Curating Craft: the new British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Melanie Hayes

16 February 2022

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Entrance to the new British Galleries at the Met, New York. © CRAFTVALUE

On a recent trip to New York I had the privilege of meeting conservator Mecka Baumeister at the newly reconfigured British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The reopening of the new British Galleries as part of the Met’s 150th anniversary in early March 2020 (only to close again just over a week later until August 2020) was designed to offer fresh perspectives on the Museum’s collection of British decorative arts, design and sculpture created between 1500 and 1900. The reimagined 11,000 square feet of exhibition space presents a new narrative on the commercial and artistic forces which shaped British art and craft practice during the early modern period, while the reconfigured chronology of the suite of ten galleries is intended to better orientate the visitor in the wider historical context. We began our journey at the new entrance to the galleries, which now communicates directly with the Met’s Medieval Galleries, creating a more seamless transition from the Middle Ages into the Tudor Renaissance. From the outset the enmeshed relationship between artefact, historical and physical space became clear.

16th Century, Wind Porch and Wainscot

Oak panelling and limestone chimneypiece from a house on the Hall Quay, Great Yarmouth, c.1600.

One of the first exhibits we encounter as we step through the arched entrance into the new British Galleries is a very fine example of carved oak panelling and a limestone chimney piece from the late sixteenth century. Today, the timber wainscot, which rises almost to the ceiling level, covers just one wall of the gallery, with some reconstructed elements in places, but prior to the recent reconfigurations all four panelled walls and the furnishings of the room (known as the Norfolk Room) were displayed. It was during investigations of the inner framework or backside of the panelling (in an effort to determine which elements were original and how the panelling was installed), in the dim and most likely very dusty confines between wainscot and wall, that Mecka and her colleague Elizabeth St. George discovered a small steel door which once communicated with Medieval Galleries. The precedent was set, structurally and logistically, allowing for the new entrance to the British Galleries to be inserted here.

Oak panelling and stone chimneypiece from a house on the Hall Quay, Great Yarmouth, c. 1600, as presented in the 2020 installation of the new British Galleries © CRAFTVALUE

The panelled interior was commission by a wealthy merchant, William Crowe, a bailiff of Yarmouth in 1594 and 1606, and a member of the Company of Spanish Merchants for the main reception room of his house at Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk, c.1600. The representational as well as practical functions of wainscot (discussed on this site and elsewhere by Christine Casey, immediately arrest the viewer. Constructed from Baltic oak, which was increasingly imported into England during the seventeenth century, due to shortages of the native species, it underlines the trade links between the east coast of England and the North Sea region during this period. Oak panelled wall boards, or ‘Right Wainscot’ as it was known, not only provided thermal insulation, with the novel addition of a wind porch in this instance (to the left of the display), to bridge the gap between exterior and interior, it also served to display the wealth and taste of the patron. Although removed from its original domestic context, and displayed as a fragment of the whole, there is still a sense of warmth and rich tactile beauty to the oak timber, which has aged to a deep brown hue. The level of lighting is lower here than in the original setting, which was lit by two windows, yet there is an evocative quality to the display over-looked by the piercing gaze of Bishop John Fisher (1469–1535, Pietro Torrigiano, Polychrome terracotta). There is a vigorous three-dimensionality to the moulded frames and carvings, which project boldly from the panel surface, creating contrasts in light and shade, adding to the experiential nature of this piece of architectural craft.

Oak panelling (detail) from a house on the Hall Quay, Great Yarmouth, c. 1600 © CRAFTVALUE

In terms of decorative vocabulary, the panelling combines late medieval or late Tudor elements such as strap-work ornament and basket arches, robust lion’s head bosses and expressive figurative carving, with classical mouldings and pilasters to the dado or surbase rail. Although the maker is unknown, the style is reminiscent of Dutch examples and may suggest something of their origins, and the impact of Dutch and Flemish influences on English craft. The Company of Spanish Merchants, of which Crowe was a member, traded exclusively with the Low Countries. In the centre of the panelling, above the limestone chimney piece (complete with Tudor Roses) the carved coat of arms for the Society of Merchant Adventurers, including a shield with a four-masted ship, clearly displayed his commercial affiliations.

In the eighteenth century Crowe’s descendants sold the house at Great Yarmouth, which by 1788 had been converted into an inn known as the Star Hotel (demolished in 1935). The room was dismantled and shipped to America between 1913 and 1916 and was acquired by the Met in 1965 by the Edward Pearce Casey Fund. Prior to its removal, etchings of two walls, a ceiling section, and other details  of the so called “Nelson Room” were made by Herbert Tooley and published in The Building News, May 28, 1886. These drawings proved crucial for the reinstallation of the wainscot in 2019, in particular for reconstructing the original layout of the panelling. They also provided evidence of the original ceiling scheme at Great Yarmouth, which was used to create a facsimile of a section of the original strap-work plaster ceiling, which now floats above the panelling, indicating the original ceiling height, as well as the decorative scheme to the perceptive visitor.

