There’s a Revolution in Your Teapot

Five unexpected themes in the new British galleries of decorative arts and design

Unboxing 400 Years of British Design

The British Galleries are newly reinstalled, and there’s more on display than just formality and frills. The Met has uncrated 400 years of British history and ornamentation from one of the largest empires of all time . . . and they offer unanticipated windows on our world today.

But why dedicate so many galleries to British decorative arts? Because the everyday objects you’ll see tell a remarkably international story. These works of art were made by craftsmen who traveled from nations all over Europe. Others were imported from abroad, such as China, India, and Japan. What’s more, much of the United States’ own tastes descend from its beginnings as a British colony, which had an exceptional influence on The Met collection.

Tucked away in each teapot, tapestry, and table is a richer story than you might imagine. Some were owned by kings and queens who changed the course of history, some belonged to ordinary people, and still others had roots in colonial conflict. Massive or miniature, costly or common, and occasionally tinged with a particularly British sense of humor, these objects have borne witness to revolution of all kinds—sometimes bloody—in entrepreneurship, technology, and internationalism. Taken together, they remind us that design is never just about what we see—it’s also about people, politics, and power.

Keep scrolling to unpack five unexpected themes you’ll discover in the galleries.



These Objects Are Notably “Now”

Nestled among luxurious furnishings of gold, silver, and rich embroidery, you’ll also find objects that are quirky, charming, and . . . totally out there. Collectively, they represent the prolonged flowering of British entrepreneurship and innovation, using technological advances, new materials, and design influences from around the globe. Many appear uncannily modern, despite the centuries.

A small, wide, black-and-white teapot covered in tightly packed doodle-like drawings

Every Price Tag Tells a Story

There are opulent, pricey treasures on display, but others were downright affordable—at least when they were made. This contrast marks a revolution in retail, when the middle class suddenly joined aristocrats as . . . shoppers. For a sneak peek at the range of price points on display, here’s an array of consumer goods spanning those (literally) fit for kings, to their “cheap and cheerful” counterparts, at right.

A blue, white, and gold porcelain teapot with chinese-inspired bird shapes painted on its side, sitting in a glass case
Devout Biblical

Politics Meets Design Head-On (and Heads-Off)

Revolts, treason, and jail time were par for the course in British politics, and often reflected in art. Learn about some of the people and objects that ended up in more than one piece.

Royal Comical

Pietro Torrigiano, Portrait bust of Bishop John Fisher, 1510–15

King Henry VIII wanted something unprecedented: a divorce from the queen, which would violate the rules of the Church of Rome. “Absolutely not,” said Bishop John Fisher, seen here in this refined sculpture. Ultimately, the king broke with the Catholic Church and answered: “Off with his head.” Fisher was jailed and—you guessed it—beheaded.


Francesco Fanelli, David and Goliath, 17th century

A love for Baroque bronze statuettes drew King Charles I to commission this one of a famous biblical beheading. What’s more: it dramatizes the moment when the Hebrew shepherd and soon-to-be-king David (who, like Charles, was famously small in stature) defeats his enemy, the Philistine giant Goliath.


R. W. Martin and Brothers, Bird jar, 1888

Okay, okay, so this curious figure of a bird doesn’t tell a political story, per se. It’s the odd bird out—a good reminder that some objects are simply meant to delight. But it's still designed to lose its head. . . . as a cookie jar.


Daniel Mïjtens, Charles I (1600-1649), King of England, 1629

King Charles I sought absolute power, and he used art and fashion to get that message across. Here, his luxurious outfit—which cost much more than the magnificent painting itself—practically shouts that he is richer than you, trumpeting his God-granted status. When the British parliament revolted, they left his fancy duds intact. His head? Not so much.


The Tragedy behind the Triumph

Britain’s commercial success spanned continents and came at a tremendous cost. These everyday objects reveal some of colonialism’s hidden stories, including the realities of slavery and violence.

A  woven fabric of a battle seen from above with rivers and dozens of crudely-rendered soldiers

Moving Rooms across an Ocean

Some of the grandest rooms in British history are on display right here at The Met. But why are they here? And how did they make their journeys across an ocean unharmed? Find out how these historic interiors were brought into public view.

The reimagined British Galleries provide a fresh perspective on British decorative arts, design, and sculpture created between 1500 and 1900, by focusing on its bold, entrepreneurial spirit and complex history. This new narrative is evident in a gallery devoted to "Tea, Trade, and Empire," which explores the period’s commercial prosperity with a dazzling display of 100 English teapots, while also examining the exploitation of both human and natural resources that accompanied such abundance. 

Curator’s tip:
Arches are an important design element of our new galleries. Look out for the huge arch linking the 18th- and 19th-century spaces. It’s actually a real 19th-century arch dating back to the first days of The Met, which was rediscovered—almost by chance—during the demolition of the old British Galleries.

Audio Guide:
What do coffee shops have to do with the Enlightenment? Or teapots with colonial expansion? Hear curators, conservators, and contemporary artists uncover the surprising stories and politics behind British art, craftsmanship, and consumerism—then and now—on the Audio Guide. Be sure to pick one up when you visit!


Exhibition Details

  • Dates March 2, 2020—Ongoing
  • The Met Fifth Avenue 1000 5th Ave, New York City
  • The New British Galleries Gallery 509-519
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