Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston for the first time in more than a year. The MFA has been undergoing an ambitious remodeling and expansion project and this visit was my first chance to view their newly-installed galleries of European Art, which to my delight includes an expanded area for the decorative arts as well as the usual space for painting and sculpture. But best of all was a room devoted entirely to the decorative arts of the English Regency. Most of the items on display in this room have never before been on view to the public.
A walk through the English Regency gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts …
Nearly everything on display in this gallery is part of a large collection assembled by one man, Dr. Horace Wood Brock, which was recently donated to the MFA. This rich collection of objects went on display in the Susan Morse Hilles Gallery on 24 September 2013. Dr. Brock began collecting in the 1970s, originally focusing on European drawings and decorative arts objects. Having been trained as a mathematical economist, Dr. Brock developed a theory of aesthetics based on a set of scientific criteria which he applied when making his acquisitions. He soon began to concentrate on objects from the English Regency because he was attracted by their strong, bold, classically-inspired designs.
One of the most striking aspects of this installation is the re-creation of a tented room, like those that were popular during the Regency. Modern cloth of a solid color was used to create the tent effect on the ceiling, rather than the striped or printed fabrics which were often used during the Regency. Nevertheless, the result is very dramatic. More so because the tented fabric is gathered in at the center of the room, below which hangs a stunning crystal chandelier from the period. Every single crystal was hand-cut and polished, all glittering in the light. Even though electrified candles have been fitted into the chandelier candle sockets, the many crystals glittered nearly as much as they might have with real candles. The patterns of light which the all those faceted crystals threw around the room and onto the tented ceiling above were quite lovely. I got a new insight into how a Regency ballroom might have appeared with the candles in the chandelier all alight. It must have been rather like fairyland.
A number of pieces in this remarkable collection are based on the designs which Thomas Hope published in his influential 1807 book, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration. The curators have provided a special album which can be found in a holder on the wall just inside the entrance to the gallery. This album includes photos and detailed descriptions of a number of the Hope pieces in the exhibit, next to the very plates from Thomas Hope’s book from which the designs were taken. Even though I am very familiar with most of those drawings, having studied them in college, it was quite a treat to see two-dimensional drawings converted into three-dimensional objects. Even more so to see so many of them on display together, as they might have appeared in Hope’s London home on Duchess Street, or his country home at Deepdene.
Another name found in this new gallery will be very familiar to most Regency devotees. The brothers George and William Bullock, yes, he of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, also made a number of the objects on display in this English Regency gallery. George specialized in brass and tortoise shell marquetry while William had been trained as a goldsmith and jeweller as a young man in Birmingham. The brothers produced some exotic and elegant ornaments in the Egyptian style even before William Bullock opened his famous Egyptian Hall in London. Some of the best of them can be seen in the MFA’s Regency Gallery.
Some of my favorite objects in the exhibit are a delicate marquetry work table with galleried edge around the top and a work bag covered with richly embroidered silk hanging below. It is smaller than most work tables of the era, being only half as deep and a few inches narrower, but it is beautifully made and I am sure its original owner took great pride in it. A Carlton House-style desk is one of my other favorite pieces in this collection. It is a simple design, but is made with coromandel wood, which has a strikingly beautiful pattern of light and dark stripes. The fold-out writing surface is covered with a dark brown textured leather framed with a delicate gold-tooled pattern. The writing surface is set within a raised case on three sides which is fitted with lots of little drawers and compartments. What a delight it must have been to work at that desk.
Without doubt, the most over-the-top piece in the room is a gilt-bronze bust of George IV as a noble and heroic Roman emperor, his garments heavily encrusted with precious gems. It was made in 1830, by the famous jewelers, Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, not long before the death of the king. This bust was modeled on a marble bust of George IV which was made by Francis Chantrey in 1827. Chantrey could flatter in marble as well as Thomas Lawrence could in oils, so King George IV must have been well pleased with the result. The king’s bust is set on an ornate Gothic plinth with an enameled coat of arms of the House of Hanover on the front. On the back of the plinth is a gold medallion which commemorated George’s coronation as king in July of 1821. After the death of George IV, the royal family gave the bust to Sir Henry Halford, who had served as personal physician to George and several of his siblings. The bust was engraved with a lengthy inscription to Halford prior to the presentation. This glittering bust is on display on the center table in the gallery, just under the crystal chandelier.
The Art of the English Regency gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts includes some of the finest objects from the era on display anywhere in America. Even if you cannot come to Boston to see the exhibit, you can take a virtual tour of it online. The English Regency Gallery page has a set of slides of the main views of the gallery. Below that and to the right is a smaller image which when clicked launches a 360º view of the gallery in which you can see most of the tented ceiling and the crystal chandelier which hangs in the center of the room. There are also pages devoted to some of the principal objects in this gallery where you can learn more about them. It is not the same as walking though the gallery in person, but if you cannot get to Boston, it is the next best thing.