Elizabeth Esteve-Coll confimed that she would be stepping down from her post next year - two years before the end of her contract - to become vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia.
She suffered a year of vitriolic criticism from senior museum figures following her appointment in 1988 over her restructuring and redundancies programme at the museum and a new policy which added fashion and more downmarket exhibitions to the traditional displays of textiles and ceramics.
Yesterday, however, she was able to claim achievements including a 23 per cent increase in attendances and the opening of eight new galleries.
The chairman of the trustees, Lord Armstrong, said: "We shall be extremely sorry to lose Elizabeth. She has firmly established the course on which the museum is set; her determination and vision have enabled her to achieve an enormous amount. She will g o with our gratitude, respect, goodwill and affection - but the loss will be great."
Mrs Esteve Coll, 56, a widow, had previously been in charge of the museum library after spending much of her twenties sailing round the world with her husband, a Spanish sea captain. She said yesterday she had been attracted to the East Anglia job because of the university's reputation as a research centre.
But she went on to reveal how the pressures of running the V&A had taken their toll. With the increasing necessity in the arts for fundraising and attracting sponsors she worked seven days a week and had sacrificed all personal life. She had even been unable to attend the funeral of one of her cousins because she was kept so busy.
"You don't get any of your research done here," she said. "It's a full-time job, seven days a week.
"There has been considerable personal sacrifice. Three close members of my family have died in the last year. My father died in September and I have a particular duty to my mother now. Three events like that cause you to reflect."
She added: "At the V&A, I have been fortunate enough to work with an extremely talented and creative team of people.
"Over the past eight years we have achieved a tremendous amount together. I shall leave with great sadness."