The Met Debuts New British Galleries
A highlight of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 150th anniversary plan for 2020 was the March opening of the Museum’s newly installed galleries devoted to British decorative arts, design, and sculpture created between 1500 and 1900. Totaling 11,000 square feet and including three superb 18th-century interiors, the reimagined suite of 10 galleries provides a fresh perspective, focusing on Britain’s entrepreneurial spirit and complex history.
The new narrative offers 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 Empire fueled innovation, industry, and exploitation. Works illuminate the emergence of a new middle class that fueled an age of exceptional creativity and invention as consumers for luxury goods during a time of harsh colonialism.
This is the first complete enovation of the galleries since they were established in the 1980s. A prominent new entrance provides direct access from the galleries for Medieval European art, creating a seamless transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. A 17th-century staircase (figure 1) with exquisite naturalistic carvings—brought to The Met in the 1930s from Cassiobury House, a now-lost Tudor manor in Hertfordshire—has been meticulously conserved and re-erected in the new galleries. Three magnificent 18th-century rooms from Croome Court in Worcestershire, Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, and Lansdowne House in London were transformed by new lighting and painstaking conservation and remain at the heart of the galleries.
The narrative structure of the new installation focuses on Britain’s transformation 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.
A gallery devoted to “Tea, Trade, and Empire” explores the period’s visual exuberance with 100 English teapots displayed in a pair of ten-foot-tall semicircular cases (figure 2). Presiding over this display is a small but powerful figure of a merchant from 1719 (figure 3), modeled in China by the Cantonese artist Amoy Chinqua (active after 1716). This East India Company entrepreneur represents the commercial interests porcelain, cotton, mahogany, and ivory that drove the expansion of the Empire. Produced at great material and human cost, these commodities were now affordable for a new middle class. The perimeter of this gallery examines the exploitation of both human and natural resources that accompanied that abundance (figure 4)
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 and immigrant artisans such as Pierre Langlois, who had the cleverness, technical expertise, and business acumen necessary to succeed (figure 5). 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 (figure 6).
The final section of the galleries explores 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 are works acquired specifically 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 (figure 7). Examples by the great Gothic Revival designer A.W.N. Pugin (1812–1852) reveal his impassioned assertion of a national style (figure 8). Other works represent movements against industrialization, revolts against labor abuses, and the demise of pure craft.
“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. “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.”
Wolf Burchard, Associate Curator of British Furniture and Decorative Arts and lead curator for the new galleries, added: “One of the main reasons why The Met can justify having galleries of this scale dedicated solely to British art is that it is such an international story. Our 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.”
A print version of this article was published in The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, one of our most popular member benefits. Join today!