Friday, April 10, 2020

Art Eyewitness Review: The New British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Art Eyewitness Review
The New British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were an unlikely pair whose travels around Great Britain during the 1700's were recorded in one of the great books of all time, Boswell's Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1791). On one of their journeys, the English "ink-stained wretch" and the Scottish laird visited a metal-working factory in Birmingham. Known as the Soho Works, the factory produced shoe buckles, coat buttons and ornamental boxes in vast numbers.

The date was March 22, 1776. Just as the rebellion of the thirteen American colonies was becoming a revolution, a similar transformation of the manufacturing methods of Great Britain was taking place. It was not to be called the Industrial Revolution for many years to come, but Matthew Boulton, the visionary proprietor of the Soho Works, understood the significance of the assembly line operation at Soho.

"I sell here, Sir," Boulton told Boswell, "what all the world desires to have - power."

Boulton's Soho factory was part of an epic process which transformed England and Scotland into the United Kingdom in 1707. At the same time, the island nation became the "workshop of the world."

Napoleon would later refer to the British as a "nation of shop keepers". A visit to the newly renovated British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, however, will disprove Napoleon's sneering description and reveal how correct was Boulton's remark. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Max Hollein at the Met's British Galleries, February 24, 2020

I was honored to attend the press preview of the Met's British Galleries on February 24, 2020. It was the first event of the Met's celebration of its 150th Anniversary. By an unfortunate - and for many, tragic - turn of events, the global surge of the Covid-19 virus has temporarily closed the Met. In a brilliant combination of curatorial insight and tech skill, the Met is keeping the doors of the British Galleries open with a digital tour of its wonderful displays and period rooms.

The "New" British Galleries occupy 11,000 square feet, a sizable chunk of museum real estate. On display are 700 objects of all descriptions. These include magnificent portrait busts in marble and terracotta by the Flemish-born sculptor, John Michael Rysbrack (1694–1770) and examples of British folk art of the 1700s, such as Harvest Jug, with "Lion and Unicorn" graffito decoration, and salt-glazed stoneware bottles evoking the savage sport of bear-baiting. The ethereal beauty of a vase, designed by Harry Powell (1853–1922) and manufactured at the Whitefriars Glassworks around 1880, reveals unexpected sensitivity and modern flair in Victorian design.

                                                  Ed Voves, Photo (2020)                                              John Michael Rysbrack's portrait busts of John Barnard1743-44

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) British Folk Art from the 1700's

Harry Powell, Vase with Knopped Stem, ca.1880

These incredible art works confound our preconceptions about the true identity of Britain's people. You will need to check your "stiff upper-lip" at the entrance to the British Galleries but be prepared for display cases brimming with astonishing craftsmanship, artistic vision and human feeling.

The British Galleries are located in galleries, 509-516,on the first floor of the Met. This placement adjoins the church-like Medieval sculpture hall with its magnificent choir screen from the Valladolid Cathedral in Spain. This is entirely appropriate, as the timeline of the British Galleries spans the breakdown of the pan-European culture of Christendom to the highly individualistic society of late Victorian Britain and its worldwide empire.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) The Betrayal of Christ, School of Nottingham, late 1400's

Upon entering the first of the British galleries, a remarkable object, or rather fragment, is on view. This much battered relief depicts The Betrayal of Christ. It was sculpted from alabaster and then painted and gilded, most likely during the last decades of the 1400's. These School of Nottingham reliefs were one of the glories of medieval English art but are now very rare. When Henry VIII broke away from Papal religious control, a wave of state-sanctioned iconoclasm brutally destroyed much of the religious art in England. Alabaster reliefs like this one seem to have been especially targeted for destruction and few now exist.

Nearby, in the dark, wood-paneled gallery is a portrait bust of Bishop John Fisher, created by the Italian sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528). A hot-tempered man, Torrigiano came to England seeking art commissions after he had worn-out his welcome in Italy. Torrigiano sculpted this terracotta likeness of Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, around 1515.

                                                Ed Voves, Photo (2020)                                                                         Pietro Torrigiano's Bust of Bishop John Fisher, ca. 1515 

Bishop John Fisher (1479-1535) was a casualty of the violent overthrow of Christendom during the Reformation, along with the Nottingham alabaster reliefs. A deeply spiritual man, Fisher refused to support Henry VIII in the break with Rome. Even though he had been Henry's tutor, Fisher was imprisoned in the Tower of London along with his friend, Sir Thomas More. Fisher was beheaded on June 22,1535, Thomas More two weeks later.

