Steal the style:the V&A museum's new display puts Europe 1600-1815 under the microscope

The Victoria & Albert museum's revamped European galleries, shop and website are casting a spotlight on Europe 1600-1815 - with 1,100 decorative items to be exhibited in the seven galleries from December 9. 

Bringing home a little of the finely crafted, luxurious style of 17th- and 18th-century Europe is simple — just take a lead from the Victoria & Albert Museum's revamped European galleries, then visit the museum shop or the website to buy pieces inspired by the display.

A staggering 1,100 decorative items dating from 1600 to 1815 will be exhibited in the seven galleries in South Kensington from next Wednesday, including the Sérilly Cabinet, a masterpiece of a room from the reign of Louis XVI, and a bijoux-mirrored room from 18th-century Italy.

Religion, culture, politics and the domestic sphere all come under the microscope as the vast collection traces the evolution of today's Europe, telling the story of a period of rapid development, production, craftsmanship, trade and consumerism. During those times, drinking water wasn't safe so weak alcohol was the beverage of choice. It wasn't until the 17th century that a new cold, dark brown drink arrived from Mexico, made of ground cocoa mixed with maize flour and chilli. But Europeans put their own twist on it, whisking the cocoa with boiled milk, sugar and spices — and hot chocolate was born.

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See: a bedroom cabinet, left, covered in intricate flower patterns and veneered with ivory and tortoiseshell, attributed to Pierre Gole (1620-1684); and, right, a nautilus shell cup and case with enamelled gold mounts and featuring dragonflies, made in the Netherlands, c1620

This paved the way for coffee and then tea, and these hot drinks eventually became so in-vogue that decadent chocolate houses sprang up on the streets of Georgian London.

As the craze spread across the country, families stocked up on intricate chocolate pots and whisks, porcelain and silver coffee pots, teapots and silver trays to serve the after-dinner beverages, fuelling a trend for the finest crockery on the market.

Alongside hot drinks came different food and cookery styles — the result of rapid expansion of global trade. New recipes used delicate herbs rather than the heavy spices that had come through the Eastern spice routes.

In 1690, the tureen, designed to serve newly fashionable stewed dishes, became a feature of the table. As trade swung west, running through the hubs of Antwerp and Amsterdam and reaching across to the Americas, food that included sugar became widely available. Desserts and puddings were transformed.

 

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Buy: ceramicist David Cleverly's Pair of Birds Objet in 18th-century style, £500

Increasingly, large dinner services made by the great factories of Meissen and Sèvres included porcelain plates instead of bowls of wood, pewter or silver. Gleaming silver cutlery was provided by the host, rather than visitors bringing their own marked and carefully guarded knife and fork.

Porcelain was flamboyantly hand-decorated and gilded in matching sets, reflecting the wealth and prestige of the owner. On show at the V&A is an amazing Meissen porcelain table fountain. Such decorative items turned a meal into a spectacle.

Every aspect of domestic life changed during these centuries. Though the greatest changes were at court, they were mirrored by the rest of society.

Increased trade led to more shops. In Paris, Rue Saint-Honoré featured dazzling displays of furniture, silks, clothing and novelties, as did the Royal Exchange in London, effectively the capital's first mall. Conspicuous consumption equalled wealth, and the wealthy dashed to the shops in silk-lined sedan chairs.

At home, 18th-century salons sported fine mirrors, wall decorations, silk curtains, specially woven tapestries and carpets, beautiful sconces and chandeliers, comfortably upholstered chairs and stools, and a wealth of tables — from card tables to ladies' work tables and tea tables — along with writing cabinets and writing tables, and musical instruments.

Clocks, as much for display as for telling the time, were made with gold, ebony, ivory and enamel, for mantels or pockets, their ingenuity rivalling their beauty. Also on show in the galleries is the newly restored 17th-century Georges Jacob bed, or lit à l'italienne, decked in fabulous blue-green silk, swagged like a peacock and with a mirror inside the canopy visible only to those in bed below. Parisian-made between 1780 and 1785, this sumptuous, neoclassical piece represents the height of opulence in the era.

These galleries are genuinely magical, the finest in the world. Though many of the intricate techniques on show have been lost, the wealth of imagination and skill involved in the manufacture of these pieces helped shape every aspect of the world we enjoy today.


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