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Historic Furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Famous Furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Famous Furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London is the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design, and sculpture. The Museum houses a collection of over 2 million objects. 

In 2012, the Museum opened its first gallery to be exclusively dedicated to Furniture. Previously, furniture had been exhibited separately as part of the historical period exhibits.

The furniture collection covers Europe and America from the Middle Ages to the present, plus a sizeable British collection.

One of the oldest items is a chair leg from Egypt dated to 200 AD.  One of the oldest clocks in the collection is an astronomical clock from 1588.

The Furniture and Woodwork collection also includes complete rooms, musical instruments, and clocks. The Museum also hosts the national collection of wallpaper. 

The famous collections range from Italian and French Renaissance objects to Art Nouveau and innovative modern furniture.

A Tour of Furniture the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • Henry VIII’s Writing Desk
  • Chinese Lacquerware Table
  • Leistler Bookcase
  • Bofinger Chair


Henry VIII’s Writing Desk

Famous Furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Henry VIII’s Writing Desk

Henry VIII’s writing desk is portable and made in about 1525 for the King of England. It was produced by the royal workshops and is richly embellished with ornamental motifs introduced to England by continental artists.

The gilded leather lining is painted with figures and profiles similar to contemporary portrait miniatures. The figures of Mars in armor and Venus with cupid are taken from woodcuts by a German artist published in 1510.

The desk also bears the royal coat of arms and badges of Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547 and his first queen Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536).

Similar images of allegiance were used in the decorative schemes of Henry VIII’s royal palaces. However, later Henry began divorce proceedings against Katherine in 1527.

The Latin inscription on the inner lid reads:

“God of Kingdoms great Protector of the authority of the Christian Church give to your servant Henry VIII King of England a great victory over his enemies.”

The decoration includes late Gothic and early Renaissance ornaments. On either side of the coat of arms are figures of Mars, the Roman god of war, and Venus, the goddess of love and fertility, with her son Cupid.

The compartment lids depict the head of Christ and figures of St George and the Dragon. The front has a male and a female head in profile. The flap bears profiles from Greek legend, Paris, prince of Troy, and Helen, the Spartan queen.

The exterior of the desk is covered with sharkskin used as a decorative material with a naturally rough surface of scales and fitted with metal-gilt angle-mounts. The loop handles and ball feet were added during the 18th century.

The interior surfaces are lined with red silk velvet, and the writing surface has been relined with crimson silk velvet.

Henry VIII’s Writing Desk

  • Title:                  Henry VIII’s Writing Desk
  • Date:                1525
  • Origin:               London
  • Materials:          Walnut and oak, lined with painted and gilded leather and silk velvet; later shagreen (possibly sharkskin) outer covering
  • Museum:           Victoria and Albert Museum


Chinese Lacquerware Table

Famous Furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Chinese Lacquerware Table

This carved lacquerware table is from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). It is unique in shape and decoration and is one of the most important objects at the museum from the Ming period.

It is one of the few surviving examples of furniture produced in the ‘Orchard Workshop,’ the Imperial lacquer workshop set up in the early Ming period in the ‘Forbidden City’ compound in Peking, now Beijing.

Carved lacquer was being used in all visible surfaces of pieces of furniture. This table’s top has the imperial Ming design with a central dragon and phoenix, symbolizing the Emperor and empress.

In the Ming period, the dragon became an imperial symbol, appearing on lacquer from the imperial workshops for the use of the court or the Emperor’s use.

Initially, the dragon’s head was seen in the traditional profile, but in the middle of the 15th century, the “frontal” dragon, seen looking out full-face.

The Ming dynasty was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644. The Ming dynasty was also the last imperial dynasty of China ruled by the Han Chinese.

The ground of the table-top relief was initially yellow, which contrasted with the red of the upper layers, but it has now faded to a dark color.

The legs and edges of the top are carved with the “Flowers of the Four Seasons.” The insides of the drawers are in plain red lacquer and the outsides and underside of the table in black lacquer.

The table bears the mark of the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1426–1435) and was made for the Imperial Palace.

The five-clawed dragons carved on the surface has been mutilated by the removal of one claw on each foot, as was often done when pieces left imperial ownership.

