The European Galleries at the V&A

In 2009, the V&A opened its impressive new display of its medieval and Renaissance collections. From today, visitors need only walk across the museum’s entrance hall to continue the story of decorative art in another new suite of galleries, devoted to Continental Europe from 1600 to 1815.

Their opening has been delayed the curators started work on them in 2010—largely because of funding issues. The final cost, £12.5 million, has been met with a grant of £4.75 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and generous contributions from charitable foundations, as well as a gift from Sheikha Amna Bint Mohammed Al Thani of Qatar. However, the long wait to see these collections again inaccessible since 2009 has been worth it. Here is another triumph for the museum’s ambitious ‘FuturePlan’, its programme of gallery renovations and re-displays initiated in 2001.

The new galleries occupy a large L-shaped range on the ground floor at the front of the museum’s building on Cromwell Road, designed by Aston Webb and opened in 1899. Over many years, the space had become subdivided to the point where Webb’s architecture was largely invisible. The project’s London-based architect, ZMMA who recently transformed the Watts Gallery at Compton, Surrey has opened up the interiors to grandly spacious effect, creating seven individual galleries, four on a large scale interspersed with three smaller ones.

The area available for display has been enlarged by almost a third, to nearly 1,900 square yards, partly by reclaiming spaces that had been used for storage and partly by exploiting the fact that modern environmental services, such as air conditioning, occupy less room than their predecessors.

Webb’s wood-block floor has been revealed and conserved and the galleries have been opened up once more to natural light, controlled where necessary for conservation reasons by handsome new wooden shutters on Webb’s tall windows. ZMMA has used a mono-chrome but sumptuous palette of materials leather, bronze and walnut that enhances, but does not compete with, the spectacular luxuriousness and ornamental energy of so many of the exhibits.

A telling detail revealing respect for the architectural context is the way that individual display cases all made in Germany are mounted on such delicate feet that they seem almost to float over the floor.

Perhaps the first response that many people will have to the displays themselves is renewed appreciation of the spectacular wealth of the V&A’s resources. All 1,100 exhibits are drawn from its permanent collection there are no outside loans.

This richness and depth has enabled the curators, led by Lesley Miller, working with Joanna Norman as project curator, to tell a comprehensive story of the decorative arts in Europe over more than two centuries using only objects of the highest quality and interest. These range from three interiors (including an 18th-century mirrored room from Italy and a Louis XVI cabinet from Paris), tapestries, furniture, paintings and costumes to porcelain, tableware in gold and silver (Fig 1), snuffboxes, playing cards, ornamental prints, fans and even a shaving set.

The primary challenge faced by the curators was intellectual. Much of the story they wanted to tell is not familiar to a wide British audience, partly because pre-20th-century European history is not taught in state schools. Furthermore, the V&A’s division between British and Continental collections the new displays are on the floor below the British Galleries means that the landmarks of 17th- and 18th-century history most likely to be recognised by a native audience were unavailable to the curators, who could not rely on visitors knowing, for example, what the Seven Years’ War was. Instead, they have opted to highlight a clear narrative of stylistic change from Baroque to Rococo and neo-Classicism.

Such labels are largely 20th-century inventions and, if only for that reason, are currently deeply unfashionable with many art historians. However, in a museum context, it is surely right to employ and explain concepts that are so helpful for a non-specialist audience seeking to understand objects, often made for princely courts or Catholic churches, that may seem remote from modern tastes and interests.

The curators have also emphasised the geographical basis of the cultures on show, by stressing a shift from Italy as the leading cultural influence at the opening of the period to the rise and dominance of France over 150 years or more, to be succeeded by the dawn of Britain as a global cultural force.

The displays open, therefore, with a gallery painted Papal purple, dominated by Bernini’s dynamic marble sculpture Neptune and Triton. From here, visit-ors move into rooms in rich, Bourbon blue, as a backdrop for art and design in the age of Louis XIV.

The colour of the walls then progressively lightens, through sage green for the art and design of the age of Rococo, to grey for the era of Revolution and war. The displays conclude with part of the enormous silver and silver-gilt table service given by the Portuguese to the Duke of Wellington in 1816, which, in an inspired touch, ZMMA has arranged in the form of a towering military trophy.

