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Mosaic - William Mulready

William Mulready

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1868 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Barwell, Frederick Bacon (designer)
    Minton, Hollins & Co. (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Ceramic mosaic

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This mosaic is part of a cycle of monumental mosaic portraits depicting famous artists, here William Mulready (1786-1863). It is made after a painting by Frederick Bacon Barwell. The series of originally 35 mosaics was created between 1864 and circa 1875 for the South Court of the South Kensington Museum, the later V&A. The mosaics were originally installed on the side walls as part of a decorative scheme celebrating the arts.

William Mulready (1786-1863) is the only 19th-century artist included in the Valhalla. His inclusion is due to his friendship with Henry Cole, and perhaps to the part he played in securing the gift of John Sheepshanks's collection of paintings for South Kensington. Mulready was born at Ennis in County Clare, but was brought up in Soho in London, and attended the Royal Academy schools, entering in 1800; he first exhibited at the RA in 1804. In the company of his friend David Wilkie, he began to visit private collections and to copy works by Netherlandish artists Adriaen van Ostade and Pieter de Hooch. Their scenes of peasant life were to be immensely influential for Mulready's later subject matter. Mulready was a slow painter, producing only two or three pictures a year, but gradually he began to gain a reputation for his small scale works dealing with his central preoccupations as an artist, youth and age, childhood, and young love, subject matter which was to gain him considerable contemporary acclaim. His works were admired by the young Pre-Raphaelite artists whom he taught at the Royal Academy. They were to be deeply influenced by his advocacy of the technique of using a white ground over which rich colours were very thinly applied producing a glowing effect. Mulready was among the 19th-century artists included in Richard and Samuel Redgrave's 'A Century of British Painters' (1866), the first popular account of British art.

Mulready is shown here holding a sheet of paper; he was particularly well known for his drawings, which were often copied by art students of the South Kensington schools. Of all the Valhalla portraits, Mulready's is the only one which shows the figure looking intently outwards, as though directly observing the viewer.
Following Mulready's death a memorial exhibition was planned and held at the museum in March 1864.

Frederick Bacon Barwell (fl.1855-ca.1897) was a London-based painter who exhibited genre subjects, mostly small domestic scenes and interiors, at the Royal Academy between 1855 and 1887. In 1868 Barwell was also commissioned to execute one of the lunette paintings for the National Competition Gallery on the theme of art training and practice.
Barwell was also commissioned to design a series of mosaics for the new buildings of the South Kensington Museum forming a frieze of portrait heads of the Lords President of the Council (a British cabinet position), and their immediate predecessors, the Presidents of the Board of Trade. This frieze was positioned in the cloister on the ground floor which ran between the North and South Courts.

The series of mostly idealised portraits against gold backgrounds soon became known by the public as the Kensington Valhalla. The term alludes to the Vallhall as eternal home of heroes in Norse mythology. It also refers to the concept of a reunion of outstanding personalities of different periods by the means of art. An earlier example of such a hall of fame is the Walhalla near Regensburg in Germany (opened in 1842).

The selection of the Kensington Valhalla includes many famous artists, from Phidias and Apelles as representatives of ancient Greece to contemporaries such as the Irish painter William Mulready who had died only five years before his mosaic was completed.

Mosaics played an important part in the canon of materials and techniques used for the interior decoration of the new South Kensington Museum. The ambitious project of a revival of the art of mosaics involved one of the major Venetian mosaic companies of the time, Salviati & Co. It also led to the innovation of the technique by the introduction of vitrified ceramics mosaics made by Minton, Hollins & Co. These ceramics mosaics were created following the cartoons of professional artists by female students, including members of the family of Henry Cole.

The Kensington Valhalla remained in place until 1949. Some of the mosaics are now on display in other galleries of the museum. In addition to the mosaics themselves, preparatory sketches and cartoons by established contemporary artists such as Edward Poynter or Lord Leighton are part of the V&A collection.

Physical description

Vertical oblong ceramic mosaic with curved top depicting idealised full-length portrait of William Mulready (1786-1863) studying a piece of paper, standing on plinth in front of a golden background; books and painting tools laid out on the plinth at his feet

Place of Origin

Great Britain (made)


ca. 1868 (made)


Barwell, Frederick Bacon (designer)
Minton, Hollins & Co. (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Ceramic mosaic

Marks and inscriptions

on plinth


Height: 2.675 m approximate, Width: 0.905 m approximate, Depth: 0.045 m approximate, Weight: 240 kg

Object history note

This mosaic was created for the decoration of the South Court of the Museum. It is part of a cycle of mosaic portraits of famous artists. They were created between 1863 and ca. 1875 and installed in blind arcades on the upper level of the South Court.

Historical significance: Only few extensive mosaic cycles were executed in the 19th century. Apart from the South Kensington Valhalla the mosaics of the Albert Memorial, Albert Memorial Chapel at Windsor, and at Saint Paul's Cathedral, all begun in 1864, were the only other comparable projects of the time. All of them were made by Salviati & Co.
The mosaics of the South Kensington Valhalla are based upon designs of a variety of artists, some of whom were, or were to become, major figures of the Victorian art world. The commission is extremely well documented. The related documents and cartoons at the V&A make this cycle of mosaics not only an outstanding group of artistic value, but are also an excellent case study for the history of the buildings of the Museum.

Historical context note

The Museum played an important part in the revival of mosaic in Britain in the 19th century. The technique goes back to ancient times and was always regarded as one of the most precious and long-lasting techniques for adorning walls and floors. The enormous costs of mosaics limited its success in the 19th century.
The early mosaics for the South Court were made using the traditional material glass. They were created by the Venetian company Salviati & Co., the most successful mosaic makers of the time who had branches in London and New York. The majority of the mosaics consist of vitrified ceramics which were provided by the English company Minton, Hollins & Co. The Mosaics were made by the Mosaic Class of the Art School of the South Kensington Museum and were supervised by a representative of Minton. Amongst the students were family members of Henry Cole.
A second, less ambitious series of mosaics was created for the north cloister between 1868 and 1874. In 1878 a ceramic mosaic memorial for Sir Henry Cole, designed by Frank Moody was installed on the first landing of the Ceramic Staircase and is still in place today. The use of mosaic at the museum also included marble mosaic floors, some of them laid by 'Female Convicts' of Woking Prison from 1869 and was dubbed Opus Criminale by contemporaries.

Descriptive line

Mosaic panel, ceramic, depicting William Mulready, by Letitia M. Cole and Samuel Cooper after a painting by Frederick Bacon Barwell, Britain, about 1868

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Physick, John. The Victoria and Albert Museum. The history of its building. London: The Victoria & Albert Museum 1982. Pp. 62-67, no. 35.

Production Note

Mosaic made by Letitia M. Cole, a member of Henry Cole's family, and Samuel Cooper - both students at the Art School - under the supervision of William E. Alldridge for Minton, Hollins & Co.





Subjects depicted

Books; Palettes




Sculpture Collection

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