Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The V&A Café

The V&A Café looks like any other museum or gallery café at first glance; brightly lit, bustling staff clearing trays, signposted stations for hot or cold food, coffee or cakes - and all heavingly busy. A modern, functional place to take the weight off and fortify yourself with tea and cake before venturing back out into the world's greatest museum of art and design (their words, but does any other venue even come close?). Now take a look at the suite of three interlinked rooms off to the side and it's like stepping back in time; together these rooms make up the world's very first museum restaurant and it is a seriously impressive setting.

The Refreshment Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum were intended as a showcase for contemporary design and craftsmanship and are a wonderfully Victorian mix of the ornate and the practical. The main central section is the Gamble Room, designed by James Gamble, Godfrey Sykes and Reuben Townroe. Originally the main doors to this room were directly opposite the museum entrance so this would have been the first room visitors saw; even by Victorian standards this must have seemed imposingly grand. Look more closely; the ceiling is enamelled iron and both the walls and the huge columns are completely covered with ceramic tiles, making this most majestic and opulent of dining rooms completely washable and practically fireproof.

Mottoes espousing the joys of food and drink adorn the beautiful stained glass windows and the frieze is a quotation from Ecclesiastes II:24: 'There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy the good of his labour.' Hard to argue with that.

The Morris Room (the Green Dining Room) was the first major commission for William Morris's company Morris Marshall and Faulkner. The dado panels based on signs of the zodiac were painted by Edward Burne-Jones, who also designed the stained glass windows. The influence of William Morris and his pattern-making is most recognisable in the plasterwork leaves and flowers on the walls (although if you are a Morris fan, the rest of the museum has plenty to offer). This room, although beautiful, has a more restrained, quiet feel.

The Poynter room (the Grill Room) designed by Edward Poynter has a homely cosiness to it, with blue Dutch tiles and wooden panelling. The large tiled panels of the months and seasons were actually painted by students from the ladies' tile-painting class at the Schools of Design; this was very much in keeping with V&A Founding Director Henry Cole's  radical idea of involving students and the public in creating this public space. Giving such an important commission to female students would have caused quite a stir in Victorian times.

The beautiful iron stove where a chef in whites would have grilled steaks and chops to order is still in place; the V&A website has sample menus from 1867 - both first and second class - which include options such as jugged hare for 1/6 (i.e. one shilling and sixpence, or 18p) or, from the second class menu, stewed rabbit for 10d (ten pence). That may sound like a bargain until you consider that an unskilled labourer's wage was about a pound a week.

Nowadays the catering side is handled by Benugo, so expect freshly-prepared basics and great cakes (although as everything is made fresh on the day, quality and availability can inevitably dip if you arrive too near closing time). I hear the cream tea is good, so that's my next visit sorted.

Yours, scratching the surface of London history just for you,

Girl About Town xx


  1. Thank you so much for this information. It made my time sitting in the Poynter room eating a souvlaki wrap all the more enjoyable!

  2. I'm so glad! Thanks for reading! :)

  3. This is a lovely post.Well, your posts are great.

  4. Thank you! I'm glad you liked it! :)