From South Kensington to Budapest

Collections and public monuments are the true teachers of a free people.
They are not merely the teachers of practical exercises,
but more importantly the schools of public taste.”

Gottfried Semper’s quote (“Science, Industry and Art: on the importance of the World Fair from 1851”) perfectly describes the mission of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), an institution that inspired the foundation of similar museums throughout the world.1

The exhibition ArtandDesignforall, which has been staged at the Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn before moving on to Budapest’s Iparművészeti Múzeum, tells the story of the V&A, from its roots in 1837 as the London Government School of Design, then becoming the South Kensington Museum from 1857. Retracing the history of European applied arts, the V&A managed to develop a transnational narrative of shared museology in a century of growing nationalism. Artistic, cultural, and scientific exchange was able to overcome borders in spite of a backdrop of revolution and warfare in the mid-19th century.

The 1848 and 1849 revolutions had shattered class hierarchies on the continent. With its inclinations to the principles of free trade, one of England’s answers to the emerging class struggles was to make art and design accessible to all social classes. To achieve this aim, however, a larger segment of the public would have to be turned into active consumers.

The key role in reaching this goal was played by Gottfried Semper (1803–1879), an expatriate political refugee in London who had been on the 1848 barricades with Richard Wagner in Dresden. In 1851 he was commissioned to decorate the Great Exhibition’s sections for the Northern German Federation States, as well as for Turkey, Sweden and Norway/Denmark. He later took charge of ceramics and furniture design at the Government School of Design in London and took a “class” titled “Principles and practice of Ornamental Art applied to metals, jewellery and enamels” from 1852 to 1855, before moving to Zurich’s Technical University. His ideas on how to organise materials soon found enthusiastic followers. The structure of the South Kensington Museum would later be based on his concepts, as would some 30 museums of applied arts incontinental Europe and the United States. In Central Europe as elsewhere, based on the British prototype, collections were combined with an ancillary school of applied art, and emphasis was placed on studying the functionality of objects for daily use. The essence of the principle of “Learning by example”, promoted by the British Ministry of Trade and the Government School of Design, was disseminating knowledge among manufacturers, creators and consumers alike. Inspired by the French example of Alexandre Lenoir’s Musée des Antiquités et des Monuments Français founded in 1796 in Paris, the Ministry made several purchases at the Paris Exhibition of Industrial Art in 1844. Lenoir’s initiative had succeeded in saving medieval works of art fromdestruction by revolutionary iconoclasts. In 1847, Lenoir’s collection was united with Alexandre du Sommerard’s material-specific exhibits shown at the secularised Cluny monastery in Paris (Musée de Cluny). Even older roots of the V&A can be found in Prussia. One early prototype of “Learning by example” (the earliest was Denis de Diderot’s Encyclopédie raisonnée des sciences, des arts et des métiers published in 1751), the Gewerbe- Schule was created in 1821 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the industrialist Christian Peter Wilhelm Beuth to foster the Industrial Arts with workshops in Berlin for design, modelling, founding, and chiselling techniques. Using Schinkel’s Berlin example for his publication in 1855,2 Baron von Minutoli, the Prussian Trade Minister’s deputy, began building his collection of 7,000 objects in 1845 at Liegnitz castle (now Lednice, Poland) in Silesia, with the aim of improving local industries under his supervision. Items purchased from von Miutoli’s broad array of artefacts and the remains of the Prussian Kunstkammer were to form the basis for the Gewerbe-Museum in Berlin, which was founded in 1881 in the Martin Gropius building by Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia in memory of her father. This was the first of a series of German museums of industrial art based on the London prototype.

The commercial revenue from the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London enabled Prince Albert of Sachsen-Coburg and Gotha and First Director-General Henry Cole to purchase land in South Kensington for the realisation of their master plan: a museum dedicated to the applied and industrial arts. The second London World Exhibition of 1862 then provided impetus for the founding of the KK Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie (1864, MAK) with an ancillary school in Vienna. Applying the British prototype, the museum was designed to foster contemporary art and industrial art throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As practised in South Kensington, temporary exhibitions to initiate lectures, catalogues and instruction were held in order to reach large audiences.3

The Compromise struck between Vienna and Hungary in 1867, one year after the Austrian Empire’s defeat at Sadowa, re-established Magyar rule and led to modernisation and industrialisation in Hungary. Modelled on the new houses of Parliament in Westminster, Imre Steindl’s Parliament building (1885 to 1902) in Budapest represented Hungary’s regained national sovereignty as an autonomous kingdom. Founded in 1872, the Budapest Museum of Applied Art rose above its Central European counterparts for the quality of its early collection of nationally and regionally manufactured artefacts, namely textiles, as well as its emphatic décor, and its extravagant architecture. Inspired by the embroidered ornaments of Hungarian court dresses, its eclectic architecture and construction was completed in 1896 by Ödön Lechner and Gyula Pártos as part of the Millennium Celebrations, and the building was inaugurated by Emperor Franz Joseph I. Composed of national Hungarian motifs, the aesthetics of the Iparművészeti Múzeum embodies the relationship Semper saw between textile and architecture.4

