed by 30,000 in the first week. It is estimated that a total of 2.5 million people saw the gifts in Britain, with thousands more seeing them on tour in Copenhagen and Paris. The funds raised from the exhibitions were used to aid the construction of Aberdeen Art Gallery in Scotland.

FOUR CENTURIES OF SOUTH ASIAN PAINTINGS AND MANUSCRIPTS

Whereas the former half of the exhibition focused on objects accumulated in a four-month period, the second section spanned 400 years. Through the works of art collected by the British and Royal Family, a story about the relations with the subcontinent can be pieced together. The subcontinent, or South Asia, encompasses the area of five modern-day countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, however, at the time, it was usually referred to as India.

Many of the South Asian paintings and manuscripts in the Royal Collection date from the seventeenth century when the Mughals, a Muslim, Persian-speaking dynasty, were an Empire richer and stronger than any in Europe and ruled over the majority of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout their reign, they had contact with British monarchs, including Elizabeth I and Charles I but their Golden Age would not last forever.

Royal Collection Trust

The Public Reception of John Low (1788-1880) by Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, King of Oudh, 4 March 1834

The last Mughal emperor, Alamgir II died in 1707, sparking wars of succession and foreign invasion. At the same time, Britain’s East India Company was gaining fortune and strength, and, in 1765, the Empire surrendered the region of Bengal to the company. From here on, it was not long before the trading company’s power spread throughout South Asia.

One of the first artworks in this half of the exhibition was an oil painting by A Dufay de Casanova (active 1829-37) of the King of Awah on an elephant near the banks of the Gumti River on his way to meet East India Company Resident, Colonel John Low (1788–1880). Although this was not an artwork produced by natives of South Asia, it helps to put into context the events that tied Britain with India.

The manuscripts acquired from the Mughal Empire were all written by hand and many were also illuminated with delicate paintings. The majority were written in Persian, therefore, read from right to left as opposed to European books. The Royal Collection displayed manuscripts that contained lyrical poetry, many by the poet Hafiz of Shiraz (1325-90). These were written with the intention of being sung and were often performed in Mughal courts.

Illuminations or illustrations were produced with brush and ink on discoloured paper, for example, the miniature of a chameleon on a branch by Ustad Mansur (active c. 1600-20), the leading animal painter in one of the Mughal courts. The image is scientifically precise and, although small, is full of intricate detail, such as the minute scales along the body.

Interestingly, on display were artworks that resembled typical religious paintings from Europe. At times, the Quran and the Bible merge together, featuring the same characters but with slightly varying stories. Take, for example, the quote, “And also We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign to mankind, and gave them a shelter on a peaceful hillside watered by a fresh spring.” (Quran 23:50) Mary and Jesus are important in the Christian world as well as in Islam, therefore, it is unsurprising to see them in Islamic art. What is unexpected, however, is the artists’ decisions to copy western artworks, for instance, the reinterpretation by a Mughal artist of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) engraving of the Virgin and Child (Madonna by the Tree, 1513). Unfortunately, the gallery did little to shed light on the artists’ intentions.

During the Georgian era, the British royal family received many letters and manuscripts from the Indian subcontinent. One of these was the impressive chronicle Padshahnama or Book of Emperors, which had been produced around 1656. Commissioned by the fifth Mughal emperor Shah-Jahan (1591-1666), the book is a propagandist celebration of his dynasty, with the objective of emphasising his politics and ideologies.

As those who were lucky enough to be at the gallery at the appointed time for the talk about the Padshahnama will know, the manuscript was once bound together as a book, only taken apart 25 years ago for conservation purposes. This made displaying individual sheets much easier in this exhibition because they could be framed and placed at eye level around the room.

Containing 44 illustrations in total, the Book of Emperors was completed by fourteen different court painters, however, the South Asian style of painting is consistent throughout. Each painting reveals a significant event during the reign of Emperor Shah-Jahan, for example, his coronation and his involvement with a lion hunt conducted on elephant-back.

It is almost impossible to remember everything that was displayed at the Queen’s Gallery exhibition due to the sheer size of the collection of work from the Indian subcontinent. Some objects and artworks stick in the mind more than others, for instance, the Miniature Holy Quran scroll that unravels to reveal all 114 chapters on the thin, narrow surface. This is thought to have been a gift to George IV in 1828 from Nawab of the Carnatic.

