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Tasteful Exhibitionism – Early Modern Collecting, Commissioning and Display

2 December 2022 at 4:30:00 am

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Session Convenors

Dr Matthew Martin, University of Melbourne

Session Speakers

Dr Louise Voll Box, University of Melbourne
Maria Karageorge, University of Sydney
Samantha Happé, University of Melbourne

In response to the sustained scholarly focus on the material aspects of eighteenth-century culture, this panel presents papers that address the idea of demonstrations of power, taste, sociability, luxury, or knowledge articulated through eighteenth-century material culture - or the instability of the material realm in this era. The panel addresses collecting, commissioning and display practices in the long eighteenth century. The panel will consider technical innovations in the production of luxury goods; collections and their display as tools for asserting or advancing political and social authority; the establishment of State manufactories for luxury goods and the changing labour market; cosmopolitanism and its impact on regional styles.

Fugitive assemblages: Re-interpreting an 18thC English print collection in New York

Dr Louise Voll Box, University of Melbourne

Eighteenth-century collectors collated their prints into sumptuously bound, book-like volumes stored in private libraries. Print albums — and the juxtaposition of prints within them — mirrored the ‘hand and mind’ of the collector. Subsequent machinations of the art market and institutional collecting practices resulted in albums’ disassembly. As a result, the subtleties of print collecting and display practices have been erased, and connections between prints and their original collectors have been lost.

This paper considers ten albums of Flemish prints from an eighteenth-century English collection, that were acquired and then almost immediately disbound by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 1950s. The prints are now separated and housed individually ‘by printmaker’. Associations between the thousands of prints — as intended by the collector — are obscured, and scant online catalogue entries belie their provenance and their significance to a wider narrative of eighteenth-century print collecting, assembly, and display.

Drawing on dealer and institutional records from the US and UK, and evidence from other eighteenth-century albums, this paper considers the process of virtually re-assembling these previously overlooked prints at The Met. How can they be re-contextualised as part of a now-dispersed collection? What do the re-assembled albums reveal about the collector and their collection? This group of prints ‘in flux’ elucidate the challenges of investigating fugitive print collections, and the erroneous assumptions and misconceptions that may, unwittingly, surround them.

Picturing the West: Images of Europeans in Canton’s Glass Paintings

Maria Karageorge, University of Sydney<

This paper examines three portraits on glass commissioned by the Western traders and supercargoes who visited Canton (now Guangzhou) in the mid-eighteenth century. Portraits on glass exist within a particular genre of ‘export’ paintings known as reverse-glass or mirror paintings made by local artisans in the various shops and studios within Canton’s foreign quarter from 1757, when the city became the sole point of access to China. The term ‘reverse-glass painting(s)’ connotes the technique that involved applying oil paint mixed with gum to the back of plate-glass mirrors originally imported from Venice. Considering the staged acts of collaboration between painter and sitter so intrinsic to the mode of portraiture, this paper explores the role local artisans played in constructing a Western ‘tourist’ gaze bent on the exploration, discovery and acquisition of China, its land, and its peoples. It argues the ways early modern makers sustained this illusion of power through kinaesthetic acts of looking which invited viewers to move between spaces real and painted, glimpsing their reflection through peepholes and telescopes, portals into an exotic, fantasy world. In doing so, this paper sheds light on the important shaping of imperial identities through decorative objects exported.

Afterlives of the Persian Gifts to Louis XIV

Samantha Happé, University of Melbourne

Diplomatic gifts form an integral part in mediating cross-cultural communication and exchange, shaping encounters and perceptions of embassies and nations. This may result in a different reception and understanding of the gifts by the recipients than what was originally intended. During the reign of Louis XIV in the long eighteenth century, objects gifted by foreign embassies to France were presented and accepted in elaborate ceremonies. After the conclusion of negotiations and the departure of the embassy, the gifts may be displayed, sold in a lottery, dismantled for its constituent parts, or kept, with each of these actions altering both the object’s status and the embassy’s legacy.

Through exploring the afterlives of the gifts presented by Persian ambassador Mehmet Reza Beg to Louis XIV in February 1715, this paper will consider their shifting meanings and significances through two case studies. By focusing on the mumia and pearls, it is possible to evaluate the objects’ evolving statuses as they exhibit an agency and significance beyond that of a diplomatic token from a Persian Shah. The two gold boxes of mumia were displayed publicly in France through the eighteenth century, and the string of 106 pearls entered the Royal Treasury, before being repurposed and regifted nearly a decade later.



Dr Matthew Martin, University of Melbourne 

Matthew Martin is Lecturer in Art History and Curatorship in the University of Melbourne. From 2006 to 2019 he was a curator in the department of International Decorative Arts and Antiquities in the National Gallery of Victoria. His current research focusses on the cultural aesthetics of porcelain in eighteenth-century Europe, and the intersection between art history and the history of science in eighteenth-century European court manufactories. 

Dr Louise Voll Box, University of Melbourne 

Dr Louise Voll Box is a Teaching Associate in Art History and Curatorship at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests centre on eighteenth-century visual arts; the collection and display of prints; and the intersections of business and the arts. In 2018, she was the Harold Wright and Sarah and William Holmes Scholar at the Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, and has also been awarded a Paul Mellon Research Support Grant and a Francis Haskell Memorial Fund Scholarship. She is a Trustee of the Colin Holden Charitable Trust, which supports scholarship, exhibitions, and publications focused on prints and printmaking. 

Maria Karageorge, University of Sydney 

Maria Karageorge completed her Honours in Art History at the University of Sydney, after graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies) majoring in Marketing. She was awarded the Francis Stuart Prize for her work on Export Art and visuality in eighteenth-century Canton. Her research interests include the early modern decorative arts of China and South-East Asia, material culture, and women’s histories. She has worked for Bonhams Australia and volunteered for the National Art School and the Powerhouse Museum. In 2021, she worked with the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ public programs team to produce video content for ArtExpress. 

Samantha Happé, University of Melbourne 

Samantha Happé is a PhD candidate and Graduate Research Teaching Fellow at the University of Melbourne in the art history department, and a Research Officer through the Australian National University. Samantha’s current research project studies the role of the gift in negotiating diplomatic relationships between France and non-European nations during the reign of Louis XIV. Her doctoral thesis examines the visual and material culture surrounding the Persian embassy to Versailles in 1715.

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