Hans Holbein the Younger, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (detail), ca.1534

It is worth spending a few moments to compare Torrigiano's bust of John Fisher with the portrait sketch of the bishop by Hans Holbein the Younger, not on view in the British Galleries. The tormented face of the martyred clergyman confronts us with the human cost of civilization's fitful progress and frequent lapses into brutality. One of the goals of the renovation of the British Galleries is to present a narrative which does not ignore the toll of lives sacrificed while these beautiful works of art were being created. 

The new "narrative"  providing insight into the British Galleries is especially attentive to the suffering entailed by the African Slave Trade, which was the source of much of Britain's wealth during the 1600's through the early 1800's. It is an important point, which we will address in more detail later. But it is noteworthy that the often heedless disregard for human life under British colonialism actually began in Britain - and Ireland - long before the "Sun never sets on the British Empire." Bishop John Fisher was one of the first fatalities.

With these weighty thoughts in mind, let's tour the British Galleries at the Met.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries, Metropolitan Museum, showing the Staircase from Cassiobury Park, ca.1677

From the tumult of the 1500's, we encounter the late Elizabethan and Stuart periods. A grand staircase, brought to the Met from England in 1932, is the centerpiece of this age of Royalist splendor and the Puritan counterattack which led to the public execution of King Charles I in 1649. Attributed to a master craftsman named Edward Pearce, who was active during the 1670's, this staircase once graced the country estate called Cassiobury Park, located in Herfordshire. It is a Baroque-era masterpiece, with a railing supported by an elaborately carved acanthus scroll. 

Such opulence testifies to the attempted revival of the magnificent court of Charles I by his son, Charles II, after he regained the throne in 1660. The chief political effect of the Restoration era was the Revolution of 1688 - due to the autocratic blunders of James II - but the architectural and cultural legacy of this era was tremendous. The reconfigured Cassiobury Staircase enables us to grasp the sense of grandeur of 1600's Britain far better than the layout of its previous installation at the Met.

A special gallery, Tea, Trade and Empire, illustrates how the adoption of tea as the national beverage  of Great Britain had social, economic and political implications in keeping with Matthew Boulton's salesmanship of "what all the world desires to have - power." 

The British came to drink tea as a consequence of their rising trade with Asia and the more tea they drank, the greater the level of involvement by the British Empire in the power politics of Asian nations, notably India.

Amoy Chinqua, Figure of a European Merchant, 1719

Tea in the late 1600's had been a curiosity for Englishmen like Samuel Pepys who mentions in his diary entry for September 25, 1660, "And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a china drink) of which I never had drank before."

A century later, tea drinking in Britain had become a national institution. This change of taste occurred in part as new standards of gentility took hold. Tea was also promoted as a means to reduce the shocking levels of alcoholism satirized by William Hogarth's 1751 print, Gin Lane... even though Hogarth's choice of a salubrious beverage for Britain was beer!

                         Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries,                       Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Tea, Trade and Empire gallery

Tea's central place in British life and commerce is celebrated with a visually striking display of 100 English teapots arranged on a pair of ten-foot-tall semicircular glass cases. Visitors to the gallery are treated to a clear, unobstructed view of an incredible variety teapots. Many of these were made in Staffordshire, an area in the West Midlands with abundant reserves of clay for making pots and plenty of imagination and humor in designing them. 

                                                     Ed Voves, (Photo (2020)                                              Teapot, made by the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory,1758–59

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Teapot in the Form of an Elephant, late 1700's

British humor, of a macabre sort, is evident in another product of Staffordshire, a
ceramic sculpture group made in 1830. The Death of Munrow depicts an actual event which occurred in December 1792. Lieutenant Hugh Monro, a young British army officer serving in India, was mauled by a Bengal Tiger while hunting deer. The tiger seized Monro by the head and throat, as in the sculpture group. Monro's fellow officers drove the tiger off but he died from his wounds.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) The Death of Munrow, ca. 1820–30