17th Century, Staircase Construction

 Staircase from Cassiobury Park, Hertfordshire  c.1677-80.

Restored, reconfigured and in places sensitively reconstructed, the reinstallation of the Cassiobury Park staircase is a scenographic tour de force of seventeenth-century craft skill and modern conservation. For the first time since the 1950s (the staircase was actually acquired by the Met in 1932, but languished in storage for two decades), the rope has been removed and visitors can tread the broad oak boards of this splendid stair, which now links two levels of the British Galleries.* It is the journey and not the destination that really matters here. The chance to get up close and personal with artisanal craft in three-dimensions, to experience the rich materiality and the shifting perspectives as you ascend (or descend), past the vigorous scrolling vegetation of the double-sided balustrade friezes, exquisitely executed in elm and Scots pine framework.

Standing at ground level a broad flight of stairs, which is now returned to a closer approximation of its original configuration, rises up before us. On one side dramatically undercut acanthus foliage and flowers spread out across the perforated surface of the frieze panels, organic in their flamelike movement. Seedpods, almost bursting with nature’s abundance intermingle with sinuously coiling snakes and vines, while birds, perched as if in mid-flight peer out as we pass. The contrasting levels of light and ever-changing viewpoints offered by the double-sided carvings add to the dynamism of the experience.

Staircase from Cassiobury Park, outer side of the frieze balustrade © Marcus Lynam
Left: Staircase from Cassiobury Park, detail of the  inner side of the frieze balustrade © Marcus Lynam. Right: Staircase from Cassiobury Park, reconstructed finial © Marcus Lynam

The sense of upward momentum on the ascent is punctuated by carved uprights, marking out our progress. Broad ballusters and newel posts, embellished with embossed ornament and topped by replica ‘pine-cone’ finials (a necessary intervention to protect the originals from passing traffic) combine with the carved handrail above, and oak-leaf skirt-board friezes beneath to create a more static framework in pine, to contain the movement of the frieze balustrades. On the opposite wall the trompe-l’oeil wainscot, that we know from photographs once mirrored the acanthus frieze panels, has been recreated by the decorative artists James Boyd and Anne Reath.

A pause at the half-landing, capturing glimpses of the outer side of the balustrade as you turn, then up another short flight to the mezzanine level of the gallery. Here, due to space constraints only the balustrades of the second long flight and upper landing have been installed; in place of the stairs, the exposed grooves for the treads and risers in the pine strings (part original, part recreated) evoke the sensation of upward movement.

Cassiobury Park staircase, showing  string groves at the upper level © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The staircase was first installed at Cassiobury House in Hertfordshire in the late 1670s, for Arthur Capel, Earl of Essex under the auspices of his kinsman, Hugh May. Once ascribed to the Dutch carver Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721) who was employed elsewhere at Cassiobury House during this period, the staircase is now thought to be the work of Edward Pearce (c.1630–1695), who was also responsible for the carving of the staircase at Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire in 1676. While debate remains over its authorship, what is really striking about the Cassiobury staircase, when viewed at close range, is the skill of its makers – joiners, carvers and turners – in manipulating the various timber media.

Staircase from Cassiobury Park, outer side of the balustrade, detail © Marcus Lynam

Here, the varied hues and contrasting textures of hardwearing oak, native elm and imported Scots pine are consciously exposed. Left in their untreated state, the naturally occurring knots and pattern of the grain can be seen on the surface of the timber, as can the carvers tool or gouge marks in places. While this is unlikely to have been the original treatment, these marks of making bring us closer to the craft processes of the past and allow the viewer to engage with the haptic materiality of the craftwork.

Transitions, through Tea and Trade

Teapot with fossil decoration c. 1760–65, Staffordshire.

Moving on in time and space, past the state bed from Hampton Court Palace, enveloped in hangings of blue silk damask, we pause to admire the eclecticism of the Tea, Trade and Empire exhibit. Here, as elsewhere in the British Galleries the impact of commercial growth and imperialism on artistic production, and with it the inextricable links to slavery and colonial rule are keenly felt. The manner in which these artefacts are displayed is striking, in highly translucent glass cases made by Goppion in Milan, in which an exotic array of objects seem to float unsupported in mid-air.

