Functional objects, vessels for light and fragrance, tables, clocks and other household accessories for the rich and powerful, gilt bronze status symbols that are also neoclassical sculptures of the finest art, piercing the soft darkness with their golden fluidity, making your jaded heart sing – I never understood ormolu before I saw The Wallace Collection’s current exhibition Gilded Interiors: French Masterpieces of Gilt bronze.
Video Gilded Interiors © The Wallace Collection 2017
And, in The Wallace Collection’s tradition for 117 years, entry to temporary exhibitions as well as to the permanent galleries is and always will be free. Liberty, Egality, Fraternity still exist in an Anglo-French union in Manchester Square, London W1.
It is a small exhibition, the pieces liberated by the curator from glass cases and cluttered rooms, out of the crude glare of museum electric lighting into simulated candlelight. The atmosphere is seductive. It is a tiny piece of gilded theatre.
The inspiration for the gilt bronze objects crafted in the 1780s came from the sculpture and mythology of classical antiquity, garlanded with miniature carvings of flowers, leaves and fruit. This early phase of Neoclassicism restrains without entirely rejecting the Rococo’s curved line of beauty and addiction to playful embellishment.
It was a reaction against the excesses of the 1770s (good taste had lost its way at court after Madame de Pompadour died in 1764) in favour of a simpler, more natural look in fashion and interior decoration, part of the general artistic movement towards Romanticism.
Late 18th century design fulfilled the aspirations of contemporary taste, classical columns, acanthus leaves, sphinxes, eagles and satyrs replacing crèche-fulls of hyperactive cherubs and beach loads of shells, but not yet fully disciplined by the purer aesthetic of Directoire and Empire Neoclassicism.
It was still the 18th century, still ironic, still flagrantly aristocratic in the face of moral and social criticism. It was the gilded interior of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, published in 1782, of Le Mariage de Figaro, performed at Versailles, starring Queen Marie Antoinette, in 1784.
The old ruling classes thought that if they joined in the laughter against them, they would be safe from more serious attack. The world was about to be blown up in Revolution and Terror, but you could still celebrate the privilege of being alive and rich by holding amateur theatricals on the edge of the volcano.
A sense of suspended panic, and identity insecurity, was reproduced in contemporary decorative art, introducing minor Neoclassical reforms to an absolutist Baroque body, a grand gesture towards a modern, rational, more balanced world while clinging to romantic illusions about the past.
In The Wallace Collection’s exhibition, each piece stands alone, gleaming against a simple black background, revealing these high-end luxury goods as timeless artefacts.
Wall light, attributed to Louis-Gabriel Feloix (1729-1812), France, c.1788. Private Photo © PJR
The imagery is imaginative, stately but never oppressive, the detailing precise and delicate. An elegant neoclassical female nude pulls out the shell boat of an incense burner that prefigures Art Nouveau.
Mounted Vase, Sèvres, France, c.1782-1783 © The Wallace Collection
Naked golden women are made to work hard in ormolu, sometimes manacled to the heavy candalabra they are supporting on their backs. They tell stories from the haunted chambers of Gothic Romance.
Private Photo © PJR
There’s a pair of candelabra so fantastically conceived, with the heads of Ancient Egyptian Pharoahs caught on the twisting stems of roses, a hybrid, either completely bonkers or a dream so sinuously wrought in gilded bronze that it might belong to Sleeping Beauty’s palace.
Candelabrum, attributed to Francois Remond (1747-1812), France, 1783-1786 © The Wallace Collection
The exhibits are sculptures in their own right, exquisitely proportioned, their golden lines soaring so gracefully that they seem to sing – unheard melodies, not the sound of Disney candlesticks and teapots. The expressions of the carved heads and the balletic poses of the naked figures have an animation of their own.
The overall effect is of being transported to a candlelit 18th century romantic drama.
The Wallace Collection contains some of the finest of French, Dutch and Spanish art in the world, originally opened to the public by an English humanitarian and philanthropist, bequeathed to the nation by his French widow , and still it shines in an 18th century London town house as an exemplar of European civilization in the Brexit darkness.