I was at the New York Philharmonic on the eve of January 31, the day on which the deed was done. Britain finally, after many false starts, left the European Union. I was there to hear Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. That the orchestra didn’t play “Land of Hope and Glory” as an encore seemed to me to be a missed opportunity.
But not all is so bleak for British culture in New York. A few days later, I saw the renovated and re-imagined British decorative arts galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which reopen March 2 after years of conception and construction. Unlike my night at the Phil., the new galleries are a triumph—a thoughtful celebration of the greatness of British art, entirely unafraid of acknowledging the primacy of these special objects.
One of the problems museums face in undertaking renovations is that spaces become beloved and iconic over time. The museum-going public treasures what they have come to know, while also being rightfully wary of changes in the name of progress. The British galleries at the Met face no such problem, for they were, alas, previously unmemorable. As Wolf Burchard, the Met’s Associate Curator of British Furniture and Decorative Arts and the lead curator for the new galleries, told me, the galleries were neglected not by the museum but by the public. And it’s no wonder. The old rooms were tucked in behind the medieval galleries, occupying a self-contained and hard-to-find cul-de-sac, and as a result little-visited. It’s not that the previous galleries had something gravely wrong with them, but their age was undeniable. Renovated in the mid-nineties, the rooms were heavy on the heavy—brown furniture and green damask wall covering, the latter of which, owing to a lack of funds, wasn’t even period-appropriate. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those furnishings, but the Museum rightly felt that the rooms failed to tell the story of British decorative art effectively.
The new rooms suffer from no such narrative bypass. Indeed, much of their success can be attributed to just how old-fashioned the conceit is. The routing is chronological, moving from 1500 to 1900; cleverly, the entrance to each room has its dates inset in gold lettering on a floorboard. Thoughtful, visitor-friendly touches like this abound. It’s refreshing to be in a space considerate of its users when so many buildings, especially museums, neglect their human occupants in favor of aesthetic concerns.
The new rooms suffer from no such narrative bypass.
The first object viewers encounter is a terracotta bust of Bishop John Fisher (1510–15) made by the Italian-born Pietro Torrigiano. What, exactly, is an Italian work doing in the British galleries, and in such a prominent place? The answer establishes a narrative thread that unspools throughout the gallery. Though Italian by birth, Torrigiano found himself in England in the early sixteenth century, possibly at the behest of Henry VII. Having left aside a rackety life in Italy (he famously punched Michelangelo in the nose, resulting in Il Divino’s permanent disfigurement), Torrigiano made his mark on British art with his astounding funerary monument to Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, bringing the naturalism of the Italian Renaissance to an increasingly receptive northern clime. The prominence of the Torrigiano establishes the leitmotif of the entire narrative, namely that while British art is a distinct phenomenon, it was not, in the period displayed at the Met, insular. Even before the eighteenth-century pinnacle of the Grand Tour, even before the nineteenth-century flowering of Empire, British art was significantly influenced by foreigners come to Britain, or Britons gone abroad.
Illustrative of this theme is the seventeenth-century room devoted to teapots, tea-drinking being of course an import from the East. Visitors could be forgiven for thinking such objects not worthy of consideration; they are, after all, domestic, practical implements. Usually displayed against dusty walls, objects can fail to excite. Not here. The dynamic arrangement, in two curved glass shelving units facing each other and occupying the center of the room, with space to walk between, vivifies the potentially staid pots. We see them from all sides, appreciating the craftsmanship and the various designs—from fine silver to more modest plain pottery. In an inspired move, the museum has put the more fanciful and colorful pots closer to ground level, the better for children to see them. No labels or legends intrude on the objects, nothing to distract from the luminous display. A book hanging on the wall will give bibliographic information for those interested; as Burchard told me, the curators were dead set against any sort of smartphone application or digital extension, which inevitably dates quickly and distracts the visitor. The rejection of an app can serve as a metaphor for the genius of the entirety of the renovation—it seeks to achieve timelessness rather than to keep up with the latest developments and trends in the museum technology. And it succeeds.
This is not to say the rooms are old-fashioned or fusty. As the teapot cases demonstrate, they’re far from it. The renovation is the work of Roman and Williams, a downtown firm with extensive experience in hospitality projects, including restaurants and nightclubs. That this is their first museum undertaking reasonably might be a cause for suspicion. But what could have been a trendy, on-the-nose design, full of geegaws, is anything but. Perhaps owing to the curators’ insistence on practicing old-fashioned art history—object-focused and chronological—any potential excesses have been avoided. The firm’s previous work even informed the design in a surprisingly effective way. Off the first room are two of what Burchard jokingly called “nightclub galleries”: pocket galleries for the display of small, fragile objects, the rooms dimly lit at their entrances with the works brilliantly illuminated behind glass. He described them as modern kunstkammern, again demonstrating the curators’ and designers’ commitment to the use of traditional, even comforting, forms from the history of art.
