Talking materiality

Commode decorated with Japanese lacquer, japanning, gilt brass mounts and a Portoro Macchie Larga marble top, by Bernard Vanrisamburgh II, early 1760s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Commode decorated with Japanese lacquer, japanning, gilt brass mounts and a Portoro Macchie Larga marble top, by Bernard Vanrisamburgh II, early 1760s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A has a new gallery devoted exclusively to the history of furniture, the Dr Susan Weber Gallery. In the December 2012 issue of Apollo Edwin Heathcote has written an appreciative review of it.

Corner cupboard painted with chinoiserie designs in green on white, made by Thomas Chippendale for the actor David Garrick, 1768-1778. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Corner cupboard painted with chinoiserie designs in green on white, made by Thomas Chippendale for the actor David Garrick, 1768-1778. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Rather than focusing on designers and styles, the new gallery aims to show how furniture was made and decorated. It highlights materials and techniques – or, in curatorial parlance, the ‘materiality’ of furniture. This approach has resulted in unexpected juxtapositions of objects from different periods and even from entirely different cultures.

Folding screen decorated with red and black lacquer, silver leaf and composite decoration, by Eileen Gray, c. 1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Folding screen decorated with red and black lacquer, silver leaf and composite decoration, by Eileen Gray, c. 1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my otaku-like fascination with orientalism, and I was interested to see how this new gallery has brought together radically different examples of  the use of lacquer, and its European imitation, japanning.

The emphasis on materiality also presents a contrast with the approach often seen in the display of historic houses, which is centred around provenance and tries to recreate and preserve historical groupings of objects. Interestingly, both approaches can lead to unexpected juxtapositions, but for entirely different reasons.

9 Responses to “Talking materiality”

  1. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    Were you impressed? I’m planning on visiting this w/e for a warm up, cycling back from Osterley Park as I’ll be where I hope to see some wonderful Christmas decorations.

  2. suesconsideredtrifles Says:

    This sounds really interesting. Sue

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Visiting, I haven’t been yet! I am just channeling Edwin Heathcote in this post :) But I hope to go on Monday.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Sue, I was interested to read on your blog how your approach to blogging has changed in response to readers’ comments – it’s the same for me!

  5. suesconsideredtrifles Says:

    Thank you for reading, Emile. I haven’t had many comments on my blog yet, but reading other people’s posts has influenced mine. Sue.

  6. style court Says:

    I think it’s a fascinating approach, to mix things up and focus on the physical properties. For some visitors this seems to bring the subject to life or make it feel fresher (sometimes maybe even make it more relatable). In particular, I can imagine this working with furniture…or decorative arts in general.

    Not too long ago, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta installed its permanent collection by unexpected themes rather than period, style, artist or medium. So, a piece of 20th century folk art might be hanging next to a renaissance madonna. Juxtapositions were intended to stimulate conversation. It definitely generated mixed visitor reaction and I could see both points of view, pro and con. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the V & A’s new furniture gallery. The lacquer mash-ups alone sound really interesting!

  7. Andrew Says:

    The RA used a similar approach for its recent bronze exhibition: the galleries were themed, with works from different times and places juxtaposed. It was certainly interesting to go from Etruscan to Italian Renaissance via 20th century modernism, Africa and Asia.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, Andrew, yes themed displays often seem to generate debate – I suppose we are all still indoctrinated through our education that the chronological, art-historical narrative is the ‘correct’ one :)

    And it is interesting that the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (http://www.barnesfoundation.org/) has recently reopened in a new location but preserving the very personal aesthetic juxtapositions of the original collector – you aren’t related to the late Albert Coombs Barnes, by any chance, Courtney? If so that would perhaps indicate a genetic predisposition for the arresting visual juxtapositions shown on your blog :)

  9. style court Says:

    Emile — I’ve often wondered! But as far as I know, no. :)

    Funny you mention the Barnes Foundation because I just received a review copy about the new site. Will be posting shortly.

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