Overwhelmed by Opulence at the V&A European Galleries

Meissen table fountain 1745 V&AThe V&A have been redoing their Europe 1600 to 1815 Galleries for ages. So long, in fact, that we were beginning to think that they would never reopen. But, just before Christmas they did, and Yannick and I rushed down to take a look. The new galleries hold over a thousand objects of 17th and 18th century European art and design in a suite of seven galleries, including some of the most magnificent works held by the V&A.

We started in Room 7 as that’s the one right by the entrance, worked our way down towards Room 1, and then came back via the shop, which I thought was wrong until I looked at the V&A website and saw they’d laid it out the same way. The collection isn‘t organised chronologically but by themes, so actually you can start at either end and it doesn’t much matter.

Room 7 focuses on Europe and the World, 1600 to 1720. This statue of Neptune and Triton from 1622-23 was originally the centrepiece of a complex system of fountains and cascades in the garden of the Villa Montalto, one of the most celebrated sights in Rome in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

V&A European Galleries

Room 6 is titled The Cabinet and focuses on the cabinets of curiosities, both man made and natural, which people amassed.. You can’t miss this giant head of an ox on a tree trunk, from Italy, dated 1650 to 1700. The sculpture actually displays a medical curiosity in its head, an abnormality possibly taken from a real animal.

V&A European Galleries

This bust of the poet Francesco Bracciolini by Giuliano Finelli, is Italian and dates from 1630-31.

V&A European Galleries

And here’s an actual cabinet, from Belgium, dated 1650-1660. It’s veneered with marquetry of tortoiseshell, ebony, ivory and mother-of-pearl, with lacquered brass mounts.

V&A European Galleries

Room 5 brings us to the Rise of France 1660 to 1720, the period when Louis XIV furnished Versailles. This tapestry of an elephant from the Beauvais Tapestry Factory is part of a series of six known as the Grotesques on a Yellow Ground dating from 1700 to 1720.

V&A European Galleries

Room 4 is The Salon. Here the V&A have commissioned a new work, The Globe, by the Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters). It’s a lattice of engineered beech and, like the salons of the eighteenth century, it’s a room for conversation, entertainment and relaxation. But it can also be seen as a cage, like the circular jails of the period. Reactions to this contemporary piece in the middle of the seventeenth and eighteenth century collections have been mixed.

V&A European Galleries

On to Rooms 2 and 3, City and Commerce, 1720–1780, and the dawn of Rococo and grand dining, both exemplified in this Meissen table fountain, made for Saxony’s Prime Minister, Count Von Brühl in 1745.

V&A European Galleries

In the centre (see the picture at the top of this post) Neptune and Aphrodite ride a sea shell drawn by sea horses. They’re flanked by the river gods, Tiber and Nile.

The Sérilly Cabinet is the jewel in the crown of this room. The complete cabinet (a small room, not a piece of furniture), made in 1778 for the Parisian townhouse of Antoine Megret de Sérilly, Paymaster General to the French Army, is on display, though you have to peer in from the outside. Here’s a view of the ceiling.

V&A European Galleries

Room 2a celebrates Venice and contains another complete small room, the mirrored room, which dates from 1780-90 and is made of painted and gilded softwood with panels of mirrored glass.

V&A European Galleries

There’s also a much vaunted interactive film of the masquerade, but I’m afraid we found it disappointing. One for the kids, perhaps.

So, finally, to Room 1, Luxury, Liberty & Power, 1760-1815 and the entry of neoclassicism and Napoleon Bonaparte. This is the room we liked the best, and I think you can see why as under Napoleon the production of luxury goods became an expression of French supremacy.

V&A European Galleries

This is a bust of Josephine Bonaparte from 1808.

V&A European Galleries

By the time you get this far all this opulence is a bit overwhelming, and hard to take in all in one go. So we’ll be back for another look, and another – the great advantage of the free museums and galleries in London being that you can go as often as you like.

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