The National Army Museum in London has a similar Staffordshire Death of Munrow in its collection (with a leg chewed-off). The curators at the National Army Museum record that Monro's father was a Scottish-born general who had helped defeat the Indian leader, Haidur Ali, in a battle in 1781. The son of Haidur Ali, Tipu Sultan, was still fighting the British when news of Hugh Munro's death reached his palace at Mysore. Tipu Sultan commissioned a much larger, mechanical version of a tiger devouring a British officer to celebrate the event, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

While the British were gaining control of India, they were facing defeat in North America in a war that had been sparked by a taxation scheme to benefit the East India Company. The Lansdowne Room in the Met's British Galleries recalls the ill-appreciated prime minister who negotiated Britain out of the War of American Independence, thereby preserving much of its global power elsewhere.

Lansdowne House was the palatial London residence of Lord Shelburne (1741-1805). It was his thankless task to negotiate a peace settlement after the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781. An able diplomat, Shelburne succeeded in gaining some concessions for Britain but there was no saving the thirteen American colonies. Shelburne was already distrusted by George III, who referred to him as the "Jesuit of Berkeley Square," and the ink was hardly dry on the peace treaty when Shelburne was forced to resign as prime minister.

Located overlooking Berkeley Square, Lansdowne House provided a meeting place for the Whig political party, who gathered here in the "eating room." This magnificent room was lined with marble statues from ancient Greece and Rome (except for one, all of those now on view are plaster copies). To give an idea of the view from the grand windows, a skillful artist/historian, James Boyd, painted a view of Berkeley Square at night as it would have appeared in 1781. The effect of the Lansdowne Room is magical from every point of view.

Joseph Coscia, Photo (2020) Gallery views of the Lansdowne Dining Room,
 Metropolitan Museum of Art, British Galleries © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lord Shelburne was able to negotiate Britain's way out of the American Revolution in 1783 but six years later another political upheaval took place which many aristocrats in Britain feared would lead to rebellion and bloodshed at home. This was the French Revolution. Yet, except for a brief, savage uprising in Ireland in 1798, the "lower sort" did not revolt. 

Why was there no British Revolution, no guillotine set up at Hyde Park corner? During the long years of Britain's war against the French Revolution and Napoleon, the people of the "nation of shop keepers" were inspired by strong religious convictions. These ideals had been sparked by the teaching and example of John Wesley, founder of Methodism. It was the religious evangelicals of Britain, the French historian Élie Halévy later contended, who really thwarted the spread of French Revolutionary ideology to Britain.

The British evangelical movement did not limit its efforts to resisting Robespierre or Napoleon. Beginning with a handful of members of the Society of Friends, during the last years of the seventeenth century, a protest movement began in Britain and in Pennsylvania, the colony founded by the Friends. It targeted an enemy closer to home, based in Liverpool and Bristol, the African Slave Trade.

                                     Josiah Wedgwood & William Hackwood                                 
Antislavery Medallion, 1787 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1787, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), the owner of the Etruria Pottery Works and friend of Matthew Boulton, directed one of his employees to design a symbol for the recently-founded Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This truly iconic work of art is generally recognized as the first logo in world history. Unlike a heraldic device such as the lion and unicorn on the Harvest Jug shown above, this image of the kneeling slave represented the universal ideal of freedom and a very effective tool, one might say weapon, in the struggle against the influential pro-slavery faction in Britain.

The Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion is a key object among the vast array of art works on display in the Met's British Galleries.

As mentioned earlier, the curators of the British Galleries made the decision to reference the African Slave Trade in the narrative of British art and culture which the renovated galleries so vividly evoke. This is in keeping with the Met's recent and laudable decision to exhibit a newly donated collection of Native American art in the American Wing, rather than placing these precious objects from America's past alongside Oceanic and African art. 

I am thrilled to see the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of Native American art in the Met's American Wing. However, I have reservations about a general policy of adjusting the "narrative" of works of art to suit changing  - and changeable - opinions. That does not mean that narrative editing should not be attempted. The wider implications cannot be ignored. 

If the social realities related to British art, 1500-1900, are underscored, will this also be done in other galleries at the Met? Should text captions be placed next to Impressionist paintings of the boulevards of Paris, reminding art lovers that the streets of Paris had been widened with riot control in mind, if necessary by rifle and cannon fire as was done during the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871?

