On ViewThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 2016, a visitor to the Met would be hard pressed to find anything crustier than the galleries that housed the museum’s collection of British decorative arts and sculpture (c. 1500-1900). Unlike the more trafficked Wrightsman Galleries, which theatrically showcase French period rooms filled with splendid royal furnishings from Versailles, the unrestored British Galleries felt a bit like the dowdy apartment of some unreconstructed Mayflower Society member. Like a time capsule, those rooms spoke to tastes and traditions that were once fundamental. Amongst upholstered mahogany chairs, silver tea services, and covered tankards, one could experience the fossilized dreams of another era, in which certain of our American forbears used their furnishings to evoke a sense of continuity with an imagined version of the Old Country. The exhibits one found there answered certain questions (“That was what my grandmother was thinking!”) while asking others (“What does this stuff mean to us now?”). A single room could, on occasion, make a strong argument for a particular era, and you might leave wondering why, say, art history has neglected the delightful eccentricity of the Elizabethan visual world. But mostly the mind wandered.
Such nostalgic reverie will be far from the mind of visitors when they are allowed to return to the new British Galleries, which opened on March 2 after a fundamental reconceptualization and reinstallation. The new galleries are dramatically lit, and their visual excitement underlines the fact that new stories are being told here. Having determined that the idea of a pure national school never really fit the story of British sculpture and decorative art, the Met’s curators have chosen to foreground less heroic narratives. Here, Britain’s engagement with the outside world comes to the fore, and the galleries highlight both the oppression and the wealth brought on by precocious imperialist activity, industrialization, and commercial enterprise. The resulting plot lines are less obviously linear than what the old galleries offered, but they generate more heat by acknowledging how much of elite British visual culture was spurred by people and ideas from abroad. We might say that the curatorial thesis of these galleries is, in fact, that the defining character of British taste is its receptivity to such cultural mélange.
Straight away, at the entrance to the galleries, we are met with a confrontation between the conservative and the modern, the indigenous and the foreign. In a dark and wood-wainscoted room (c. 1600) from a Tudor merchant’s manor, we encounter a spot-lit terracotta sculpture, a painted bust representing Bishop John Fisher by the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano (c. 1510-15). Torrigiano should be known best for his wonderfully life-like portraits, but his notoriety rests instead on the fact that, as a young man, he broke fellow apprentice Michelangelo’s nose. The bust included here is one of his best, and it attests to the new cosmopolitan spirit of Tudor elites, who knew well what was happening in Renaissance Italy and appreciated how the portraiture of Torrigiano and his colleagues revived an ancient Roman idiom. Like Sir Thomas More, Fisher would die for his refusal to renounce the authority of the Pope—his was a cosmopolitan perspective on religion that found itself at odds with Henry VIII’s nationalist reforms. Both parties, however, agreed in their admiration of foreign artistic talent. This impulse brought not only Torrigiano to England, but also the German-Swiss painter Hans Holbein, who served as Henry’s court portraitist.
Subsequent galleries build on this strong start, and give particular attention to the 18th century, long considered the apotheosis of sui generis British style. But even among masterpieces of so-called “brown furniture” like Thomas Chippendale’s elegant mahogany chairs (c. 1772), you continue to catch the scent of foreign fashions and influences. What decorator-architect could better represent British stylistic “maturity” than the ingenious Scotsman Robert Adam? But when you encounter the two period rooms he designed that are housed in these galleries, you lose some of that confident Britannic orientation. Now that the visitor can enter (this was previously restricted), one can more easily appreciate the fact that the spirit of Pompeii, whose systematic excavation near Naples began in 1738, pervades the rich and inventive plasterwork of Adam’s dining room from Lansdowne House (c. 1766-69). In his tapestry room from Croome Court (c. 1763-71), you are startled afresh by vivid red wall-hangings harboring an abundance of flora that teems with parrots and pheasants. Noting that these things were woven at Gobelins in Paris after designs by François Boucher, you ponder whether this sophisticated and frenzied ensemble, complete with matching upholstered furniture, pushes British taste too far. Here the spectacular and the vulgar nearly meet. Do you love it or hate it? You think of Tobias Meyer and move on.
