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The Distribution of Art Prizes

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    London (painted)

  • Date:

    ca.1869-1872 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Prinsep, Val, born 1838 - died 1904 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Photography Centre, Room 101, The Sir Elton John and David Furnish Gallery, case South Wall

This painting was commissioned in 1869 to decorate the National Competition Gallery (now 101), a room used to display the work of art students. It was made to fit the over-door space at the south end of the gallery. The prize-giving ceremony depicted in the painting is witnessed by the eminent artists of the day, including Frederic Leighton and George Frederic Watts, who are depicted to the right of the central group. Henry Cole, the first director of the Museum, appears on the right of the painting, dressed in a red robe.

Physical description

Elongated lunette painting commissioned for an overdoor space in the National Competition Gallery (101) depicting a prize-giving ceremony taking place within a Venetian Renaissance setting.

Place of Origin

London (painted)


ca.1869-1872 (painted)


Prinsep, Val, born 1838 - died 1904 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas


Height: 156 cm, Width: 515 cm

Object history note

The Distribution of Art Prizes was commissioned in 1869 for the right-hand overdoor space at the south end of the National Competition Gallery (now room 100), when the gallery was extended southwards. It was a pendant to F.R. Pickersgill's painting of the same name, commissioned for the right-hand space (PDP.LOST.6). Both paintings were removed shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War and placed in store. PDP.LOST.7 was restored and re-installed in its original position in 2007.

Historical significance: The National Competition Gallery (now rooms 100 and 101) in the East Ranges of the Museum was completed in 1864-65. At that time it was formed of two parallel top-lit rooms; these were used for the marking and display of work by art students in Department of Science and Art-run schools across the country. In 1865 Richard Redgrave, who was placed in charge of the decoration of the gallery, proposed to commission paintings for the eighteen lunettes along the upper section of the wall. The project, managed jointly by Redgrave and Henry Cole, continued for over ten years; several lunettes were in position by 1869, although work was not completed fully until 1876.

In 1868 artists were chosen (or proposed themselves) for the project. Initial plans to commission artists of the stature of Leighton, Watts and Poynter were scaled down, and the core of those chosen were historical genre painters from the loose association of artists known as the St John’s Wood Clique: G.D. Leslie, Henry Stacy Marks, William Frederick Yeames and D.W. Wynfield. Cole held a meeting to establish a theme for the lunettes, and, highly appropriately for a gallery in which students’ work was displayed and judged, it was decided that the paintings should represent the practices of drawing, painting and sculpture. The resulting subjects treated by the ten compositional canvases in the group included life drawing, modelling from the life, study of anatomy, landscape painting, flower painting and still life drawing. These varied subjects reflected the reformed curriculum for art schools which Redgrave, in his capacity as inspector-general for art in the Government School of Design, had devised and implemented in the previous decade.

The various artistic activities represented in the paintings are set within relevant historical contexts; each takes place within the period and place considered to have fostered its inception or its apogee. So drawing the skeletal structure of the body is set in Renaissance Florence; still-life drawing is given a 17th-century Dutch setting; and landscape sketching takes place in 19th-century England.

In 1869 the gallery was extended southwards, prompting the commission of two large elongated painted canvases for the overdoor spaces at this end of the room, each measuring a metre and a half high and over five metres wide. Val Prinsep offered to decorate one of these and F.R. Pickersgill was commissioned to submit a painting for the other.

Val Prinsep (1838-1904) was an honorary member of the St John's Wood Clique, a loose association of historical genre painters from the St John's Wood area of London, many of whom had been commissioned to paint the decorative lunettes in the National Competition Gallery in 1868.

Both Prinsep and Pickersgill chose to show young artists receiving prizes, continuing the theme of art education expressed by the lunettes. Historical settings are employed: Prinsep and Pickersgill's depictions, respectively, of Renaissance Venice and Florence referred to the centuries-old debate over the relative merits of disegno(drawing), which was associated with Florence and colore(colour), which was associated with Venice, and exemplify Vasari's argument that competition was essential to the flowering of art.

Prinsep's painting is memorable for the aspirational way in which it conflates a contemporary event with a setting in Renaissance Venice. At the right a figure dressed as a Venetian Doge is giving a prize to a young artist in Italian Renaissance costume. Between them is recognisable the figure of Henry Cole, wearing a red robe, while a row of similarly dressed seated figures look on. Their senatorial garb is presumably intended to be suggestive of the Venetian Council of Ten, the inner circle of government of the Venetian Republic. Eminent Victorian artists are included in the composition, including Frederic Leighton and G. F. Watts, who are depicted on the right of the central group. The armoured halberdier at the left has been identified as Sapper Nellis, a member of the Royal Engineer detachment based at the museum from the 1850s until the 1890s, who posed for the art students.

Descriptive line

Decorative lunette painting, commissioned for the National Competition Gallery (now Rooms 100 and 101). Val Prinsep, 'The Distribution of Art Prizes', 1869

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

John Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum: the History of its Building, London 1982, pp. 85-87.
Jim Dimond, Susan Owens and Sophie Reddington, 'The conservation of twenty paintings for the V&A's National Competition Gallery', The Picture Restorer, no. 38, Spring 2011, pp. 14-16.


Oil paint; Canvas


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Prizes; Art students; Art


Paintings; History of the V&A; Fabric of the Building


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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