One particular object catches the eye, surely this is a much more modern piece? The monochrome salt-glazed stoneware teapot with fossil decoration could be the work of post-modernist Keith Haring, but in fact was made in Staffordshire in the 1760s. While the design is enamel, the fossil decoration is, according to CRAFTVALUE’s Andrew Tierney,  reminiscent of crinoidal limestone. This carboniferous limestone which contained fossils of marine creatures called crinoids was found in the Yorkshire Dales and Derbyshire, among other regions and was employed in polished stone chimney pieces in the mid eighteenth century, such as this example from Russborough, Co. Wicklow ( 1740s).

Crinoidal Limestone Chimneypiece, Russborough, Co. Wicklow. © CRAFTVALUE, courtesy of the Beit Foundation

Another, almost identical version of this teapot – save the lid – can be found at the Decorative Arts Gallerie in the Milwaukee Art Museum, where a similar example in red is also on display. Remarking upon the influence of crinoidal limestone as a decorative motif in her blog ‘Objects in focus’ Claudia Mooney notes that John Ellis, a prominent naturalist, published articles about crinoids in the early 1760s.

18th Century, Artefacts under Foot

Dining room from Kirtlington Park, 1748.

Dining room from Kirtlington Park, 1748, as presented in the 2020 installation of the new British Galleries © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although the eighteenth centuries galleries are filled with an array of fine examples of British craftsmanship, from silverware to silk hangings, chinoiserie cabinets to cast iron rails, the new presentation of the Dining room from Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire, showcases the quality of mid-century decorative craft in plaster, stone and timber. The house at Kirtlington Park was built between 1742 and 1746 for Sir James Dashwood, from an initial plan supplied James Gibbs (1682–1754)  but developed and built by William Smith of Warwick (1705–1747). The interiors were by John Sanderson, for which original designs survive at the Met.

The walls and ceilings of the Dining room, which were removed from Kirtlington in 1931 in more than 250 sections (still attached to their original timber laths), features the  exuberant decorative repertoire of migrant Luganese stuccatori, here executed by a local plasterer, Thomas Roberts (1711–1771). Aspects of the panelled ceiling scheme, which depicts the Four Seasons, differs from Sanderson’s design in its composition and handling, suggesting Robert’s independent agency in its execution. Paint analysis of the original scheme, which revealed a soft yellow coloured distemper on the walls, while the stucco work was executed  in warm white colour, informed the colour scheme of the current installation. This straw colour not only serves to off-set the rocaille encrusted plaster pendants on the walls, it creates a foil for the white Statuary marble chimneypiece, by either John Cheere (1709–1787) or his brother Sir Henry Cheere (1703–1781), who both appear in the Kirtlington accounts.

Standing in the open expanse of the reinstalled room (complete with re-imagined views out to the park) I was struck at how intact this mid-eighteenth century interior is, despite its many assemblies, de-assemblies and reassemblies. Even the highly-polished mahogany doors and painted shutters feature their original gilt-bronze hardware. But what really stopped me in my tracks, is what lies underfoot. In the early 1930s the original oak floor boards, likely cut from trees felled on the estate in Oxfordshire, were carefully numbered, disassembled and then reassembled on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, nearly two centuries after their original installation. Today these floorboards not only form an integral part of the Museum display, an interactive artefact in their own right, they pose a considerable conservation challenge, as increasing visitor numbers tread across the boards.

  • The Cassiobury Staircase is temporally close to the public, due to social distancing guidelines, however the author was given access under the guidance and supervision of Mecka Baumeister and security staff at the Met

Sincere thanks to Mecka Baumeister, Conservator (Objects Conservation) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for taking me on such an intriguing tour, and sharing her expertise and insights into the collection. Thanks also to my colleague Andrew Tierney for his help and advice in preparing this blog, and to Marcus Lynam for capturing the experience on camera.

Further Reading:

Baumeister, Mecka, Lisa Ackerman, Jesse Ng, and Ivo Kipre. ‘Digital 3-D Reproduction and CNC Milling: Putting the Finial Touches on an Architectural Highlight, the Cassiobury House Staircase’. In Wooden Artifacts Group Postprints, Vol. 34 (2020): 39–57.

Baumeister, Mecka, Lisa Ackerman, Nick Pedemonti and Ivo Kipre. ‘Reactive, proactive and interactive: the conservation and reinstallation of the Cassiobury House staircase at the Met’. In AIC Objects Specialty Group Postprints from the 2020 Annual Meeting (forthcoming).

Baumeister, Mecka and Andrew Tierney. ‘Piercing the surface: virtuoso wooden staircases from Cassiobury Park and Eyrecourt Castle’. In Enriching Architecture: Craft and its conservation in Anglo-Irish building production, 1660-1760, forthcoming.

Rieder, William. ‘The Kirtlington Park Room, Oxfordshire’. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

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