The V&A presents a new suite of galleries dedicated to the arts and design in Europe between 1600 and 1815. The seven galleries have been transformed to display the Museum’s unrivalled collection of 17th- and 18th-century European art and design. Europe 1600-1815 continues the story of art and design that begins in the Medieval & Renaissance galleries which was opened in 2009 and completes the restoration of the entire front wing of the Museum.
The four main galleries introduce the story in chronological sequence, alternating with three smaller galleries that focus on specific activities: collecting in the Cabinet; entertainment and glamour in the Masquerade and enlightened thought in the Salon . The displays illustrate how France succeeded Italy as the leader of fashionable art and design in Europe in the second half of the 17th century. The French court of Louis XIV in particular set the trends and fashions for the French aristocracy and beyond. Specialist workshops were set up to produce luxury items for the court and to export abroad.
This period coincided with many European states exploring and exploiting resources from Africa, Asia and the Americas. This created enormous wealth that led to fashionable homes having more and more decorative items to show to your family and friends. From the mid 16th to the early 18th century, many people put together collections of objects in what was known as cabinets. These collections ranged from small collection of rarities to vast private museums.
However, this period was not just about material wealth but also the wealth of ideas, the salons of 18th-century houses were rooms for conversation, entertainment and relaxation. They were also places where the ideas of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment were debated. Enlightenment thinkers began to challenge ideas based only on tradition and custom and especially those concerning the monarchy and the Church. Instead, they championed reason and scientific study to create a new society. To celebrate the Age of Reason, the V&A have commissioned an installation entitled the Globe, at the centre of the room is a specially commissioned artwork by the Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) in which visitors can chat and debate .
The clash between absolute monarchy and ideas of the Enlightenment was to lead to the French Revolution, however although the aristocracy was decimated, Napoleon had himself crowned emperor in 1804 and made decorative and fine arts central to the new Empire. Patronage from the imperial court revived French manufacturing, and the production of luxury goods became part of the idea of French military and cultural supremacy.
The galleries feature three historical interiors which invite visitors to imagine life in the fashionable homes of the time: a 17th-century French bedchamber; a Parisian cabinet from the reign of Louis XVI and a mirrored room from 18th-century Italy.
One little known aspect of the new galleries is the collection of John Jones which forms the foundation of the 18th-century French decorative arts collections in the Europe 1600-1815 galleries. John Jones was a businessman who in 1882 left his large collection of fine and decorative arts to the Museum ‘for the benefit of the nation’. He lived in a house in Piccadilly and created a collection of French fine and decorative art of the 18th century that was considered one of the finest collections of its kind in private hands. His story is told in one of the small alcoves that adjoins the main rooms.
The new galleries contain some of most important works held by the V&A, including some spectacular examples of textiles and fashion, painting and sculpture, ceramics and glass, furniture and metalwork, prints and books. Many objects were made in Europe by its finest artists and craftsmen for the period and gives some indication of the remarkable wealth accumulated from home and abroad. The introduction of new state-of-the-art cases and lighting shows the items in all their magnificence and splendour. These free to visit galleries are well worth a visit to understand one of the most important periods of European history when the old social orders were beginning to be transformed by the ideas of the Enlightenment.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
If you would like more information, visit the V&A website here
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