The London Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations radicalised standards on how to perceive innovations in technology, style, modernisation, and mechanisation. The commercial success of the first world fair, with more than six million visitors in six months,5 helped to establish a showground of civic pride as a progressive means to further national trade and consumerism. The mammoth show in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace building, an elegant transparent structure of standardised prefabricated glass and iron elements,6 became the prototype for world exhibition buildings up to the First World War. More than 14,000 objects from around the world were displayed, including inventions for the reproduction of different materials for mass production; new devices for communications, such as the telegraph; the first printing machines for newspapers illustrated with xylographical images; domestic furniture made of iron and steel or new materials, such as industrially-produced papier-mâché; and innovations and improvements for urban living. Mechanised reproduction led to new ways of producing three dimensional objects by electrotypes;7 zinc and plaster replaced bronze casts, biscuit and porcelain8 were used instead of marble on a smaller scale.

As the 19th century’s most influential museum, the V&A’s predecessor included these new technologies as a means of instruction. Here, copies ranked equal to original artefacts. Henry Cole believed that a museum offering access during evening hours would be a real alternative to the temptations of the “gin palace”. He and his colleague, Gustav Waagen, the director of the Berlin Royal Gallery and advising curator to the Government School of Design, imagined collections of the most beautiful models of furniture and manufacture, which would instruct people on the links between fine arts and manufacturing by showing how great Renaissance artists applied their talents to everyday objects. Designs for crockery are attributed to Raphael, while Leonardo da Vinci created necklaces. In the Gallery of Buckingham Palace, a painting by Teniers decorates a harpsichord, and a Nicolas Poussin in the National Gallery was used for a similar purpose. Holbein designed brooches and salt cellars. Albert Dürer himself sculpted ornaments of all kinds. Windsor boasts ironwork by Quentin Matsys. Beato Angelico and other great artists decorated books. In fact, there were few great medieval artists, at a time when most art was Christian, who did not endeavour to decorate the objects of everyday life. Beauty of form and colour and poetic invention were associated with everything.9

Yet, curators soon argued over the teaching values of acquisitions for Henry Cole’s “school of public taste”. When their choice of 70 artefacts illustrating “Principles of Good and False Design” was displayed in 1854 to distinguish bad taste in design, Charles Dickens called this didactic event a “Chamber of Horrors”. Manufacturers were not amused either, until eventually all the works were sold off.

The new institution set standards for professional instruction and public communication. Beginning in 1843, Prince Albert acted as the elected president of the “Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce”.

He and Henry Cole were determined to reach the working class by whatever means necessary. They introduced a series of innovative museum practices: to attract visitors, free access was given to the collections during the evenings in gas-lit rooms. A public library specialising in art documentation, now called the V&A’s “National Art Library”, also offered access to important scientific works. In 1867 a photographic library began selling photographs of the museums’ works.10 “Learning by example” became the leading modus for studies of comparative works of fine art, design and architecture, open to all. Early catalogues documented artefacts according to their country of provenance and material. Statistics on visitors’ services, entrance fees, opening hours and attendance were also kept. Another of Cole’s initiatives became a means of furthering European integration as well as elevating the arts for the benefit of learning, all set against a backdrop of European wars in 1854, 1859, 1864, and 1866. In 1867, ten European heirs to the throne co-signed a formal international agreement promoting the reproduction of artworks for the benefit of knowledge and studies on art throughout Europe for all museums of all countries.11 The V&A’s original display of casts and reproductions is still on exhibit in the V&A’s cast court and documents a pioneering exchange of architectural and artistic masterpieces, an example of cultural heritage and progress shared for the benefit of all. This practice enabled the countries of Europe to discover and explore their common past throughout the centuries. Such cultural transfer rapidly promoted further studies of otherwise inaccessible originals through the use of casts, fictile ivories and electrotypes of sculptural masterpieces, medieval book covers, and metal works.

South Kensington’s Cast Court opened in October 1873. On permanent display was Trajan’s column in two parts, and other artistic and architectural elements in their true dimensions, like Michelangelo’s David with his quintessentially Victorian fig leaf. These works still appear on display almost unmodified.12 In London, the Society of Arts’ Art-Workmanship competitions encouraged reproducing using alternative materials to promote domestic consumerism. From 1863 to 1871, these competitions sought to inspire higher standards of craftsmanship and design amongst workmen engaged in the applied arts industries.13 Today smaller-scale reproductions of artworks are sold in museum shops worldwide.