You realize, at some point in these rooms, that even the traditional account of “British sculpture” has a talent problem: before the 19th century, there were only so many native-born sculptors of finesse or imagination—even the virtuosic Grinling Gibbons, whose parents were English, was born in Holland and grew up there. You quickly conclude that, without foreigners, British sculpture as such would not really exist. This was less obvious in the old galleries, where many of the big names of the 18th century were simply absent. Nobody had thought to collect them. Today, new acquisitions fill out the Met’s presentation. Indeed, we now find good examples of the work of the Fleming John Michael Rysbrack and Frenchman Louis-François Roubiliac, whose portraits and monuments dominated the 18th-century scene. In one carry-over from the past, the galleries do credit to other émigré talents, such as the French Huguenot silversmiths, especially Paul de Lamerie, whose imaginative silverworks had an important place in wealthy English homes.
Yet the most essential component of this newly cosmopolitan view of British visual culture arrives in force when addressing the effects of Britain’s empire. The central exhibit that embodies this expanded view of Britain’s global footprint is laid out in a blue-walled room (“Tea, Trade, and Empire”), the center of which is dominated by two multistory display cases filled with hundreds of teapots and related accessories. Surrounding this monument to the most quintessential of British commodities, we find articles of colonial art and décor. The Indian subcontinent, source of so much that the British greedily exploited, is represented in several items including elegant ivory chandeliers designed in the latest European Neoclassical style and carved in India, a colorful Coromandel chintz decorated with scenes of the British capture of French Pondicherry that are rendered in the local manner of miniature painting, and a Vizagapatam inlaid ebony casket of European form whose surfaces juxtapose Subcontinental decoration with the coat-of-arms of a governor of the East India Company. Other spectacular acquisitions prominently displayed in this gallery include a marvelous Jamaican tortoiseshell comb case and associated combs inlaid with silver renderings of tropical plants and a polychrome clay portrait sculpture of a periwigged European gentleman by the 18th-century Chinese artist Amoy Chinqua, about whom little is known. These new acquisitions are among the most exciting objects in the new galleries, and among the most thrilling recent acquisitions in the museum as a whole. They join other objects that reflect colonial exchange in other parts of the museum—notably, colonial Latin American works in the American wing and Dutch colonial objects from South and Southeast Asia in the Sri Lanka gallery of the Asian wing—and they begin the work of rebalancing accounts that one hopes will continue beyond the moment of this reinstallation.
Another important change that has occurred in the British Galleries is that new space has been devoted to the 19th century. The old galleries did not extend far into this polysemous and commercial age, which oversaw the summit of British power and wealth. Now, however, the curators have gathered exciting acquisitions to flesh out a broader picture, taking the story all the way up to 1900. To make room for this more substantial account, the curators have sent to storage a number of things, such as the magnificent silver works of Paul Storr, which are missed. But new perspectives more than compensate for the losses. Among other things, there is more sculpture, and major historical revivals, particularly the Gothic, are finally given their due. I would single out several works of presence designed by A. W. N. Pugin that help us understand how medieval art and architecture were conceived as a spiritual balm that could counteract the proliferation of industrial products and alienated labor. Juxtaposed with the streamlined aesthetic of deliberately functional modern objects, such as the elegant yet affordable designs of Christopher Dresser, over-the-top revivalist objects like Bruce Talbert’s fussy sideboard can be seen as the flip side of the same Zeitgeist, redefining décor as escapist fantasy. My own sensibilities tend to favor the streamlined modernity of Dresser, but the Met makes a case for the out-and-out extravagance of the contrary impulse. Beyond the Talbert sideboard, the last room of the new British Galleries climaxes in three naturalistic bird sculptures modeled life-size in colorful majolica by Paul Comolera at the Minton Hollins manufactory of the 1890s. Although they do not yet belong to the museum, the Met ought to acquire them. They are simultaneously ridiculous—one is actually a stick stand—and stupendous. Like the spectacular 18th-century Chelsea porcelain displayed a few rooms before, these Minton birds remind you that British design can be, in turns, both understated and cheeky. One could go quite far arguing that the history of British aesthetics has often been played out between the contrary, but related, poles of repression and release.
The social and political context of these objects has been meaningfully folded into the way they are displayed in the new galleries. It is certainly worth remembering, as the curators emphatically remind us, that much of the material splendor in these rooms was underwritten by the suffering of others. And it is instructive to see how an object of subtle beauty, like one of Lamerie’s rococo sugar boxes (c. 1744-45), for example, shows on one side an idealized and exoticized scene of slave labor—the very labor that harvested the cane that, once refined, fit in this container. One realizes again the blood that was shed to make that sugar box possible. The object itself dramatizes the treacherous paths by which one person’s hideous pain can be transmuted into another’s rarefied pleasure. We can castigate that historical system, just as we may forswear the visual delight we might take in its sophisticated cultural manifestations, but to understand history properly we cannot lose sight of either.