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Exhibitions/ The British Galleries/ Exhibition Guide

The British Galleries

At The Met Fifth Avenue
March 2, 2020–Ongoing

Exhibition Guide

Creative risks. Artistic choices. Leaps of imagination and ventures for profit. The Met's wide-ranging collection of British art and design from 1500 to 1900 captures a bold, entrepreneurial spirit and complex social and political history. The objects within embody a complicated past, shaped by a commercial drive that developed among artists, manufacturers, and retailers over the course of four hundred years. This is the story of a rising economy fueled by global trade and the expansion of the British Empire, a time when innovation and industry yield both financial rewards and a defining national confidence. It is also a chronicle of brutal colonialism and exploitation.

Both excitement and anxiety inflect Britain's ambition to transform itself from an isolated island nation into a dominant world power. Trade stimulates wealth, extends the cultural and economic elite beyond the aristocracy, broadens tastes, and introduces new markets for resourceful British makers. The arrival of skilled international artisans inspires invention with forms and materials to meet diverse consumer demands. New techniques and technologies change labor practices and encourage updated designs. Throughout, styles regarded as quintessentially British persist, embracing grandeur, nature, or an earthy humor.

As you explore, consider these objects from the makers' point of view. A real ingenuity underlies their artistic decisions—a clever juggling of patron, price, and production. Local pride accompanies global ambition, imperatives that continue to inform the modern political, creative, and economic landscape.

It was the age of the Tudor Court. The rule of King Henry VIII gave rise to the English Reformation, breaking the Church of England away from Roman Catholicism and papal authority. Patronage was predominantly secular, and the House of Tudor competed hungrily to match the artistic glory of papal Rome, the French courts, and the centers of Habsburg power.

Locally, the medieval guild system protected the traditions and integrity of each craft, but the sixteenth-century customer was changing. After Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, an era of stability and global trade produced a new class of professionals with ready cash and appetites for luxury, exemplified in the spectacular paneling made for merchant-trader William Crowe.

Markets also emerged through exchange with Continental Europe, the establishment of the East India Company, and the beginnings of trade with Asia. English workshops responded energetically to these commercial and creative opportunities. Foreign artisans began to establish themselves in England and earn commissions from the aristocracy and the now-Protestant Crown. Local makers needed to stretch to meet the bar set by these newcomers, who had different skills and more formal training.

With a scrappy pragmatism, the English folded these outside influences into their practice, subcontracting to their European counterparts when necessary. London soon proved itself as a retail capital for both local shoppers and enthusiastic consumers from abroad.

"Destroy the images of the saints, the churches, the monasteries," proclaimed Bishop Richard Cox in 1559. "All images of God, of Christ, of angels, and of saints, should be taken out of churches, and burnt openly," declared Chaplain Thomas Becon a year later. Henry VIII's break with the Roman Catholic Church, part of the religious revolution known as the Protestant Reformation, triggered bursts of iconoclasm that resulted in the destruction of religious images.

Selected Artworks

The Tudors' rule ended, and the Stuarts ascended to the throne. King Charles I, one of the great art collectors of all time, reshaped British culture to suit his whims. His taste for Flemish and Italian masterpieces encouraged the elite to look to the Continent for models of sophistication. Tensions between Parliament and the Crown erupted throughout the century, including during a nine-year Civil War that, in 1649, saw Charles I removed from power . . . and beheaded. His art collections were sold, and his program of cultural magnificence abandoned. Parliament—strengthened against a weakened monarchy—strategically shaped global trade and manufacturing as London became the center of wealth and influence.

Colonial development advanced in North America and the West Indies, where native resources were seized for profit. At the same time, exiled French Protestants, known as Huguenots, arrived in London and offered their skills as silversmiths, clockmakers, and weavers to produce luxury goods. The monarchy returned to power in 1660 with Charles II and continued to grapple with the visual style of Protestant rule. A new urban splendor surfaced after the terrible destruction caused by the Great Fire of 1666; Londoners rebuilt their city to rival the royal court in grandeur. Debates took shape around taste, with some rejecting "Frenchness" as overly feminine and allied with the trappings of Catholicism and Absolutism.

Simultaneously, an era of scientific inquiry placed England at the center of Europe's intellectual life, setting the stage for advancements in industry and material technology.

"It made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made," wrote the diarist Samuel Pepys on the horrors of London's Great Fire of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren, mastermind behind the city's subsequent rebuilding, emphasized the political importance of architecture: "It establishes a nation, draws people and commerce; makes the people love their native country."

Selected Artworks

Tea, sugar, coffee, cocoa. These four commodities drove Britain's artistic innovation from the late seventeenth through the eighteenth century. The sudden abundance of these products—once available only to the elite—motivated local makers to supply novel objects that assisted in their consumption, such as the teapot. National prosperity also nurtured a creative exuberance, manifest in marvels of materials and expression. Makers embraced spontaneity and freedom as they experimented with designs for both pricey and inexpensive price points. Ornament was often "exotic" and used to evoke a fantasy of distant lands or reference Asian styles.

