In March, The Met officially reopened its fully renovated Galleries for British Decorative Arts and Design, which present the Museum’s world-class holdings in fresh and visually innovative new ways. We caught up with Wolf Burchard, associate curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, to talk about the project, and how The Met Store’s new teas, textiles, and other gifts evoke key ideas explored in the galleries. (While they remain temporarily closed, visit the online Primer for a virtual taste of the themes the galleries present.)
Let’s start very broadly. Tell us a little bit about the new British Galleries.
This is a very exciting moment. The Metropolitan Museum has just reopened the British Galleries that have been closed for the last three years—which serendipitously coincided with a rather tumultuous political period in Britain. Indeed, a lot of attention is currently given to the United Kingdom and its future position on the European and on the world stage.
This is interesting to us because the art we are showing in our new galleries is truly international. In fact, one of the main reasons why The Met can justify having galleries of this scale (more than 11,000 square feet) dedicated solely to British art, is because it’s such an international story.
As part of the major refurbishment of the galleries, the curatorial team has created a completely new narrative centered around the creative and economic risks British craftsmen took over the course of 400 years, from the Tudors to the Victorians. Entirely reconfigured, our new galleries now offer a much more immersive, chronological experience. The seduction of retail, particularly in 18th-century London, was one of the core themes of the galleries, so we decided to team up with the design firm of Roman and Williams, who created the most remarkable sequence of spaces. There are lots of surprises and lots of contrasts.
The narrative is very fascinating as you have laid it out. Could you talk about the 18th century and the teapot installation, which is, I understand, a centerpiece of the new galleries?
What we are trying to do in these new galleries is move away from purely aristocratic patronage and the English country house. We want to talk about making, about creativity, craftsmen, retail, about entrepreneurship, about people manufacturing and marketing things and themselves. We are telling the story of artisans trying to find their niche within the growing market—especially in London, with the rise of the British Empire, the influx of primary goods and money, and the opportunities to produce a wide array of objects. Not only for the uppermost tiers of society but for a much broader audience, the emerging middle classes.
The phenomenal “teapot case” Roman and Williams have designed reminds us of the incredible rise in tea consumption in the mid-18th century. Drinking tea becomes an important daily event in every household. And all these manufacturers started producing teapots that varied in design, form, color, clay. Some are supremely elegant, while others are amusingly quirky—and all were created to entertain their beholder.
Interestingly, the ceramicists and manufacturers represented in this case had no royal or aristocratic backing. They had to cleverly market their output and sometimes work within very small economic margins. As a retail story, it is not completely dissimilar from the problems a modern-day start-up would face.
Are there any teapots among your favorites or that stand out in the display?
I don’t believe in favorites…but there are several. There’s a so-called agateware teapot (above, left), fashioned to look like a shell, which has an extremely beautiful, unexpected design. The marble effect of the glaze makes it look completely contemporary. There’s another rather naïve one, bearing the portrait of Frederick the Great of Prussia—so it’s a political teapot, made around the time of the Seven Years War. Then, there is a salt-glazed stoneware one in the form of a smiling camel (above, right) that rather reminds me of Gertie the Dinosaur. And then there’s a little house teapot with a yellow roof, blue windows, and a pink handle (above, center). The whole thing could not look more English to me, because… it’s a teapot; and it’s a whimsical one that is reminiscent of the developing fashion for dollhouses in 18th-century Britain, a fascination for miniature versions of real objects, as well as for objects that are different from what they claim to be.
Tell us about the immersive experience of the teapots.
You enter a space flanked by two almost semicircular cases, 12 feet high and filled with 100 teapots. Therefore, you end up being completely surrounded by them. The display is done in a really clever and inventive new way. What’s fun is that you can immerse yourself in a broad selection of forms, colors, and designs. And in doing so, you are somewhat revisiting that retail experience when you seek out the one that you would want to take home.
About the custom tea blend that we produced with Harney & Sons: I hear you taste-tested it? And you weren’t the only one.
Indeed. I sampled it here in my office, together with my colleague Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide and our Museum trustee Irene Roosevelt Aitken, who is one of New York’s greatest enthusiasts of British furniture and decorative arts, and who has been a wonderful supporter of The Met’s Annie Laurie Aitken Galleries for British Art. The three of us were very enthusiastic about the new tea.
I seem to remember that it’s a blend of both black and green tea. This is interesting, because we have one staggering tea caddy on display with three individual silver containers—one for black tea, one for green tea, and then a third one, in which you could mix both teas. So the fact that this custom blend consists of both green and black tea seems rather appropriate.
You helped us design two of our new scarves through excellent collaboration, and you described our Floral Scarf as “very English.” Tell us why.
The English love floral patterns and chintz. You can see that both in fashion and in decorating. Mixing and matching different types of floral patterns is something the English do extremely well, and they make it look very easy and casual—when in fact, it’s extremely difficult to get it right. And this love for fabrics and patterns is something that will be represented in our textiles pocket galleries.
What defines chintz?
Chintz is either a painted or woodblock printed calico or cotton. The English somewhat appropriated the term to describe floral cottons. It is a material that is essential for both 18th-century fashion and interior decoration. The scarves your team has designed are inspired by these cottons. They’re very floral, very colorful and very happy—and that, I think, is certainly evocative of modern-day English fashion, which so often is very bold, very daring, colorful, and, again, very happy.
I’ll relay that that quote! That’s wonderful, wonderful commentary.
Visit the new British Galleries once The Met Fifth Avenue has reopened to the public. Shop gifts inspired by the galleries’ themes today.