The five-clawed dragon was only allowed to be used by the Emperor, with very severe penalties for abuse. 

Imperial pieces were sometimes given as gifts or taken by the court eunuchs to be sold at markets outside the Forbidden City.

Chinese Lacquerware Table

  • Title:                  Chinese Lacquerware Table
  • Date:                 1425
  • Origin:               Peking, now Beijing
  • Materials:          Carved lacquer on wood, brass fittings
  • Dimensions:      Table-top -119.5 cm by 84.5 cm; Height 79.2 cm
  • Museum:           Victoria and Albert Museum


Leistler Bookcase

Historic Furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Leistler Bookcase

The Leistler Bookcase was produced in 1850-51 and exhibited at the Great Exhibition 1851 in London. The bookcase was constructed by the Austrian company Carl Leistler & Sohn in Vienna, Austria

Leistler’s exhibits were described as:

“massive, bold and masculine in design, and well adapted to a palace.”

The bookcase in neo-Gothic style, carved oak, was a cathedral in wood and was presented to Queen Victoria by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and installed in Buckingham Palace for Albert, Prince Consort.

It was later moved to Holyroodhouse when it was refurbished for the royal family to stay in during their holidays in Edinburgh. 

As Palace tastes changed with time, King George V gave the bookcase to the University of Edinburgh in 1923, who, in turn, passed it on to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Leistler Bookcase

  • Title:                   Leistler Bookcase
  • Artist:                  Bernardis, Bernardo di, (1807 – 1868) – designer
    •                   Fernkorn, Anton Dominik, (1813 – 1878) – sculptor
    •                   Carl Leistler & Son – maker
  • Date:                  1850
  • Origin:                Vienna
  • Materials:           Carved oak
  • Dimensions:       Height: 431.8 cm, Width: 581.7 cm, Depth: 171.5 cm
  • Museum:           Victoria and Albert Museum


Bofinger Chair

Historic Furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Bofinger Chair

The Bofinger Stacking Chair was designed by architect and designer Helmut Bätzner in 1964. The chair was developed in close co-operation with the Bofinger company, located in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, under the owner Rudolf Baresel-Bofinger.

Helmut Bätzner’s architectural office, in conjunction with the building project for the State Theatre in Karlsruhe, developed the concept. It was intended to provide additional seating indoors as well as for outdoor use and had to be light, stackable, compact and weatherproof. 

Plastic furniture was still a new venture, and Bätzner sought advice and presented his idea to furniture manufacturer Bofinger. Bofinger became an essential supporter of the project and eventually lent his name to the chair.

The Bofinger stacking chair was developed as the first one-piece plastic chair in fiberglass- reinforced polyester to be mass-produced in one single pressing process over a steel mold.

The material was dyed and available in a range of colors, including white, yellow, black, red, blue, green, brown, and orange.

In a lengthy trial process, the characteristic shape of the chair was designed to maximize the seating shape, stability, stacking capability, and industrial mass-production.

The pressing process in the heated steel mold lasted less than five minutes, and the finishing treatment was a simple scraping around the edges to remove excess polyester.

In 1966 the Bofinger Chair made its debut at the furniture fair in Cologne. It received awards and became a design icon of its time. Its mass production confirmed the chair’s popularity.

The chair became the first one-piece mass-produced plastic chair and was transformed into an art object.

Museums, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, included the Bofinger Chair in their collections.

The Bofinger Chair is considered one of the most important classics of modern furniture design history.

Bofinger Chair

  • Title:                   Bofinger Chair
  • Artist:                 Baresel-Bofinger, Rudolf (consultants)
  • Date:                 1966
  • Origin:               Karlsruhe
  • Materials:          Polyester resin, molded
  • Dimensions:      Height: 74.5 cm, Width: 53 cm, Depth: 53 cm
  • Museum:           Victoria and Albert Museum

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“I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”
– William Shakespeare


Photo Credit: Gryffindor / CC BY-SA (; The original uploader was VAwebteam at English Wikipedia. / CC BY-SA (; Gryffindor / CC BY-SA (; Sandstein / CC BY-SA (

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