Europe 1600 – 1815 – Art of Fine Living on Show V & A London

Archduchess Isabella Ommeganck

Detail: The Triumph of the Archduchess Isabella in the Brussels Ommeganck, Denys van Alsloot, 1616, Brussels, courtesy (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Europe 1600 – 1815 is display dedicated to the ‘arts of living‘ opening on December 9 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A), London.

A recently renovated suite of seven galleries will have re-installed nearly 1,100 objects that best tell the story of the evolution of art and design during this period.

Design and the decorative arts, represent the very essence of our culture, its attitudes and philosophies, its fashions and passions.

In America and Australia, English and European immigration since the 17th and 18th century is at the heart of our art, design and cultural development. The expansion of trade, colonisation and religious conflict during this period affected the way Europeans lived.

How your home was designed both outside and inside, upstairs and downstairs became of primary concern, especially among the nouveau riche.

English 18th century silk coat embroidered V & A London

English, 1730 -1739, embroidered silk, courtesy (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This was because they believed it reflected on the character of the master of a house.

He was judged by his peers on the manner in which it was arranged, decorated and furnished

By the late seventeenth century houses were being designed for conversation, entertainment and comfort, where friends and family would come together to debate ‘enlightened’ ideas.

New ways of eating expanded the manner of dining in style, with dinner hours changing to suit the new concerns of society.

A concentration on worldly pleasures also brought about innovation and inspired imagination, with young aristocratic bucks and their upper class friends throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century enjoying a Grand Tour as an educational ‘rite of passage’.

Archeological discoveries about the civilisations of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt would bring about a desire for luxury, liberty and power.

This new display will begins its journey in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, telling the story in chronological sequence.

Fashionable concerns changed at an alarming rate, with men and women’s hairstyles ascending and descending in equal measure.

Lectures, talks, tours, courses and workshops will expand knowledge for those who seek to understand how the past has helped to shape the present.

Nautilus Shell, V & A London

Nautilus shell, possibly engraved by Jean Bellequin (Johannes Belkien) Artist: Date: Possibly Amsterdam, the Dutch Republic, about 1620 courtesy (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Specific activities are a focus such as Collecting in the Cabinet, Enlightened Debate in a Salon and The Glamour of the Masquerade.

The display will help you imagine life in a 17th century bedchamber including that of France’s King Louis XIV who in his cabinet at Versailles, welcomed his closest friends and advisers.

You can also reflect on how life would have felt for you in a mirrored room in eighteenth century Italy.

The objects on display will showcase ceramics, glass, furniture, metalwork, painting, sculpture, prints, books, textiles and fashion.

Many have been made by some of England and Europe’s finest artists and craftsmen and women of all time, and produced for such luminary leaders of their day including Napoleon.

Martin Roth, V&A Director, said:

“These new galleries are a major development in our ambitious programme to renew the architecture of the V & A for the 21st century and, at the same time, re-examine and re-present our collection for our visitors. At a time when roles and relationships within Europe and the world are under scrutiny, it is interesting to explore the objects, makers and patrons of a period that was so influential upon the habits and lifestyle of Europe today”

Europe Galleries V & A

Installation image of Europe 1600 – 1815 Galleries, Photograph by David Grandorge courtesy (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Working with architectural practice ZMMA on the redesign of the galleries, with removal of interior cladding added in the 1970s helping to reclaim back of house storage space.

The galleries now present as some 1,550 square metres, with natural light also returned to the spaces with previously obscured windows uncovered.

Environmental controls have been upgraded to provide sustainable and stable conditions for the collection and new state-of-the-art cases that meet modern environmental and security requirements have been installed.

Gallery 3

Installation image of Europe 1600 – 1815 Galleries, Photograph by David Grandorge courtesy (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Restoration and conservation have been integral to ensuring that the works on display represent the very best of their age.

Adam Zombory-Moldovan, design Director at ZMMA said: “Inspired by the Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical objects in the V&A’s collection, we have created richly engaging galleries with modern interventions poised elegantly in the restored Aston Webb architecture. Our architectural settings for the displays are detailed in beautiful materials like bronze, walnut, dark stone and leather, making the displays accessible and atmospheric.”

Tapestry 1Grand tapestries have been undergoing cleaning, including The Art of War; – The March,  designed by Flemish artist Judocus de Vos (active 1700 -21) and manufactured 1720-1725, like others has been cleaned and brought to new life at the De Wit Royal Manufacturers of Tapestries in Mechelen, Belgium.

