The Victoria and Albert Museum began as an outgrowth of the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. The fair exceeded the expectations of its planners both in public interest and in the amount of revenue it garnered. It seemed as well to have fulfilled eminently another of its principal objectives; namely to serve as a showplace for British design and industry.
Henry Cole, who had been one of the major promoters of the events at the Crystal Palace, persuaded Albert, the Prince Consort, to channel some of the monies and the momentum of the year-long exhibition into the creation of more enduring institutions. Cole felt, and the Prince agreed, that the one sure way of fostering the best in British design and manufacture was to establish a museum where the finest examples would be displayed. Further, in order to promote "the inseparability of art and manufacture," and to propagate the theory and practice of good design, the two helped to create the Department of Practical Art, which in turn was empowered to establish a School of Design and a museum.
The latter was given the name "Museum of Manufactures," but shortly before its opening in 1852, it was renamed the Museum of Ornamental Arts. It would be well perhaps to keep this early title in mind, as it comes as close as any to explaining the commingling of so many disparate collections under one roof. The definitive change of name occurred in 1899 when Queen Victoria laid the cornerstone of its enlarged quarters, designed by Aston Webb, and authorized the use of her name coupled with that of the deceased and much lamented Albert.
Because the museum rapidly became a repository for many important bequests, its function as a showcase of design and manufacture was expanded to the outer limits of these terms. In 1864, it received on permanent loan from the Crown a corpus of Raphael's preparatory work (cartoons) for the Tapestries of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. This seemed consonant with the idea of acquiring drawings and paintings linked to decorative schemes. So too were the many painted works collected for the museum by J.C. Robinson, which included processional banners, medieval crucifixes, altarpieces, and trays. We are fortunate indeed that they were deemed at the time to "show the application of fine art to objects of utility."
The acquisition of rare portrait miniatures appeared as well to fit into a scheme for displaying objects of personal adornment. Finally, when John Constable's daughter offered the museum her great collection of Constables, it seemed more important to accept these than to attempt to rationalize their utilitarian nature. Perhaps once it is realized that the museum grew in this organic fashion, with an eye not to consistency but to the accumulation of great works, can one begin to understand the very wide range of its holdings. The objects are displayed in two manners. The Primary Galleries exhibit all relevant pieces illustrating the life or style of a period and therefore draw their works from all the curatorial departments. The Study of Collections on the other hand are devoted to media and families of objects for those wishing to examine and compare their development in greater detail. Examples are the Dress Collection and the Jewelry Gallery, which contains perhaps the largest single display of Medieval and Renaissance jewelry, as well as important specimens of the Russian Crown Jewels.
The Painting department holds some 2,000 oil and tempera paintings, 6,000 watercolors, and 2,000 miniatures. Many of these are now displayed in the Henry Cole wing established in 1983 to house paintings, prints, drawings, and photos. Five of its eight floors contain public galleries and include the first permanent exhibition space in England devoted to photographs in an art museum. The John Constable collection is housed on the top floor, and contains a number of his prominent works: "Boat Building Near Flatford Mill" (1814), "Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Ground" (1820-23), and "Stonehenge" (1836).