As I prepared this review, I recalled a powerful historical work, Revolutionary Empire by Angus Calder. Published in 1981, Calder's book was one of the first to study and integrate the story of the African Slave Trade (and other topics like the destructive effects of colonialism on Ireland) within the global context of the British Empire. Calder, a multi-talented historian and poet from Scotland, made a determined effort to create a "narrative" in print, just as the curators of the British Galleries are doing in terms of visual display.

I had read Revolutionary Empire when it was first published. Consulting this monumental and very moving book once again, leaves no doubt that exploitation of human "resources" was a key factor in the rise of British economic power and creative expression. Absorbed in Calder's spirited text, I felt a conviction that Josiah Wedgwood and his fellow members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade would have applauded the change in "narrative" which we see on display in the British Galleries. That is exactly what they did themselves as they campaigned with the Wedgwood "Man and Brother" image as their emblem.

The efforts of all the staff of the Met who worked to bring the renovation of the British Galleries to a successful conclusion are truly to be commended. As a result of their vision and hard work, the way that we look at art and empire will certainly change - and change for the better.

One incident from Revolutionary Empire speaks to this transformation in world view which occurred alongside all of the other "revolutions" chronicled by Calder and by the Met's British Galleries.

Calder relates how, in 1750, a committee of members of Parliament met to discuss the charter of the Royal African Company, Britain's slave-trading consortium. One of these members of Parliament was Horace Walpole (1717-1797). The son of Britain's first prime minister, Walpole was appalled  by the efforts to assist the slave-traders rather than the slaves.

Walpole wrote in disgust that "we, the British Senate, that temple of liberty, and bulwark of Protestant Christianity, have this fortnight been pondering methods to make more effectual that horrid trade of selling negroes... it chills one's blood. I would not have to say that I voted for it for the continent of America!" 

Horace Walpole's humane sentiments would have been laughed to scorn only a few years before, when his father, Sir Robert Walpole, was the leader of the House of Commons, 1721 to 1742. As First Lord of the Treasury - or "Screen Master General" as his opponents called him - the elder Walpole was a strategist of political intrigue, little concerned about human rights. African slaves, Irish peasants, Scottish weavers, English coal miners were seldom considered, except for the wealth that their efforts brought to Great Britain. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries, Metropolitan Museum, showing Joseph Willems' Figure of a Man in Ragged Clothes with a Mixing Bowl,1736

Yet, in 1807, a mere century after the formal union of England and Scotland, the infamous Slave Trade was abolished throughout the British Empire.

This great change of heart is very much in evidence in the Met's British Galleries. It is best exemplified in the 1736 terracotta statue of an African man by a Flemish artist who worked in England, Joseph Willems (1716-1766). We don't know the identity of this ragged, yet noble-looking  fellow. An escaped slave, since he is unchained? 

One glance of his rugged, self-confident face tells us all we need to know about him. He is a "Man and a Brother."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Ed Voves. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Introductory Image:
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Hexagonal Teapot, ca. 1760–65, made by Thomas Whieldon (British, 1719–1795), possibly from a mold by William Greatbatch (1735–1813). Lead-glazed earthenware: 5×7 3/8 in. (12.7×18.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1910. #10.126.3 a, b 

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Max Hollein, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, speaking at the press preview of the renovated British Galleries at the Met, Feb. 24, 2020.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) John Michael Rysbrack's portrait busts of John Barnard in Marble (left), 1744, and Terracotta, 1743. Marble: 17 × 12 1/8 × 9 1/8 in. (43.2 × 30.8 × 23.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, The Moses Lazarus Collection, Gift of Sarah and Josephine Lazarus, Bequest of Kate Read Blacque, in memory of her husband, Valentine Alexander Blacque, and Bequests of Mary Clark Thompson and Barbara S. Adler, by exchange, 1976. #1976.330. Terracotta (1743): 14¾ in. (37.5 cm.) high; 20½ in. (52 cm.) high. Loan from a Private Collection, 2019. L.2019.53a, b

