V&A Podcast: Salon II: ‘Europa and Britannia’

Valance, Unknown, about 1790, England, Museum no. T.63-1936, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Valance, Unknown, about 1790, England, Museum no. T.63-1936, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There is a beautiful timeliness to the ‘What Was Europe?’ Salon series, which was seen particularly in the most recent Salon’s theme: ‘Europa vs. Britannia’.

For the title of the Salon, we see ‘Europa’, the name of the goddess from Ancient Greek mythology, famed for her abduction by Zeus in the form of a white bull (depicted by Francois de Troy, whose bust coincidentally sits watching over The Globe in the Salon gallery), pitted against ‘Britannia’. The Greeks and Romans were responsible for this name too which was later popularly personified in art and literature following the union of Scotland and England in 1707.

On the 20th January, we welcomed 28 guests back to the Europe galleries – some fresh faces, and some more familiar – to discuss this topic in relation not only to history, but to the current position of Britain to Europe. Whilst Britain is classed geographically as part of the European continent, we know that that this does not mean it is part of Continental Europe. The topic of ‘Brexit’ has been unavoidable this past week, after David Cameron and Donald Tusk’s negotiations of the future of Britain in the EU.

The Rape of Europa, Pierre Gobert, 1710-1720, France (Paris), oil on canvas, Museum no. 549-1882, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Rape of Europa, Pierre Gobert, 1710-1720, France (Paris), oil on canvas, Museum no. 549-1882, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As the microphones warmed up in preparation for the Salon, the guests had the chance to acquaint themselves with the objects in the Europe Galleries. Attention has already been drawn to the separation of the British and Europe galleries in the V&A. There are certainly a lot of objects with a British/Continental crossover in both galleries – for instance, the Clérisseau wall panels, made in France in 1777, but brought to England to hang in Ashburnham Place in 1842. Or the cotton valance depicting scenes from the Fall of the Bastille in 1789, printed in England to be exported to France.

Once everyone was seated within The Globe, three new speakers took the stand to present their take on the ‘Europa vs Britannia’ theme: Dr Hannah Williams, Leverhulme Research Fellow at Queen Mary University, Dr Spike Sweeting, V&A Lecturer on the History of Design MA programme, and Dr Danielle Thom, Assistant Curator in the V&A Sculpture and Prints department.

Hannah Williams transformed the statement into a series of questions: ‘To what extent was Britain a part of Europe?’, ‘What is the significance of the Channel to Britain’s relationship to the Continent?’, ‘In what ways has Europe shaped Britain?’, and ‘Where do we find Britain in Europe?’ She framed her points with her expertise on 18th-century art, comparing France’s academic history in art with Britain’s more commercial one.

Spike Sweeting asked Salon members to reimagine the galleries as the inventory of a merchant trading ship, based on his research of the Port of London and trading ledgers – apparently this would mean most of the galleries would transformed into a lot of linen and planks of wood!

And finally, Danielle Thom, enlivened us all with reference to the satirical prints of James Gilray – only mentionable by Danielle herself in the Salon’s recording! Some of the differences in British and European commodities were used to create national stereotypes, for instance, the British preference for theatre and the Continent’s for Opera.

You can listen to some more of Danielle’s amusing examples in the full recording of the Salon discussion below.

The theme of the next instalment will be ‘Europe Through Non-European Eyes’, taking place on the 10th February with the podcast being made available online shortly afterwards.

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