Victoria and Albert Museum considers long term loans of its paintings

Trustees’ chairman would like to rationalise the collection



The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) may hive off its important collection of paintings and watercolours to other institutions.

Chairman Paula Ridley has revealed to The Art Newspaper that she wants the V&A to consider the idea of sending much of its fine art on long-term loan to galleries such as the Tate and the National Gallery. “We have marvellous pictures, but people don’t come to see them here and they don’t immediately think of Constables at the V&A. Even when they come for the paintings, it is hard to find them. Either we should rehang the paintings in the galleries where they were originally shown or offer them on long-term loan to other museums. It is important that people understand what the V&A is, and maybe we shouldn’t be an art gallery,” she explained.

Mrs Ridley admits that this only represents her personal view, but although the issue has not been formally discussed by the trustees, “they know my mind”.

She added: “The trustees are beginning to feel that we need to focus on the scope of the museum, and we are going to take a radical look at things. What I am saying is that here is an idea that we should think about and talk about with the curators.”

She stresses that this would not involve a change in ownership, but long-term loans. The next step, which is just beginning, is discussions with the department of Prints, Drawings and Paintings, headed by Susan Lambert.

The South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) began collecting fine art from the time of its establishment in 1857, when it was designated the national collection of British art. This role came to an end after the creation of the Tate Gallery in 1897. From 1910 the V&A stopped acquiring paintings, apart from rare occasions when they formed part of a larger gift or had some special relevance to the collection. Even today, however, the V&A’s collection of British 18th- and 19th-century paintings and watercolours is more representative than those of Tate Britain. European paintings were also extensively collected up until 1910.

The V&A now has 2,500 oil and tempera paintings, including works by a 12th-century Umbrian master, Botticelli, Boucher, Gainsborough, Fuseli, Turner, Millet, Degas and Rossetti. In numerical terms (although not in overall quality), this is slightly more than the National Gallery (2,300) and it represents the second largest national museum collection after the Tate (4,300 paintings).

The V&A’s major donors were John Sheepshanks in 1857, the Rev Chauncy Townshend in 1868, Isabel Constable in 1888 and Constantine Ionides in 1900. In addition to paintings, the V&A has 6,000 watercolours, virtually all British, and it is still designated as the national collection.

These fine art collections are now shown in the upper levels of the Henry Cole Wing, but this is currently a relative backwater in the museum and is not as widely visited as the more accessible ground-floor galleries. At present 600 paintings are shown in the Henry Cole galleries, with a further 400 hung on the great staircase, which is only occasionally open to the public. For conservation reasons watercolours are displayed in changing exhibitions, although they are easily accessible in the study room.

The Ridley idea involves long-term loans to other public collections, possibly for a renewable five-year period. However, it would be impossible for the V&A to lend the Ionides Bequest, which was given on the condition that it is displayed together at the museum (it is one of the few Victorian art collections that has survived intact and is still hung together).

A start has already been made to increase cooperation with other museums, and in May 1999 an agreement was reached with the Tate, under which from next year the two holdings of British art will “effectively be regarded as a single resource.” The V&A has promised Tate Britain around 20 Constables, as well as miniatures and sculptures. In return, Tate Britain will lend paintings for the V&A’s new British Galleries, including pictures by Dobson, Lely, Hogarth, Reynolds, Stubbs and Whistler. However, the Ridley idea is much more radical and could well involve thousands of works.

Despite discussion about long-term loans of paintings and watercolours, other parts of the V&A’s art collection are likely to stay in South Kensington. These include the 2,000 miniatures, 80,000 design drawings, 300,000 photographs, 500,000 prints and 1,000,000 architectural drawings which will be coming from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

As a next step, the Prints, Drawings and Paintings department is to present a range of proposals, which will be considered by the trustees within the next few months. According to curator Mrs Lambert: “We want our fine art to be seen as a national resource and we are now looking at options as to how this can be done in the fullest way. These have not yet been worked out, but there will be changes.” Although the trustees will be discussing the proposals, a final decision is likely to await the arrival of a new director.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Victoria and Albert Museum may hive off its paintings'