Designers visit museums to be inspired or sometimes simply to copy work from the past. There can’t be anywhere in Britain where that’s been more true than at the V&A. Most of the Victoria & Albert Museum was built towards the end of the Nineteenth century. At first it housed pieces from the 1851 Great Exhibition, held at the other end of Exhibition Road in Hyde Park. Construction of the V&A never finished and the museum has had many architects. Apart from one provocative attempt, a proposal made by Danny Libeskind ten years ago that was not built, the additions have all used the same red brick. This picture below is of the central courtyard:V&Afacade

In fine weather, it’s a lovely place to have lunch and or tea (free entry).


A few parts of London (16-18C Richmond, for instance) have been built with red brick, but as anyone who’s been to London will have noticed most of the city, particularly the Victorian parts, is of a yellow-ochre brick that turns a burnt brown given enough time and pollution. One exception is the red that starts here, at the V&A, and (as Alma and I found on our walk after lunch) breaks out again at the other end of Exhibition Road with several streets of large expensive mansion flats. Note the two floors of Corinthian columns on these balconies; there are another two above these. You’d never see such willful sacrilege in the USA or France. The orders ought to begin with Doric at the base and get more decorative towards the top, ending with Corinthian or Composite depending on how many floors there are.


The red brick continues along the southern edge of Kensington Gardens as far as the Albert Hall.  Below is one of my favourite buildings, Richard Norman Shaw’s Royal Geographical Society. Outside it stands the bronze statue of Dr Livingstone; he’s looking from his niche to see if the 73 bus is coming (it never is). I snapped this view of the chimneys and roofs as Alma and I walked past; the building itself is easier understood here, probably.


There are splashes of the same red further along Kensington Gore at Palace Green and around Holland Park.


Below is Leighton House, built near Holland Park by the Victorian painter Frederic Leighton over a period of thirty years.  Lord Leighton was unlucky: he died the day after he was made a baron. For 18 years, he’d been Sir Frederic, Bt and it’s only posterity that knows him as ‘Lord’. He was born in 1830 and died in 1896, tying him quite well to Victoria’s reign (1836 – 1901). He started his career as a pre-Raphaelite, but Leighton is now remembered as not much more than a society functionary, a president of the Royal Academy and that sort of thing. His ponderous academic paintings and sculpture seem dreary compared to those of his French contemporaries, the Impressionists, it’s red-brick Leighton House that is his memorial and masterpiece (it’s open to the public though few tourists go there):


As well as the dazzling red exterior the inside is pretty remarkable. The best-known room is the Arab Hall, below:

Leighton didn’t design it himself, he commissioned the pieces from his arts & crafts contacts, including the William Morris & Co. tilemaker William de Morgan. Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this? Right back to the V&A: look at this tile with its dense de Morgan-like Victorian pattern


Although it’s in the V&A it wasn’t made in Kensington. Check the date:


Here are four items from one glass case in the Islamic Middle East rooms. First, a tile from Iznik, Turkey, c. 1560 – 1590.


Secondly, a silk velvet fragment with gold-wrapped thread, from Bursa, Turkey, 1450 – 1550.


Thirdly, a piece of red & cream silk damask, from Bursa, Turkey, 1550 – 1600.


And last a tile from Damascus ca. 1550 – 1600:


As you can see, they’ve all got the same motifs as the panel of tiles below, also from Turkey or Syria, ca. 1550-1600.  According to the V&A the spots and wavy stripes on these pieces are either: a) very stylised representations of leopard and tiger fur; motifs allegedly worn by Rustam, hero of a Persian epic, on a tigerskin coat and a leopardskin hat. But here he is in the New York public library’s contemporary (1550) illustration; you can just see a four- (not three-) dot pattern on his hat, and there are no stripes that I can see on the coat:

Snapshot 2013-12-03 18-16-56

Or b) both motifs are the chintamani wish-fulfillment jewel or c) while the wavy lines are tiger stripes, the three-ball motif had apotropaic (warding-off) associations; warding off evil by reflecting it back at the perpetrator.


Here’s another pattern. You can read about it on the museum’s own label:


Made in 1262, using a technique from the Eight Hundreds, and it looks as if it might have been made for Leighton House, six hundred years later.  It’s very confusing:

Lastly I want to show this bowl from Spain:


Really I just like the flags, you can see them better here, below, and the little spirals (why are the spirals there?).

0667 flags

Keep going westwards from Leighton House and after about an hour’s walk you’ll come to the late-Arts & Crafts red brickwork of Bedford Park, the world’s first “suburb”.  It’s a shame suburbs didn’t continue being built to this standard. They’re lovely houses; some are by Phillip Webb (as at Palace Green) & Norman Shaw (Royal Geographical Society). You can see much better pictures here.

And finally a picture of me, with Albert’s golden throne in the background (the Albert Memorial), taken in Kensington Gardens by Alma during our walk.