The exhibition Art and Design for All: The Victoria and Albert Museum (Iparművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, 15 June – 16 September 2012) traces the origins of the ever-innovative Victoria and Albert Museum (“V&A”), and looks at the influence of the museum on one of its heirs, the exhibition’s host venue, Hungary’s national Museum of Applied Arts (Iparművészeti Múzeum). Founded in 1851, the V&A is more successful than ever these days, and continues to provide inspiration to designers, craftsmen and international museum directors. Over the past decade, its galleries have been transformed through “Future Plan”, and attendances have tripled to nearly 3 million visitors per year. The V&A’s website now attracts 25 million visits each year and the museum has the most extensive touring exhibitions programme of any museum in the world. The museum today is funded largely (55 per cent) by the government and provides a key resource for Britain’s creative industries.
The exhibition illustrates how the museum is a source of reference and inspiration for designers, from high fashion to everyday kitchenproducts, from furniture to architecture, from set design for theatres and the movie industry to the arts of photography and digital design. As home to fifteen national collections, it is also a vital player on the contemporary art and design scene worldwide. The exhibition shows how the V&A has always been so much more than a museum of applied arts.
The London museum has a shared history with its Hungarian counterpart. When the V&A opened in its present building in 1857 it was immediately recognised as something new. Born out of the first World Expo, London’s “Great Exhibition” of 1851, the museum aimed to continue the popular and successful educational approach employed at that event. The world had come to London and continued to look to the city for inspiration as the new museum evolved in the capital’s first cultural quarter, in the neighbourhood of South Kensington. In contrast to the British Museum and the National Gallery, the V&A sought to reform the quality of contemporary commercial products by promoting good design to the widest possible audience. Unlike the older museums and galleries, it offered a restaurant, lecture theatre, library, exhibitions and evening opening hours, alongside a school for art and design.
The first “child” of the V&A was Austria’s Museum für Kunst und Industrie (today the Museum für angewandte Kunst, the “MAK”) which was founded in Vienna in 1864. In 1868 Berlin opened its Kunstgewerbemuseum and in 1871 New York founded its own museum. According to the New York Herald that year: “The model of the Metropolitan Museum of Art will, as we understand, be that of the splendid museum in South Kensington Gardens, London, which is probably the most perfect thing of the kind in the world”. The following year, 1872, Hungary set up its own museum dedicated to art and design (initially called The Royal Hungarian Museum of Industrial Art) and provided a budget to start building up its collection at the Vienna World’s Fair of 1873. The first directors (György Ráth, 1881–96; Jenő Radisics, 1896–1917) formed collections along the same lines as those in South Kensington, while also incorporating in them traditional Hungarian arts and crafts.
The special relationship between Hungary and Britain has deep roots. In the second half of the 19th century, Hungary’s elite looked to Britain as a model of democratic society, increasingly led by a newly wealthy, educated and empowered middle class. Hungarian anglophilia has a long heritage: Edward the Exile fled to Hungary from the rule of the Danish king, Cnut the Great, and married the daughter of Hungary’s first Christian King, St Stephen (1000–1038). The first recorded foreign student at Oxford University was a Hungarian (Nicholaus de Hungaria who studied there between 1193–1196). Shakespeare was well aware of the unsettled state of Turkish rule as evidenced by one of his characters exclaiming “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the king of Hungary’s” (Measure for Measure, Act 1 Scene 2). The most visible evidence in Budapest of this historic association includes the Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge between Pest and Buda, designed by the English civil engineer William Tierney Clark (1783–1852) and constructed between 1839–49. There is also the tunnel beneath Castle Hill built by the Scottish architect Adam Clark (1811–1866) who also supervised the construction of the Chain Bridge, and Hungary’s Houses of Parliament (built in 1883–1904 by Imre Steindl), a Gothic Revival palace beside the Danube that pays tribute to its British counterpart on the banks of the Thames. Below the streets, Budapest’s underground railway (begun in 1896), the first in continental Europe, was modelled on London’s Metropolitan Railway.