As demand heightened, Staffordshire pottery manufacturers were motivated to expand and to augment stock. In even the most modest household, the teapot held a distinct stature, the focal point of social interaction. Tea had become the emblem of a mercantile empire that extended to the Indian subcontinent, the West Indies, and America. But stories of violence and oppression corrupted this national success. Much of the wealth of this period was built on the labor of enslaved Africans and on the appropriated resources of other countries.

The perimeter of this gallery connects us to the undertow of this moment's flourishing creative stream—the inextricable links to slavery and colonial rule. Here, we confront dueling definitions of empire: the heroic moments of an artistic golden age alongside the steady rhythm of growth through exploitation.

"The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship. . . . These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, which I am yet at a loss to describe," recounted Olaudah Equiano of his capture in modern-day Nigeria and forced journey to the Caribbean as part of the transatlantic slave trade. "We are all guilty," declared the abolitionist William Wilberforce in 1789, imploring Members of Parliament to bear the slave trade's moral burden. Despite the efforts of a growing movement, the Slavery Abolition Act was not passed until 1833.

Selected Artworks

Three kings bearing the first name George ruled Britain during the eighteenth century, all from a German dynasty, the Hanoverians—the nearest Protestants in the British line of succession. Georgian London's artistic community exploded into a collaborative scramble of talent, money, opportunity, and competition. With strategy and pluck, ambitious artisans and manufacturers simultaneously shared resources and vied against one another for resources. Most objects were crafted by teams, not individual makers: many hands, foreign and local, with many skills joined forces across disciplines. Everything overlapped and intermingled—patrons, styles, ideas, workshops—with hundreds of specialists poised to work on demand. Global trade meant vast production for export, as British agents crossed borders in search of new markets.

Business boomed with private commissions from aristocrats inspired by their international education, Enlightenment thinking, and a desire to cast Britain's stature in the mold of ancient Rome. Classicism took hold as a profound intellectual ideal and a ubiquitous design source. Rococo followed: a modern rebellion against classicism's careful balance. Nature inspired flights of imagination realized in fluid curves and wild ornament, defying all visual precedents. With unabashed freedom, this fresh style celebrated asymmetry and abstraction.

Mass markets continued to multiply, as the middle classes craved domestic merchandise at every price point. Maverick entrepreneurs—both men and women—riding a crest of ingenuity, industrialized production and pioneered clever tactics around sales and distribution to meet this new demand.

"We must, in Justice, acknowledge very great Obligations to those Restorers of Architecture, which the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centurys produced," reads the introduction to Vitruvius Britannicus (1715) by Scottish architect Colen Campbell. Obsessed with classical architecture and proportions, Georgians saw themselves as the sole true heirs of ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy. Thomas Chippendale wrote in 1754 that knowledge of The Five Orders of Architecture was "the very soul and basis" of the art of cabinetmaking; William Hogarth's satirical print mocks the widespread architectural obsession.

Selected Artworks

Power, pride, production—the British Empire reached its apex. The nation's fundamental drive toward art and commerce expanded and accelerated in scale and pace as the Industrial Revolution took hold. Britain transformed with massive growth in manufacturing, the development of the railway system, and a shift to a more urban society. Consumers were everywhere, eager to bring culture into their homes. Anything was now possible as eclectic styles dominated the marketplace: makers looked to the East and the Islamic world, to classicism and the Renaissance, to the Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo. Once again, aesthetic and commercial priorities adapted to an immense new world of production methods and customers.

Nowhere was this free-for-all more apparent than in the Great Exhibition of 1851, an attempt under Queen Victoria to show the best of British design alongside foreign competition. The cacophony of styles on display sparked a campaign against bad taste and an effort to educate the masses at a time of rapid economic expansion. The government launched a concerted effort to elevate artistic training for both men and women. Movements against industrialization also flared throughout the century in revolts against labor abuses and the demise of "pure" craft.

The British Empire ended after the Second World War, and its industrial power faded. But its potent legacy remains, even today, as local identity wrestles with global aspirations.

"The history of the world . . . records no event comparable in its promotion of human industry. . . . A great people invited all civilised nations to a festival, to bring into comparison the works of human skill," wrote Henry Cole about the 1851 Great Exhibition, which he organized as Prince Albert's right-hand man. Design pioneer Christopher Dresser later recalled the displays with horror: "Scissors formed as birds; candle-sticks formed as human beings . . . and other absurdities equally offensive to good taste." While reactions were mixed, the event inaugurated a series of world's fairs that fostered international competition in art and design.

Selected Artworks

A vast array of teapots viewable in the British Galleries.