The Met Museum’s collection of British decorative arts is one of the most important outside the United Kingdom. Covering the 16th to 19th century. The collection comprises a wide array of furniture, ceramics, silver, tapestries, and other textiles from the Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian eras, ranging in styles from Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo to Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic.
This week the museum launched a press preview of the collection and plans for the Met’s newly renovated galleries for British Decorative Arts and Design is set to open on March 2, 2020. The reopening of the British Galleries will be a highlight of The Met’s 150th-anniversary year. Through nearly 700 works created between 1500 and 1900, the suite of 10 galleries will offer a fresh perspective on Britain’s entrepreneurial spirit and complex history.
The Met’s 150th anniversary, we are thinking deeply about the stories told in our galleries and how every object on display is an outstanding work of art – Max Hollein, Met Director
The Museum’s newly installed Annie Laurie Aitken and Josephine Mercy Heathcote Galleries is 11,000 square feet devoted to British decorative arts, design, and sculpture created between 1500 and 1900. The reimagined suite of 10 galleries (including three remarkable 18th-century interiors) will provide a fresh perspective on the period, focusing on its bold, entrepreneurial spirit and complex history. The new narrative will offer a chronological exploration of the intense commercial drive among artists, manufacturers, and retailers that shaped British design over the course of 400 years. During this period, global trade and the growth of the British Empire fueled innovation, industry, and exploitation. Works on view will illuminate the emergence of a new middle class—ready consumers for luxury goods—which inspired an age of exceptional creativity and invention during a time of harsh colonialism.
The British Galleries will reopen with almost 700 works of art on view, including a large number of new acquisitions, mainly works from the 19th century that was purchased with this project in mind. This is the first complete renovation of the galleries since they were established (Josephine Mercy Heathcote Gallery in 1987, Annie Laurie Aitken Galleries in 1995). A prominent new entrance will provide direct access from the galleries for medieval European art.
The new British galleries will create a seamless transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The 17th-century staircase with exquisite naturalistic carvings—brought to The Met in the 1930s from Cassiobury House, a now-lost Tudor manor—has been meticulously conserved and re-erected in the new galleries. Three magnificent 18th-century rooms from Kirtlington Park, Croome Court, and Lansdowne House will be transformed by modern lighting and meticulous restoration and remain at the heart of the galleries.
“The Met’s extraordinary collection of British decorative arts is unparalleled on this side of the Atlantic, and the redesigned galleries will breathe new life into the collection in compelling and unexpected ways,” said Max Hollein, Director of The Met. “Especially on the occasion of The Met’s 150th anniversary, we are thinking deeply about the stories told in our galleries and how every object on display is an outstanding work of art but also embodies a history that can be read from multiple perspectives: a beautiful English teapot speaks to both the prosperous commercial economy and the exploitative history of the tea trade. The curators have created a new narrative for the galleries that sheds light on four centuries of extraordinary artistic achievement alongside the realities of colonial rule. The result is a thoughtful examination of the British Empire and its astonishing artistic legacy.”
Sarah Lawrence, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge of The Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, said: “This ambitious narrative of bold creativity in an entrepreneurial society will have particular resonance in New York, where historic hubs of manufacture have recently been reinvigorated by new design practices and an innovative economy. The installation will demonstrate that this is a history that remains highly relevant and that these extraordinary objects speak to us today with genuine eloquence.”
Wolf Burchard, Associate Curator of British Furniture and Decorative Arts and lead curator for the new galleries, added: “It appears particularly timely to ask oneself the question of how best to convey Britain’s culture of creativity at a moment when the United Kingdom is reassessing its role on the European and global stage. We are reminded that the history of British art is far from an isolated one. For centuries, London’s flourishing economy encouraged the trading of foreign luxury goods. It attracted countless artists and artisans from abroad, many of whom will be represented in The Met’s new British Galleries. The aim is to present British decorative arts, sculpture, and design beyond royal and country house patronage, focusing on the ways craftsmen and manufacturers had to think outside the box, how to use new technologies, and how to market themselves. The galleries’ design creates an extremely stimulating new stage for our works of art to perform to their best of abilities and an excellent platform to shed new light on British art.”