To accommodate the growing collections the Iparművészeti Múzeum and art school were built between 1893–96. Its architect, Ödön Lechner, visited London in 1889 in a quest for inspiration for a new national style1 and studied at the V&A, where he took particular interest in Oriental ceramics. The architecture of India was also well represented in the V&A at that time through life-size casts in the Cast Courts and through photographs. In his search for a national style that had deeper roots than Hungary under the Turks or Habsburgs, Lechner gravitated toward Indian architecture, finding it akin to the original architecture of the Magyars who may have first come from India.2 He also admired the way British colonial architecture absorbed local sources to create a distinct new local style. The interior design of the museum may be directly indebted to examples of Mogul architecture that Lechner saw in South Kensington.
An earlier connection between the V&A and Hungary’s new museums was Ferenc Pulszky (1814–97), a revolutionary politician, collector and museum director. He came to London as an emissary of the Hungarian government in 1849, accompanied Lajos Kossuth to America, then returned to live in Highgate, North London until 1860 when he left to join Garibaldi in Italy. In 1867 he was appointed director of the Hungarian National Museum. In 1853 he exhibited his art collection at the Society of Antiquaries in London.3
In 1851 Pulszky was impressed by the Great Exhibition and the same year gave a lecture at London University entitled “On the progress and decay of art; and on the arrangement of a national museum”. He may have had some influence on the growing ambitions behind the founding of the V&A, particularly if, as seems likely, he knew Gottfried Semper who came to London in 1849 as a political exile from Dresden.4 In his lecture Pulszky declared: “A museum should give a perfect view of the history of art in every civilised nation … when we cannot attain this object by marble and brass, we should make up the deficiency by casts”.5 Long before the spectacular building for Hungary’s museum of applied arts opened in 1896 its staff were selling newly manufactured copies of medieval antiquities to the museum in South Kensington. The earliest surviving correspondence in the V&A’s archives is an invoice dated 18 April 1885 from the director, Jenő Radisics, for a collection of electrotypes costing £84.8, made by the “Atelier de Galvanoplastic du Musée des Arts Décoratifs Hongrois”. On 15 December 1893 he sent on approval a new copper-gilt electrotype reproduction of the shrine of St Simeon in the Cathedral of Zadar, Croatia (made in 1380 by command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary to contain the saint’s body) for £200 and reproductions of reliquaries. On 8 May 1897 a large group of electrotypes, including candlesticks, spurs and goblets, was sent on approval, and further shipments followed in 1899, 1900 and 1905.6 On 18 December 1901 the artist Walter Crane recommended to the museum’s director the purchase of “good copies of characteristic specimens of Hungarian jewellery in the National Museum at Budapest”.7
The traffic was not all one way. In 1894 Jenő Radisics came to London and met with the architect of the V&A’s new extension building, Sir Aston Webb. He also studied the construction of the display cases, seating for visitors, and even the specific details of locks and curtains. As well as heating equipment and upholstery, the materials his new museum ordered from British manufacturers included over 1,000 metres of linoleum.8 In this way, the special relationship between these museums of London and Budapest permeated the very fabric of Hungary’s new institution. For the exhibition in 2012 (designed by Tibor Somlai), the museum was refurbished including its historic showcases which date from around 1900. Early interest in Hungarian design among curators at South Kensington went far beyond cast sandcopies. At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878 the museum purchased earthenware from the display of the Zsolnay Ceramics Works, Pécs, founded in 1862. Several examples of Zsolnay’s Art Nouveau range of ceramics were acquired at the company’s Paris outlet in 1900. A collection of Hungarian Art Nouveau furniture designed by Ödön Faragó9 shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 was donated to the museum the following year, along with French Art Nouveau furniture and glass, but received a hostile reception when shown to the public. Members of the museum’s own Council of Advice for Art, including Walter Crane, even signed a formal complaint.10
