Britain’s Entrepreneurial Spirit and Taste for Beauty

The Met showcases 400 years of exquisite British artisanship
August 26, 2020 Updated: August 27, 2020

The pine and elm staircase winds upward as solid and grand as it is ornate. Under the handrail, carved acanthus leaves and seedpods swirl together. Double-headed birds peek from the foliage, looking at you from either side of the rail. Oak motifs honor the tree where Charles II hid from enemies during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. 

But the staircase is just a prelude to the artisanship and beauty to be seen in the other rooms. In the dining room, for example, statues of mythical Greek and Roman figures stand in alcoves. For centuries, these paragons of classical culture have kept watch over discourse from the likes of poet Thomas Moore and novelist Charles Dickens. 

ansdowne Dining Room_Photo by Joseph Coscia_
The Lansdowne dining room with classical statues in its alcoves. (Joseph Coscia)

This feast of artisanship, classical values, and culture isn’t part of an estate home or castle, however. This staircase from Cassiobury Park and dining room from the Lansdowne House are among the 700 objects in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly renovated British Galleries. 

The galleries showcase British decorative arts, design, and sculpture crafted between 1500 and 1900. They include a wide array of furniture, ceramics, silver, tapestries, and other textiles from the Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian eras, ranging in styles from Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo to neoclassical and neo-Gothic. 

“The reimagined suite of ten galleries provides a fresh perspective on the period, focusing on its bold, entrepreneurial spirit and complex history,” the material online reads.

As we exit quarantine and look to jump-start our economy, this exhibition can inspire us to pioneer new business opportunities and be patrons of beauty and traditional artisanship again.

A Tapestry of Opportunity

Tapestry weaving was the pinnacle of luxury and craftsmanship during the late Middle Ages in the 16th century, according to the online audio guide. Since Flemish weavers monopolized the craft, the kings of both France and England wanted their own in-house productions. At the beginning of the 17th century, the kings founded the Royal Gobelins Manufactory in Paris and the Mortlake Tapestry Manufactory outside London. 

Artisans from Brussels then immigrated to these ateliers, either to weave or to train British craftsmen. But England offered something unique that even some of the French desired: religious freedom. Protestants persecuted by the Catholic Church in Brussels and France fled to Britain. 

London also lured Flemish tapestry weavers, as well as German and Italian artists, with economic opportunity and other forms of freedom.

“London was a great international hub. … It was a rich city [with] many rich patrons,” the lead curator of the British Galleries, Wolf Burchard, told me in a phone interview. He’s also an associate curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. “It was the largest city in Europe, but it was also an immensely liberal city. It is there that the freedom of the press really originated.

With London’s cornucopia of golden opportunities, the Mortlake Tapestry Manufactory attracted world-class talent. Charles I also understood the symbolic power of these luxurious works of art and bankrolled projects, sparing nothing. The exhibition showcases one such work, “The Destruction of the Children of Niobe” from a set of  tapestries called “The Horses.”

The Destruction of the Children of Niobe from a set of _The Horses
“The Destruction of the Children of Niobe” from a set of  tapestries called “The Horses,” circa 1650–70, designed by Frans Cleyn. The tapestry was probably made at Mortlake Tapestry Manufactory. Gift of Christian A. Zabriskie, 1936. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The tapestry depicts the gods Apollo and Diana shooting arrows from the clouds, slaying the children of Niobe. Niobe, in her pride, had insulted Latona, Apollo and Diana’s mother. In fear for their lives, two of Niobe’s children on horseback appear to almost jump out of the tapestry, trying to escape their doom. The horses’ dynamic three-dimensional movement, each figure’s distraught facial expressions, and the slain figures in the background tell the drama so vividly that the tapestry is like an ancient form of cinema.

Tea Time

Three centuries ago, commerce and entrepreneurialism inspired a tea craze in Britain. Firstly, the East India Trade company established routes to import tea leaves from Japan and China. Secondly, when tea duties fell from 119 percent to 12.5 percent, the new obsession became affordable for everyone to enjoy.

Consequently, people from all levels of society wanted teapots to show their enjoyment of this sophisticated ritual. Manufactories popped up across Britain, crafting teapots of different styles, such as chinoiserie (Chinese imitation).

Tea Trade and Empire_Photo by Joseph Coscia
The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection of teapots. (Joseph Coscia)

The new galleries showcase hundreds of these charming objects. “Dainty, funny, silly, coarse, [there’s] something for everyone. Fancy a humorous design of monkeys and corn … or something more sophisticated, perhaps a luxurious silver vessel or complex agate-wear set?” inquires the galleries’ audio guide. 

British, Staffordshire. Teapot, ca. 1740
A Staffordshire teapot, circa 1740. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The teapots on display also once provided relevant social commentary. The Stamp Act, for example, was the first direct tax on the American colonies and provoked a violent response from them. When Britain repealed it in 1766, ateliers began crafting teapots for the American market, inscribed with “No Stamp Act” on one side and “America, Liberty Restored” on the other. In this case, it seemed that Britain’s entrepreneurial hunger overshadowed even its own nationalism.

As teapots spread across the British Empire, they also took on the meaning that if you partook in the ritual of teatime, you were no longer a savage, but a sophisticated member of society. “There’s so much emotion and history connected to these objects that they take on a life of their own,” says contemporary mixed media artist and ceramicist Morel Doucet in the audio guide.

J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.