Researching & Writing a Gallery Book: Luxury Goods & Eyewitness Reports

Guest Post from Kirsty:


 

A change of voice for the blog this time, I’m Kirsty, a student on placement from the University of Glasgow. I’ve been working on the Europe Galleries project for a month. My main interest is 18th-century history, and I’ve studied it at university, so it’s been a great opportunity to work with the project team. As part of the project, I’ve been working on researching and writing a book for one of the galleries.

Large books containing additional imagery will be placed in each gallery to help to develop the particular message of the gallery by providing visitors with more information on the context behind the objects and the time period. Gallery books have already been used in the museum, in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, so, as a visitor, you might have already used them.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been researching for the book for Gallery Three which is entitled City and Commerce, 1720-1780. This gallery will introduce themes such as the rococo style, luxury shopping, and grand dining.  I have been working on City Workshops, a display that takes up a large space in the centre of the gallery.

The City Workshops display focuses on the production of luxury goods in Europe in the eighteenth century. Royal and ducal courts encouraged and supported the production of these products and ensured their high quality. Famous products such as Sèvres porcelain from France or Meissen porcelain from Dresden were highly desirable objects throughout Europe, and the factories were patronised by the Kings of France and the Electors of Saxony respectively.

Meissen woodpecker, Johann Joachim Kändler, Meissen porcelain factory  Germany. ca. 1740-1745. V&A C.1-1984

Meissen woodpecker, Johann Joachim Kändler, Meissen porcelain factory Germany. ca. 1740-1745. V&A C.1-1984

Ecuelle, celebrating birth of the Dauphin, Sèvres, France, 1781. V&A C.119-1922

Ecuelle, celebrating birth of the Dauphin, Sèvres, France, 1781. V&A C.119-1922

 

My task has been daunting, as there has been a lot of information to get through. I decided to select five cities from the objects which will be in the gallery: Amsterdam, Dresden, Lisbon, Paris and Vienna. Some of the initial key questions which guided my research were: how big were they? What were the courts in each city like?  Who visited them?

I started with source material from the time, primarily from English-speaking travellers who had visited the cities concerned to gain an insight into what these cities were like two hundred and fifty years ago, particularly, what visitors thought of them. Sometimes, I found information in the most obscure of places.  A two volume book entitled The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Provinces and The Present State of Music in France and Italy by Charles Burney from 1777, provided a wealth of information on Dresden, Vienna, Amsterdam and Paris, and definitely wasn’t specifically about music. It was interesting to read that particularly in Dresden and Vienna, much court life was centred on music, and many famous musicians visited both cities.

The source material for Lisbon centred on the cataclysmic earthquake of 1755, an event which destroyed the majority of the city.  The report came from Charles Davy, an English clergyman who was an eye witness to the events of the earthquake. His account of the earthquake was extremely dramatic, he wrote ‘I assure you that this extensive and opulent city is now nothing but a vast heap of ruins’. This is incredibly effective for putting across to visitors the destructive effects of this earthquake.

Tile panels from the music room of Quinta Formosa, Lisbon, ca. 1720-30

Tile panels from the music room of Quinta Formosa, Lisbon, ca. 1720-30

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