Tapestries are often called the ‘mirror of civilisation’ as they recorded scenes of everyday life, great historical exploits or delivered lessons from history through stories attached to moral and mythological subjects.


Writing cabinet made Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, probably made by Michael Kimmel, 1750-55, Dresden, courtesy (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

France succeeded Italy as the undisputed leader of fashionable art and design in Europe during the second half of the 17th century when so many innovators and entrepreneurs were systematically exploring, exploiting and collecting resources from Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Throughout the eighteenth century hand craftsmanship, in all phases of the decorative arts in Europe, reached a high pinnacle of achievement in terms of artistic expression, quality of materials used and unmatched craftsmanship.

A beautiful writing cabinet in the ‘French taste’ made for Augustus III (1696-1763) Elector of Saxony, features gilded mounts and gleaming mother of pearl inlay, which since it has been restored is in pristine condition.

During the first half of the eighteenth century in France there was a focus on sinuous curves, beautiful ornamentation and asymmetrical characteristics of the Louis XV or Rococo) style and in the second half, the ordered lyrical elegance of the Louis XVI, or Neoclassical style.

French craftsmen of the eighteenth century included the Menuisier, an artisan who we would describe as a carpenter-joiner. His work was mostly accomplished in solid woods, producing seat furniture, bedsteads, stands, commodes and panelling (boiserie) etc

The Ébéniste was highly trained in the art of veneering figured and exotic timbers onto solid timber casework and cabinetwork. He was also an accomplished artist in marquetry work (an ébéniste-marqueteur)

Fondeurs-ciseleurs worked in bronze, casting and chasing the magnificent mounts that are so characteristic of French furniture during the reign of the ancien regime

The Doreurs were the highly skilled gilders, who applied gold leaf to the bronze mounts made by the Fondeurs-ciseleurs.

French Bed 18th century

Bed (Lit à l’italienne or Lit à l’imperiale) , Paris, France, 1780-85, Workshop of George Jacob courtesy (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There is also an 18th century bed from the Parisian workshop of master French craftsman George Jacob (1739 – 1814).

The Bed is a piece of furniture, which for many is simply a part of our everyday existence.

However, if we pause to think on it, we find it is the most important piece of furniture in the home.

It reflects our social mores, aesthetic sensibilities and some of our deepest human rituals and beliefs. We also spend at least one third of our lives in it and many cultures on earth are steeped in customs superstitions and folklore surrounding its development.

As our lives unfold and we grow older, our relationship with it deepens, until finally it becomes a metaphor for our final rite of passage.

From the beginning of the Renaissance to the French Revolution the bedchamber and the bed flourished along with the fortunes of Europe.

In the seventeenth century Louis XIV, The Sun King devised his famous state rising and retiring ceremonies for his State Bedchamber.

Georges Jacob (1739-1814) was among the first of the cabinetmakers at Paris to use mahogany, which was wonderful for carving.

Empire Cabinet

Close Medal cabinet in the Egyptian taste, about 1810, Paris, after a design attributed to Charles Percier (1764-1813), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

He made chairs for Marie-Antoinette and other members of the royal household but became better known following the Revolution. His Lit á l’italienne now in the V & A was made 1780 – 1785.

Although the classical doctrine flowed from Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century it was still inspired by pre-revolutionary ideals and models.

Emperor Napoleon went to great lengths to encourage the arts, considering luxury a necessary adjunct to a healthy economy.

He could not bear to see tradesmen, who had attained such great heights of skill and craftsmanship under the ancien regime, suffer or have their skills lost forever.

This Medal cabinet was manufactured about 1810 in Paris, probably made at the workshop of Martin-Guillaume Biennais after a design by Charles Percier, one of the architects to Napoleon.

The gilded mounts are signed by Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843) who was a French silversmith by trade, producing many objects for Napoleon.

In the Egyptian taste, this rare and remarkable piece of furniture which the V & A raised over half a million pounds to purchase in 2014, to ensure its place in their national collections.

There are few works by Biennais in Britain and this amazing piece is made of rich amboyna wood, with gilded silver mounts of the highest quality.


Close Interior of a Medal cabinet in the Egyptian taste, about 1810, Paris, after a design attributed to Charles Percier (1764-1813), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It sports Napoleon’s industrious bee on the drawers inside, which was his own personal emblem.

The medals it would have contained, were minted to commemorate the Emperor’s significant achievements. It’s one of the finest pieces of French Empire furniture in Britain today.

Gallery 2

Installation image of Europe 1600 – 1815 Galleries, Photograph by David Grandorge courtesy (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you are visiting London or are a local, a visit to the new galleries will be a rewarding experience.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015


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