Perhaps most striking about the design is what might be termed its “humanism.” That is, the new galleries consistently put the visitor first. The greatest example of this is the magnificent staircase from Cassiobury Park (ca. 1677–80). Always a highlight of the Met’s British holdings, the stairs, which feature elaborate scrollwork, almost like that of a Purdy shotgun, in place of balusters, were formerly tucked in a corner, leading to nowhere and roped-off. They have now been restored, unpainted though returned to their original finish. But most important, visitors can ascend the stairs. One can pause on a landing to admire the enormous portrait of Charles I by the Dutch court painter Daniël Mijtens (1629). But one can also keep climbing to a new viewing mezzanine, from which point can be studied marvelous, well-lit tapestries spanning the gallery’s time frame. The urge to offer the visitor the chance to participate in the art is welcome.
The participatory aspect extends to the eighteenth-century period rooms, which were treasures of the previous galleries and which have been refreshed, and bolstered, by the renovation. In the 1748 dining room from Kirtlington Park, near Oxford, where the yellow paint has been restored using original techniques, the designers installed windows framing a trompe-l’oeil painting depicting what diners in the room would have actually seen, had they looked out those windows in the house. The contemporary rendering of the Capability Brown landscape by the painter James Boyd, of the firm Boyd Reath, also responsible for grisaille detailing on the wall across from the Cassiobury stairs, places the viewer not just in a period room, but in the room’s original setting. The same ingenious conceit has been put to work in the recreation of the dining room from Lansdowne House (1766–69), one of Robert Adam’s most restrained and elegant interior schemes. Here the view out of the windows is what the Mayfair night would have looked like before the house was pocked by the extension of Curzon Street. The museum has placed two Canova sculptures, not original to the house but indicative of what might have been there, at the edges of the room, between the column screens. Two benches sit in the middle of the room, offering respite—especially useful after the crush of objects in the main rooms—and a more immersive experience. And in a more exuberant Adam design, namely the Tapestry Room from Croome Court (1763), the ropes have been pushed back as far as possible to allow for the visitor to experience the room as a room, not as a stage set.
The new galleries consistently put the visitor first.
If the galleries were merely prettified, the renovation would still be a success, such is the strength of the Met’s collection. But what’s most heartening about the changes is how they consistently function in service of an intelligible narrative, all while making that narrative appreciable to the visitor. Take the “shopping case” of eighteenth-century goods. A sort of bookend to the teapot cases, this glass case also upends our usual expectations of how objects can be displayed. Inside are a range of small, purchasable items—toys, jewelry, ornamental boxes—of varying quality. We’re meant to understand the entrepreneurial nature of the British economy, where small manufacturers could become magnates, like Josiah Wedgwood, whose Jasperware pottery is displayed nearby. While we might pass by a traditional shelved glass case, ignoring the objects within and thereby missing the historical message, here we have no such option. For the objects are all seemingly floating in space, held up by unseen pins, and so visually appealing that one can’t help but study them. When I suggested to Burchard that this must be the only such case in the museum, he speculated that it might be the only one in the world. That entrepreneurial theme, which is surprising but exceedingly welcome in our anti-capitalist times, is continued throughout the galleries, with characteristic works by Nicholas Sprimont, the founder of the Chelsea Porcelain factory, the aforementioned Wedgwood, and Matthew Boulton, the engineer who used technology to dazzling effect in metalwork.
The nineteenth-century rooms contain most of the recent acquisitions (a quarter of the objects displayed here are new to the Met), including a stunning “Egyptomania” bench by the buccaneering Regency designer Thomas Hope (dated to before 1807), purchased by the Met in 2014. Its rough red wool, original to the piece, contrasts sharply with the gleaming gold frame. Processing under a Gothick pointed arch with a punched trefoil, one enters the final room, which contains Pugin plates and carvings from the Palace of Westminster, majolica animals, and a Burne-Jones painting. Having entered via the medieval European rooms, visitors exit to the American wing, a fitting commentary on the nature of international power as it has changed through time.
The last major, entirely successful, renovation to the Met was the creation of the Greek and Roman sculpture court in 2007, which served as the triumphant capstone to Philippe de Montebello’s thirty-one-year run as Director of the museum. The renovation of the British galleries—which began under the erstwhile Director Thomas Campbell and the curator Luke Syson, who now heads the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England—comes a year and a half into Max Hollein’s tenure as Director. If the work is any indication of the museum’s future prospects, his could be a reign of hope and glory—just like the British art contained within the galleries’ walls.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 7, on page 38
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com