Sarah Lawrence and Wolf Burchard lead the project’s curatorial team. Before their arrival in early 2019, the project was overseen by Ellenor Alcorn (now Chair and Eloise W. Martin Curator of European Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago) and Luke Syson (now Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, United Kingdom). To create a narrative-rich setting that
British Galleries befits The Met’s impressive collection; The Met is collaborating with Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, principals of the design firm Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors and recipients of the 2018 Sir John Soane Visionaries Award and 2014 National Design Award for Interior Design. This is the first museum project undertaken by Roman and Williams, whose work—which ranges from homes and hotels to shops and a furniture collection—is characterized by a sensitivity to historical materials, period references, and the use of vibrant, layered colours. The exciting partnership between these designers and The Met’s curators appropriately mirrors the collaborative spirit that developed between British designers, makers, and retailers.
From 1500 to 1900, Britain transformed itself from an isolated island nation into a dominant world power. Global trade stimulated wealth, created a cultural and economic elite beyond the aristocracy, broadened local tastes, and introduced new markets to resourceful British makers. Artists, manufacturers, and retailers—men and women—responded vigorously to these opportunities, developing new materials and technologies, adapting European and Asian styles, and taking bold, imaginative risks.
As early as the 16th century, Britain’s international trade produced a new class of professionals with luxury appetites and ready cash, exemplified in the first gallery’s carved oak panelling from Norfolk, commissioned by William Crowe, a merchant from Great Yarmouth. Foreign artisans started to arrive in England as the Protestant Crown sought to compete with the glories of papal Rome and the French courts. These foreigners had more formal training than their English peers, who still operated within the medieval guild system. Florentine Pietro Torrigiano (1472–1528) was just one of the many European artists and craftsmen who made their way across the English Channel and established themselves in Britain. His naturalistically painted terracotta bust, probably representing Cardinal John Fisher (executed for resisting Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation), has just been conserved and will greet visitors in the first gallery.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the British Empire’s expansion delivered excitement, curiosity, and ruthlessness. A gallery devoted to “Tea, Trade, and Empire” will explore the period’s visual exuberance with 100 English teapots displayed in a pair of ten-foot-tall semicircular cases. Presiding over this display will be a small but mighty figure of a merchant from 1719, modelled in China by the Cantonese artist Amoy Chinqua (active after 1716). Jaunty, prosperous, and proud, the East India Company entrepreneur who posed for this portrait represents the commercial interests that drove the expansion of the Empire. The goods they brought from China, India, and the West Indies included tea, sugar, coffee, and chocolate, as well as porcelain, cotton, mahogany, and ivory. Produced at great material and human cost, and then transported thousands of miles, these commodities were now affordable for a new middle class. The perimeter of this gallery will examine the exploitation of both human and natural resources that accompanied that abundance.
With both the political and monetary power of British monarchs strictly curbed by Parliament, British artisans did not receive the same level of court patronage as their counterparts in Paris, Dresden, and St. Petersburg. Instead, 18th-century design in Britain was shaped by entrepreneurs who had the cleverness, technical expertise, and business acumen necessary to succeed. Nicolas Sprimont (1713–1771) founded the Chelsea Porcelain factory; James Cox (ca. 1723–1800) sold precious table ornaments, some for export to Turkey and China; Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) perfected the production of his pioneering pottery, achieving wide distribution within Continental markets; and Matthew Boulton (1728–1809) brought engineering skills to the manufacture of elaborate metalwork. All of these businessmen employed designers in the modern sense of the word: master sculptors, painters, architects, and draftsmen of immense skill and visual sophistication.
The final section of the galleries will explore the massive shifts in scale, pace, and taste brought about by the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century. Once again, aesthetic and commercial priorities adapted to an immense new world of methods and customers. A highlight of this section will work explicitly acquired for the new galleries, including objects by the visionary designer Christopher Dresser (1834–1904) that highlight his limitless creativity and mastery of industrial manufacturing in practically any medium imaginable. Examples by the great Gothic Revival designer A.W.N. Pugin (1812–1852) will reveal his impassioned assertion of a national style. Other works will represent movements against industrialization, revolts against labour abuses, and the demise of pure craft.
Top Photo: Met CEO Daniel Weiss © P C Robinson Artlyst 2019