The overarching themes of stylistic change and the rise of France have been diversified and elaborated by the curators, in part by self-contained thematic displays. These emphasise that, although design ideas might originate in Rome or Paris, they were disseminated all over Europe, so that for exampl Rococo cannot be understood without reference to Germany, nor neo-Classicism without knowledge of Russia.

The curators also demonstrate the impact of trade and the way it drew very different cultures and a great variety of races into the European orbit. The displays illustrate not only how Europeans saw the world, but also how they were seen—in, for example, a delightful Chinese clay model of a merchant, who was probably employed by the East India Company.

Absorbing although such themes are, the curators deserve equal credit for placing emphasis also on unfashionable subjects, such as the central part played by hunting in courtly culture and the decorative flair with which many weapons were designed. These topics form part of a sequence of small displays on ‘ways of living’ that encompass such themes as harlequinades, the consumption of tea and coffee and fashion in dress, for men as well as women.

The displays also provide an opportunity to enjoy some important recent acquisitions, ranging from a painting by Pierre-Denis Martin of the Château de Juvisy in about 1700, showing a great formal garden design by André Le Nôtre, to a table made in Venice in about 1688 by Lucio de Lucci to celebrate the Venetian conquest of the Greek Peloponnese, as depicted in its marquetry.

In addition, several exhibits have been the subject of major conservation or restoration projects, including an enormous Meissen porcelain table fountain. Ten pieces of furniture have had their upholstery restored, most enticingly a daybed made in Paris in about 1750, which embodies all the feminine languor associated with the Rococo in one luxurious object.

The galleries also incorporate a substantial new commission. At the angle of the L-shaped galleries, as the visitor passes from the age of Louis XIV into the 18th century, there is an enormous architectural sculpture in the form of a globe made of a lattice of engineered beech. It has been designed by an artist collective based in Havana, Los Carpinteros, and is supposed to provide a place for visitors to sit down half-way through the galleries it seats up to 30 people as well as being a symbolic representation of a central, if elusive, concept for the period, the Enlightenment.

In the words of Lesley Miller: ‘The design of the Globe reflects not only the world but also, in its bookshelf, cell-like construction, the organisation of knowledge central to Enlightenment thought. It also creates space for intellectual debate in a relatively informal setting the V&A’s own 21st century take on an 18th-century salon, if you like.’

Provision for debate in this setting is timely, as Britain prepares to vote on the future of its place in Europe. Will there prove to be symbolic force in the fact that, at the V&A, British culture is a steep stairway apart from its European counterpart, or will the way that both are encompassed in a single, global museum prove more rele-vant? We must wait and see, but in the meantime, the new galleries provide almost inexhaustible material for thought.

By drawing together in a relatively small space so many aspects of the European cultural achievement over two centuries, the V&A has reinvigorated appreciation of its extraordinary diversity. Visitors can here, as nowhere else, make direct comparisons between objects of remarkable variety. Take, for example, one of the new acquisitions on show, a medal cabinet made in 1810 and probably designed by Charles Percier, the leading creator of the visual language of Napoleonic imperialism.

No more than a few yards away from this striking document of the European fascination with ancient Egypt is one of the most extraordinary achievements of Rococo furniture design, a cabinet on a stand, made in Turin in about 1745 in the workshops of Pietro Piffetti. Unlike the medal cabinet, it has no real practical function, and its exotic forms and materials are visually a world away from the severe restraint of Percier. Yet the two pieces of furniture are separated by only 60 years. That one continent could have given rise to such contrasts of cultural endeavour in such a short period is almost incomprehensible, but with these impressive new galleries, the V&A has offered keys to help unlock the mystery.

For more information about visiting the V&A, go to www.vam.ac.uk, or telephone 020–7942 2000. The museum has published a book to accompany the new galleries, ‘The Arts of Living: Europe 1600–1815’, edited by Elizabeth Miller and Hilary Young (£25)

** Read more on fine art