Through its director’s admiration for the British Arts and Crafts Movement, Hungary’s Iparművészeti Múzeum organised a series of pioneering exhibitions from which it purchased exemplary works for its own collections. In 1878 the exhibition Modern Art included all aspects of contemporary British applied art. Important exhibitions were devoted to Walter Crane (1900), British Arts and Crafts (1902) (a source of works by Louis Foreman Day) and to Aubrey Beardsley (1907). In 1903 an exhibition of bookplates featured many British examples.11 To stimulate the development of contemporary Hungarian textiles the museum also purchased examples of printed fabrics from William Morris and Thomas Wardle in 1895.12
As an enduring legacy of the first director’s admiration for British design, the entrance to his former private apartment at the museum is still today hung with a decorative scheme of wallpapers by Walter Crane, who visited Hungary for his exhibition in 1900.13
Like the V&A, Hungary’s new museum sought to celebrate contemporary art and design through exhibitions and acquisitions. Along with its art school, it sought to reform the quality of design for everyone, for every day of their lives. While promoting the quality of and demand for manufactured goods, Hungary’s museum also sought to find and promote a national style of design. In 2012 the exhibition about the V&A ends with a challenge. Hungary may wish to follow the V&A’s example once again and develop its own “Future Plan” for the restoration and redisplay of the building, for in ten years time, in 2022, the Iparművészeti Múzeum will be celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Acknowledgements: The exhibition could not have been presented without the support of Mr Miklós Réthelyi, Hungary’s Minister for Human Resources. The author also wishes to express his thanks to the museum’s director, Dr Imre Takács, and his staff, especially Dr Zsombor Jékely and Ágnes Naszlady, and the designer Tibor Somlai. The exhibition originated at the Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, and was organised by its director Dr Robert Fleck, Dr Katharina Chrubasik and the guest curator Marie-Louise von Plessen. At the V&A the author expresses his thanks to Rebecca Wallace, Christopher Marsden, Nick Smith and Nazek Ghaddar.
1 Rebecca Houze, “Hungarian Nationalism, Gottfried Semper and the Budapest Museum of Applied Art”, Studies in the Decorative Arts, 16, 2 (Spring–Summer 2009): 7–38.
2 Eve Blau and Monika Platzer, ed., Shaping the Great City. Modern Architecture in Central Europe 1890–1937 (Prestel Verlag, 1999): 107–116.
3 Katalin Keserü, “Art contacts between Great Britain and Hungary at the turn of the Century”, Hungarian Studies, 6,2 (1990): 141–154.
4 Hilda Horváth, “Ferenc Pulszky and the Movements in Applied Arts in Hungary”, in Ferenc Pulszky (1814–1897) Memorial Exhibition, ed. Ibolya Laczkó, Júlia Szabó and Livia Tóthné Mészáros (Budapest, 1998): 165–169.
5 David M. Wilson, “A Hungarian in London: Pulszky’s 1851 lecture”, Journal of the History of Collections, 22, 2 (2010): 271–278.
6 V&A Archives MA/1/B3303.
7 V&A Archives MA/1/R648. On 15 March 1900 the V&A acquired seven examples of enamelled jewellery from the Hungarian dealer Sigismund Réthi.
8 Piroska Ács, “The Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest. The English Connections of its Furnishings (1889–1896)”, in: Gyula Ernyey, ed., Britain and Hungary, 3, (Budapest 2005): 87–95.
9 David Crowley, “Budapest: International Metropolis and National Capital” in Paul Greenhalgh, ed., Art Nouveau 1890–1914 (V&A Publications, 2000): 348–359.
10 Art and Design for All: the Victoria and Albert Museum, exhibition catalogue, Bonn and Budapest, 2011–2, cat. 338–9.
11 Hilda Horváth, “British Bookplates in the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest”, in Gyula Ernyey, ed., Britain and Hungary, 3 (Budapest, 2005): 104–113.
12 Ferenc Batári, “British Textiles, Bookbindings, Miniatures and Fans in the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest”, in Gyula Ernyey, ed., Britain and Hungary, 3, (Budapest, 2005): 96–103.
13 Hilda Horváth, “Walter Crane in Hungary” in Gyula Ernyey, ed. ,Britain and Hungary, 2 (Budapest, 2003): 153–62.