The RCA was founded in Somerset House in 1837 as the Government School of Design or Metropolitan School of Design. Richard Burchett became head of the school in 1852. In 1853 it was expanded and moved to Marlborough House, and then, in 1853 or 1857, to South Kensington, on the same site as the South Kensington Museum. It was renamed the Normal Training School of Art in 1857 and the National Art Training School in 1863. During the later 19th century it was primarily a teacher training college; pupils during this period included George Clausen, Christopher Dresser, Luke Fildes, Kate Greenaway and Gertrude Jekyll.
In 1896 or 1897 the school received the name Royal College of Art, and the emphasis of teaching there shifted to the practice of art and design. Teaching of graphic design, industrial design and product design began in the mid-twentieth century. The school expanded further in the 1960s, and in 1967 it received a Royal Charter which gave it the status of an independent university with the power to grant its own degrees.