The Decorative Arts of Europe 1500-2000

Renaissance decorative arts, Baroque furniture, silver, porcelain, gold, c.18th France, Industrial Revolution, Arts and Crafts, Bauhaus, c.20th design

10 January – 28 February 2019
Thursdays 10.45am - 12.45pm
The University Women’s Club, 2 Audley Square, London W1K 1DB
Andrew Spira
Full course (8 lectures) £399.00
Single lecture £59.00
(includes morning coffee, tea and biscuits)

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“I would recommend THE COURSE without reservation”

In the European tradition, the status of “fine art” tends to be much higher than that of the “decorative arts” though the beauty and virtuosity of the latter can be spell-binding. This is why we have a “temple” to fine art in the centre of London - the National Gallery - while “everything else” is in the Victoria and Albert Museum - which was on the fringes of London when it was built. The difference is also reflected in the huge gap between the market prices of the two arts. Why are the decorative arts undervalued in this way and what are their virtues? This series of lectures explores this intriguing subject.

Ewer, Adam van Vianen, 1614, Utrecht (Rijksmuseum)
Dolls' house of Petronella Oortman, c.1686-c.1710 (Rijksmuseum) A French mantel clock by Joseph Revel, c.1795 (Private Collection)

Course outline

Introduction to the Decorative Arts

The word “decorative” is usually associated with functional objects like tea pots; but if such objects are functional, how can they be purely “decorative”? Is not a painting, which has no other function than to decorate a room, more “decorative” than an object that is used? The first lecture in this series will look at the background to the development of the notions of “fine”, “decorative” and “applied” art.

The Decorative Arts in the Renaissance

The Renaissance is famous for its painters and sculptors but its craftsmen are often forgotten. This lecture will focus on the masterpieces of furniture, metalwork and tapestry that furnished the rooms of Renaissance princes and nobles, exploring the contexts that gave them meaning as well as the materials and techniques that gave them form. 

Furniture in the Baroque Age

Furniture came into its own in the seventeenth century when the tradition of cabinetmaking got underway. New types of object reflect dramatically changing life styles; the furnishing of private rooms, for instance, was unprecedented. And exotic materials, such as ebony and turtleshell, reflect Europeans ambitions with regard to the New World.

The Art and Craft of the Silversmith

Because the very materials of gold and silver were used as currency for much of their history, the status of goldsmiths was always high and their products were often splendid. But precisely because silver objects were often regarded as a form of money, they were frequently melted down in times of need. The legacy of goldsmiths throughout the ages is intertwined with the history of aristocratic taste and patronage.

Pleasure and Sensation in 18th Century France

This talk will focus on the golden age of French interiors, exploring how new sensibilities among the Parisian nobility required a new style of living, a development that gave rise to some of the most delicious and fanciful pieces of furniture, silver and porcelain ever made.

The Industrial Revolution & the Decorative Arts

The Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on the decorative arts, bringing objects that had previously been associated with the nobility within reach of the ever growing middle-class. Radical new inventions and techniques reduced the cost of manufacturing products, leading to the evolution of shops and entrepreneurs, which led in turn to completely new attitudes towards taste.

Design Reform in the 19th Century

The Industrial Revolution transformed the world but, in the 19th century, some critics and commentators maintained that it also led to lower quality products and poor conditions for workers, and they called for reforms. This talk will discuss attempts to reinvest the world of commodities with dignity and propriety – for instance through the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Aesthetic Movement – as the modern world unfolded.

Modernist Design: the Bauhaus and Beyond

The Bauhaus was the most innovative and influential school of design in the 20th century, combining avant-garde ideas about abstract art with a thoroughly conscientious approach to social reform and domestic living. Employing some of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, the school combined an interest in nature with faith in industrial design.