Other artworks include books, photographs, paintings and more manuscripts, particularly ones that focus on the Hindu religion that was and is so predominant in India. These tell various stories involving the many gods worshipped in Hinduism, for example, the avatars of Vishnu in the epic text Bhagavata Purana.

It is easy to forget the relations with Southern Asia that the British had in the past. When imagining works in the Royal Collection, people think of paintings of Kings and Queens or famous artworks purchased throughout Europe. The amount of art from South Asia is absolutely phenomenal and opens up a whole new world with foreign customs and beliefs.

Splendours of the Subcontinent allowed visitors to see into the lives of other people whose traditions seem exotic and fascinating in comparison to our daily experiences. This groundbreaking exhibition revealed a different part of British history as well as the history of India and their style and method of craftsmanship.

Although the exhibition has come to an end, Splendours of the Subcontinent revealed how vast the Royal Collection is and it entices us to discover what else it has hidden behind closed doors. Future exhibitions can be eagerly awaited and are unlikely to disappoint the British public and tourists in London.

The World’s Leading Museum of Art and Design

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The Sackler Courtyard, Victoria and Albert Museum, Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A), 2017

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, is regarded as the finest museum of art and design in the world. With over 2.3 million objects from the past five millennia, the museum is constantly expanding. Housing hundreds of collections including post-classical sculpture, fine art, silver works, ceramics, furniture, musical instruments, oriental art, and the National Art Library, it is unsurprising that the content and building is forever increasing.

From its early beginnings in 1852, the museum has undergone numerous extensions, the very latest being completed this year. Exhibition Road, South Kensington, is home to several important locations, specifically the V&A’s neighbours: the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. A new, user-friendly entrance has been designed and built, providing easy access from the road to the contemporary Sainsbury Gallery. This quarter of the museum will be home to temporary exhibitions.

Rather than having an entrance directly from the pavement, the Amanda Levete Architects have paved an ultra-modern courtyard, incorporating arches from the 19th-century building. This open-air area contains a glass-walled cafe to serve the anticipated 3.4 million visitors who use this new entrance each year.

Although people visit the V&A for its extensive collections, the building itself is a work of art. The original founders aimed to exhibit the best and most innovative design in the actual fabric of the building, as well as in its contents. The idea for the museum was introduced by Prince Albert (1819-61) the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria (1819-1901). After the very successful Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park – the first World’s fair – Prince Albert urged for the £186,000 to be spent on developing a cultural district in South Kensington; “Albertopolis”.

Prince Albert’s ambition was to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry.”

In 1857, construction began on the building that would become the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). It was not to only contain galleries but be the residence of government departments and colleges, including the Central School of Practice Art (Royal College of Art). The original building was a temporary iron structure that stuck out like a sore thumb. It was also quickly evident that it would not be large enough to accommodate the sheer number of exhibits. Thus, a new elaborate plan was drawn out and construction began on a permanent structure.

Throughout the 1860s and 70s, the museum expanded with new rooms being constantly added to the structure. Henry Cole (1808-82), the first director of the museum, had very ambitious decorative schemes and wanted the building to represent the best of British design. With a distrust for foreign builders, Cole employed leading English artists and designers of his own choosing to work on the building.

Amongst the many workers were two painters and sculptors: George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) and Frederic Leighton (1830-96), dominant figures in late Victorian art. They were commissioned to produce canvases to display inside the gallery as well as design intricate mosaics. These mosaics made up the thirty-five portraits of significant European artists that adorned the South Court. This was later affectionately named the Kensington Valhalla after the Norse mythological term for the resting place of heroes.

Specific rooms within the museum were assigned to various artists to decorate. One interior designer of particular note was William Morris (1834-96) who was known for his distinctive designs, craftsmanship, and paintings, amongst many other things. Another name worth knowing is Owen Jones (1809-74), who was commissioned to produce decorations for the Oriental Courts. He wanted his designs to complement the objects on show, therefore took great care to depict Persian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art styles.

Godfrey Sykes (1824-66), a Yorkshire-born designer, was very active in the development of the South Kensington Museum. He was the head of the decorative design team responsible for the majority of the museum’s ornamentations and ornate trimmings. The museum was the last building he worked on before his early death at the age of 42. Some of his best work includes terracotta columns in the Lecture Theatre and a tiled frieze in the Centre Refreshment Room. These, however, were not necessarily created by Sykes himself. Although he produced the designs, others would have been responsible for the modelling, including a man named John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911), the father of the world-known writer, Rudyard Kipling.