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Harvest Jug, Somerset,ca. 1781. Slipware with graffito decoration: Height: 12 5/8 in. (32.1 cm) The Charles E. Sampson Memorial Fund, 1969, # 69.47.2. Bear Bottles, Nottingham, ca. 1740–50. Salt-glazed stoneware, measurements of pair: 9 5/16 in., 4 lb. (23.7 cm, 1.8 kg) and (with cover): 9 1/4 in., 4 lb. (23.5 cm, 1.8 kg) Metropolitan Art Museum. The Charles E. Sampson Memorial Fund, 1969. 69.25.1a, b

Harry Powell, designer (British, 1853–1922) Vase with Knopped Stem, manufactured at Whitefriars Glassworks, ca. 1880. “Straw opal” glass with uranium glass knop: 8 1/16 × 4 × 4 in. (20.5 × 10.2 × 10.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Funds from various donors, 2015. #2015.244

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) The Betrayal of Christ by a School of Nottingham Artist, second half of the 15th century. Relief, alabaster with paint and gilding: 15 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 2 1/8 in. (40 x 26.7 x 5.4 cm); 15.1 lbs (6.9 kg). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Miss Louise Crane, in memory of her mother, Mrs. W. Murray Crane, 1980 #1980.476

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Pietro Torrigiano's Bust of Bishop John Fisher, 1510–15. Polychromed terracotta: 24 1/4 x 25 7/8 x 13 3/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Fund, 1936 (36.69)

Hans Holbein the Younger (Swiss-German, 1497/98-1543 ) John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (detail) c.1532-4. Black and coloured chalks, brown wash, pen and ink, brush and ink on pale pink prepared paper: 38.2 x 23.2 cm (sheet of paper) Royal Collection Trust. RCIN 912205

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Staircase from Cassiobury Park, Herfordshire, attributed to Edward Pearce (British, ca. 1630–1695), ca. 1677–80. Risers, treads: oak; balustrade friezes, finials: elm; newel posts, stringers, skirting, baluster bases, balusters, handrails: pine: Height: 186 in. (472.4 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1932. # 32.152

Amoy Chinqua (Chinese, Canton), Figure of a European Merchant, 1719.
Polychrome unfired clay and wood: Overall (confirmed): 12 15/16 × 5 9/16 × 5 3/8 in. (32.9 × 14.1 × 13.7 cm); Height of figure only: 11 9/16 in. (29.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest and several members of The Chairman's Council Gifts, 2014 # 2014.569.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing the Tea, Trade and Empire gallery.

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Teapot, part of a tea service made by the Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory,1758–59. Soft-paste porcelain with enamel decoration and gilding: Height (with cover): 5 1/2 in. (14 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Francis P. Garvan, in memory of Francis P. Garvan, 1954. # 54.163.7a, b

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Teapot in the Form of an Elephant, second half 18th century, made by Ralph Wood the Younger (British, 1748–1795). Lead-glazed earthenware: Overall: 9 × 4 3/4 × 11 1/2 in. (22.9 × 12.1 × 29.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie R. Samuels, 1952 # 52.57 a, b

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) The Death of Munrow, made in Staffordshire, ca. 1820–30. Lead-glazed earthenware with enamel decoration: 11 × 14 3/8 × 5 3/4 in. (27.9 × 36.5 × 14.6 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, funds from various donors, The Charles E. Sampson Memorial Fund, and The Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation Gift, in memory of George Munroe, 2016.  # 2016.129.

Joseph Coscia, Photo (2020) Gallery views of the Lansdowne Dining Room in the Metropolitan Museum's British Galleries. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Josiah Wedgwood, manufacturer (British, 1730–1795) and William Hackwood, modeler (British, 1753–1836) Antislavery Medallion, 1787. Jasperware: 1 3/16 × 1 1/16 in. (3 × 2.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Frederick Rathbone, 1908. # 08.242

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Cover of Revolutionary Empire: the Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780's by Angus Calder (Dutton, 1981)

Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing Joseph Willems' Figure of a Man in Ragged Clothes with a Mixing Bowl, 1736. Terracotta: 29 1/4 × 11 1/2 × 9 in., 48.5 lb. (74.3 × 29.2 × 22.9 cm, 21.9995 kg) Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Gift of Wildenstein and Co., Inc., by exchange; Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation Inc. and Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation Inc. Gifts, by exchange; and Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, by exchange, 2013. #2013.601

No comments:

Post a Comment