The English Regency Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts

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.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to The English Regency Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts

  1. Thank you for the tour to the exhibition. You do it so well I feel like I really have been there.Great way to spend a sunday morning!

    It certainly would make an interesting vacation to visit places related to the Regency in the US. Are there many historic houses of the period in Boston, respectively Massachusetts, open to the public?

    I also enjoyed reading about Thomas Hope and the Bullock brothers. Very inspiring characters for a Regency-Novel writer… .I can see Mr. Hope constantly improving (or, in the opinion of some, meddling with) the salons and drawing rooms he is invited to.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are quite welcome! I am glad you enjoyed a peek at the English Regency gallery at the MFA. It is now a part of the permanent collection, so it should be on view for some time to come. Another exhibit which I enjoyed that day was a temporary exhibit on the color pink which was opened in early October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month. There is no catalog for the Think Pink exhibit, but the museum does have a few web pages up related to it. They took the title from a line in the movie, Funny Face, and they have a wide range of fashion-related items in the show. But one of the best is a "pandora," which turns out to be one of the terms which were used to refer to those elegant French fashion dolls about which we often hear but seldom see. This pink "pandora" is the signature piece in the collection and there is a good photo of it in the slide show on the Think Pink page.

      Sadly, there are very few historic houses in Boston proper. There was a major fire in the city in the 1870s, and what the fire didn’t get, urban renewal did, in the 1960s. There are a couple of eighteenth century houses in the North End, The Paul Revere House and The Hitchborn House, which are located on adjacent plots and are maintained by the same organization. Unfortunately, in the early twentieth century, since a Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, and his family, lived in that house in the seventeenth century, a group of well-meaning, but misguided, people "restored" the house to that period so it looks nothing like it did when Paul Revere lived there. The Hitchborn House was built in the early eighteenth century and it has not been much messed with.

      The only historic house in Boston that dates close to the Regency is the third Harrison Gray Otis House, though it is not open to the public. Otis was a wealthy lawyer who had three different houses built for him by the noted Boston architect, Charles Bullfinch. The first house, built in 1796, is open to the public, and is well worth seeing. The other two Otis houses are on Beacon Hill. If you have ever seen the original movie of The Thomas Crown Affair, or the TV series, Banacek, you have seen the exterior and the foyer of the second house, which was built in 1802. The third house was built in 1806 and faces onto the Boston Common. Though it is not open to the public, the facade is mostly untouched and is a good example of the Federal Style, which equates to the Regency in England. There is a Wikipedia article about the three Harrison Gray Otis houses which will tell you more about them.

      There are other historic sites in Boston, like the Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, the Old State House, Old South Meeting House, the New State House, and, of course, there is the USS Constitution over in Charlestown Navy Yard.

      There a quite a number of historic houses up in Salem, Massachusetts, and an excellent museum, The Peabody-Essex. Salem was a major seaport during the Federal era and there is a whole street of ship owner’s and captain’s houses along Chestnut Street which are quite impressive. However, I would very strongly recommend that you not go there on, or even near, Halloween, as its witchy heritage comes out full bore at that time and it can be really crazy. Another place which you might find of interest is Old Sturbridge Village. It is out in the western part of the state, but it is a complete recreation of a New England village of about 1830. It is a living history museum, so there is always some period activity going on, including crafts, farming and gardening. One could easily spend two or three days there. Fall in New England can be very pretty, though spring and summer at Old Sturbridge are also very busy and fascinating.

      Both Thomas Hope and William Bullock were very interesting characters. Either one of them could certainly liven up scenes in a Regency story. I hope they make it into your books.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Thanks a million for this very detailed answer, Kathryn! You are a treasure trove of knowledge.
    I followed your links – wow, these places are a very tempting travel destination! The Old Sturbridge Village looks like fun and totally what I am into.
    Best regards
    Anna

  3. HJ says:

    Thank you for another very interesting post.

  4. elfahearn says:

    Katheryn, thanks for letting us know about the gallery opening. Wow, I’d love to make it up to Boston to see the show. What strikes me, though, is the danger in tenting the celing and then having live candles beneath it. I can’t imagine how many fires started because of such a set-up. And let’s not forget, their clothes had no fire retardent on them. Yikes.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      So far as I can tell, our Regency ancestors were very careful with an open flame near anything remotely flammable. They were well aware of the dangers and were very alert. Though the tented ceiling in the MFA is a little low, most of the ones I have seen in Regency prints were much higher and the chandeliers which hung in such rooms were on much longer chains or ropes. That way, the light was more direct and the flames never came that close to the ceiling. Some of the more elegant Regency houses had cloth rather than paper hangings in their best rooms, and they used candles in sconces on those walls. Most had flame guards or mirrored glass behind them, which gave added protection. And, from other readings, I learned that many candles would only be used in rooms in which events were in progress. That meant lots of people circulating, with family, and servants, who instinctively kept an eye on open flames.

      I think people today are more careless with flame because they take it for granted, while our ancestors knew better.

      Regards,

      Kat

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