Sykes was known for his sense of humour, which he used to great effect in his “inhabited” alphabet with witty touches. Each letter contained an illustration of a person or persons interacting with the letter. These are located throughout the museum and are often used in relevant books published by the Science and Art Department.

The director, Henry Cole, and evidently the brains of the construction, retired in 1873. Although building works continued for another decade, work eventually stopped, leaving the museum in a chaotic, unfinished mess. Although able to function as an institution for the great collection of objects, the public was unhappy with the sorry looking appearance of what had promised to be a grand building. After much campaigning, an architectural competition was announced in 1891 to find a final design for the museum.

The winner of the competition was the young Aston Webb (1849-1930), an English architect who would later go on to design the facade of Buckingham Palace. Although some critics preferred the design submitted by the runner up, John Belcher (1841-1913), Webb’s proposal was far more practical.

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Design for the completion of the South Kensington Museum, Aston Webb, 1891

It was an additional eight years between the competition and the beginning of construction. Aston Webb finalised his design proposal thinking carefully about the general floor plan as well as the appearance of the exterior. Similarly to the original designers, Webb wanted to show off the splendour of British art and emphasise the importance of the museum. The facade of the building includes statues of significant people involved with the museum.

… a statue of Queen Victoria supported by St George and St Michael over the great arch and the Prince Consort below, as the Founders of the Museum; on either side in niches the present King and Queen. The great archway itself would be enriched with symbolic sculpture. The large bosses in the archivolt would represent various crafts; the large spandrils would have figures representing Truth and Beauty; while the two smaller niches on either side would have statues representing Imagination and Knowledge. …The whole edifice I suggest to be crowned by a gilt bronze winged figure of Fame.

-Aston Webb

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Left to right: Statue of George Frederic Watts by Richard Reginald Goulden, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 – 6; statue of William Morris by Arthur George Walker, Exhibition Road façade, 1905 – 6; statue of Alfred Stevens by James Gamble, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 –6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, Queen Victoria had died before the completion of the museum and never got to see herself immortalised in stone above the Grand Entrance. She did, however, take the opportunity to lay the foundation stone for the new structure, and thus renamed the South Kensington Museum the Victoria and Albert Museum. King Edward VII, who came to the throne in 1901, officially opened the V&A on 26th June 1909.

Aston Webb’s design was the last major construction the museum undertook – the new Sainsbury Gallery being rather minor in comparison. Yet, plenty of change has occurred over the past century.  Between 1910 and 1914, the then director, Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith (1859-1944) objected to the ostentatious design on the museum. He believed that the focus should be on the items in the collection and that visitors did not want to be distracted by the surrounding architecture. The way forward, in his eyes, was to create modest and neutrally decorated display spaces.

Harcourt Smith ordered the destruction or covering up of the supposedly inappropriate decor. Fortunately, the First World War halted the procedure, thus saving many of the original features. It was not until 1973 with the appointment of Sir Roy Strong (b.1935) as the director that the work conducted pre-war was reversed. Strong managed to restore some of the original interiors and reinstate the 19th-century collections. Unfortunately, some of the initial features are lost forever.

Beginning as a dream of Prince Albert’s, and quickly becoming a reality, the Victoria and Albert museum is continually becoming more diverse as knowledge is widened about past works of art and cultural representation. The V&A is not meant to be a historical museum, therefore it also keeps up with the times, displaying modern and contemporary exhibitions amongst the ancient. A recent exhibition illustrates how variegated the V&A’s collection can be. Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains (closing on 1st October 2017) is the first audio-visual display put on by the museum, showing the beginnings, middle and end of the iconic British band.

Despite the various extensions over the years, the Victoria and Albert Museum remains one of the most difficult buildings to understand and navigate. However, this is one of the great appeals of the museum. It is a unique building with an unequalled collection. It is possible to visit the museum several times and see something different on each trip. As the collection continues to grow, the V&A will never lose its appeal; there is something there for everyone.

Any visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum is likely to be bemused as to what exactly the central thread that animates these discrepant if marvellous collections. The answer is that there is none. For over a century the museum has proved an extrememly capacious handbag.

-Sir Roy Strong