Thanks to its collection, the South Kensington institution evolved into a scientific institution. In 1876, a Science and Educational Department was created, which would be the cradle of the future Science Museum, established in 1911. By 1880, some 20,000 items representing the arts, sciences, archaeology, natural history and industrial products of India had been acquired for the South Kensington collection.14 Cole’s exposure to Indian and Islamic art led him to declare that it was from the East that the most impressive lesson for British designers was to be learnt. To bring home fresh ideas, the “protomodernist” Christopher Dresser was sent by the government on an official annual trip to Japan. From 1876 onwards, Islamic art discovered by civil engineers of the British legation’s administrative bodies was added to the material knowledge in the Middle East department.

This exhibition brings South Kensington’s legacy back to Budapest. Like a family gathering, precious objects of Budapest’s own Islamic and Arts and Crafts collection join and enrich the selection from London. Moreover, the Iparművészeti Múzeum’s entrance and lobby recall the Indian-inspired Durbar Room at Osbourne House, the Queen’s favourite residence on the Isle of Wight. Victoria laid the foundation stone herself for the new building, designed by Sir Aston Webb, on 17 May 1899 and now called the Victoria and Albert Museum in memory of the Prince Consort. It was to be her last official appearance. Captured in stone in the arch above the V&A’s main entrance are the words of Joshua Stone, recalling the V&A’s mission and its role in European integration: The Excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.


1 For quotes in footnotes, see bibliography in the Hungarian issue of the exhibition catalogue Art and Design for All”. The Victoria and Albert Museum, Budapest 2012, pp. 266–273. Bombay (1855), Edinburgh (1860), Paris (Musée des Arts Décoratifs 1864) and Vienna (Museum of Art and Industry 1864), Berlin (Museum of Decorative Arts 1867), Rome (Art Industry Museum 1872), Budapest (1872), Brno (1873), Oslo (1876), Zagreb (1880), Prague (1884), Copenhagen (Art Industry Museum 1890), and Toronto (Royal Ontario Museum 1912). See full list in chapter 17 of the Budapest catalogue 2012, p. 253.

2 Vorbilder für Handwerker und Fabrikanten aus den Sammlungen des Minutolischen Instituts für Veredelung der Gewerbe und Beförderung der Künste zu Liegnitz. 1. Theil. Liegnitz 1855, Verlag des Verfassers mit 152 Fotos.

3 AK Wien 2000 S.40 (Peter Noever (Hg.): Exhibition catalogue‚ Kunst und Industrie. Die Anfänge des Museums für Angewandte Kunst in Wien. Ostfildern, 2000.

4 For the Architecture of Iparművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, see the comprehensive study of Rebecca Houze: “Hungarian Nationalism, Gottfried Semper and the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts”, in: Studies in the Decorative Arts 2009, vol. XVI. no 2, pp. 7–38.

5 From March to October 1851. The Paris World Exhibition exceeded this number of visitors with 11 million in 1867 and with more than 16 million in 1878. The following world fairs received even more progressive figures of attendance: Vienna in 1873 with 7.2 million, Philadelphia in 1876 with some 16 million, Chicago in 1893 with 27.5 million topped by Paris in 1889 with 32 million and in 1900 with 50 million visitors!

6 563 m long, 124 m wide and 33 m high. Rudolf Eitelberger, First Director at Vienna’s Museum for Art and Industry, stated in 1879: Durch die Weltausstellungen als Jahrmärkte des Kunstgewerbes bekomme das gesamte produzierende und consumirende Publikum erst eine deutliche und lebendige Anschauung von dem, was der Weltverkehr bedeutet; es wurde dem Publikum die Höhe der Leistungsfähigkeit klar, auf welcher sich die Produzenten befinden müssen, um in dem Weltverkehr eine Rolle zu spielen. AK Wien 2000 S. 61/62 Anm. 24.

7 Developed by Elkington & Co, Birmingham.

8 Such as a Venus statue reproduced by Wedgwood & Brown, Newcastle.

9 Gustav Waagen: Report from the Select Committee, 1835–36, quoted in Wainwright 200 , p. 4. Felix Summerly (i.e. Henry Cole) Art Manufactures, first catalogue, 1847, quoted in Morris 1986 ann. 9, p. 14; Shirly Bury in Casteras/Parkinson 1988, pp. 37–41.

10 In 1853 Cole started to use photography to record exhibitions and works of art temporarily lent to his new museum. Haworth-Booth 1997, p. 25, ann. 24; Nancy Keeler: History of Photography, vol. 6, no 3, July 1982, pp. 257–272. The institution had already purchased a series of photographs of items from Minutoli’s collection in 1855 for its comparative library.

11 Throughout the world every country possesses fine Historical monuments of art of its own, which can easily be reproduced by casts, Electrotypes, photographs and other processes, without the slightest damage to the originals… Williamson 1997, p.182; Bonython/Burton 2003, pp. 231–232.

12 Morris 1986, p. 54 f.

13 Graham, Clare: ‘“A noble kind of practice’”: the Society of Arts’ Art-Workmanship competitions, 1863–71 Burlington Magazine, June 1993; Graham 1993, pp. 411–15.

14 Whitehead 2006, ann. 73, p. 21.

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