The Painting of Modern Life: LS Lowry at the Tate Britain, by Helena Roy

When posters started popping up on the Tube for an exhibition of LS Lowry’s work, I was initially (and ignorantly) sceptical. I had only seen the work of this oft-derided artist on superfluous memorabilia, with his little matchstick men making a pretty background for various tea towels and notebooks. So I wandered through the Tate Britain with mild, unconvinced curiosity…

But LS Lowry is one of those artists that come to define the era they work in. To visit this exhibition is to be transported back to aftermath of the Industrial Revolution – from its noisy beginnings to polluted wane.

Though Lowry’s style is often mocked as cartoonish, the exhibition is serious and solemn. Similar work by (mainly French) contemporaries is displayed: York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester (1913), by Adolphe Valette, shows lights of perpetual industrialisation glowing in gloomy darkness; works by Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro and Maurice Utrillo further encapsulate the feeling of the period.

'York Street Leading to Charles Street, Manchester' (1913) by Adolphe Valette
'Outskirts of Paris' (1886) by Van Gogh shows a similar, dank industrialisation

Lowry enjoyed an affluent childhood, but his family experienced a distinct drop in social standing resulting in a move to the industrial suburb of Pendlebury. His reaction to his surroundings went from loathing to obsession. A solid Lancashire Conservative, his paintings are emotionally distant – perhaps reflecting discomfort with his ambiguous social class. Unique works stand out as offering some personal insight: pencil sketches with anomalous realism; and The Sea (1963) which, though not in the exhibition, is peaceful and organic in contrast to the man-made starkness of his typical landscapes.

'The Sea' (1963) by Lowry

But if Lowry’s paintings do not give a picture of the individual, they give a scenic view of society at the time. He said: ‘I have a one-track mind. I only deal with poverty. Always with gloom.’ Emotional remoteness makes his style an absolute political commentary. One review in 1928 called his work a ‘moral essay’. He shows the power of industrialisation when it has a shot at morphing society to suit its development. Cities are depicted where industry steadily crawls over culture – foundries, cotton mills, glass works all abut slabs of terraced housing, which increasingly resemble the blocks of the factories themselves.

'Oldfield Road Dwellings' (1927) by Lowry

Lowry shows the operatic clash between industrialisation’s frantic chaos and the steady British calm: he is at once humorous and bleak, affectionate and despairing. Paintings of churches – such as Saint Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury (1924) – show imposing, Gothic structures masked by industry’s black smoke and dwarfed by factories’ towers, as industrial values dominate the moral: this was the age of business and social mobility. A Football Match (1949) shows the integral role the Football League played in working class life from the late 19th century, and stooped men file into the stadium as they would the mill or mine.

'Saint Augustine's Church, Pendlebury' (1924) by Lowry
'A Football Match' (1949) by Lowry

His idiosyncratic ‘matchstick men’ are the stars of his landscapes. He resolutely believed ‘a country landscape is fine without people, but an industrial set without people is an empty shell.’ Lithe, moribund figures are actors on the stage of industrialisation. Clothed in gloomy drapes and caps, they walk with a slanting, tired intent, staring downwards as new constructions tower over them. Emotion is near-impossible to interpret, but Lowry admitted ‘they are symbols of my mood, they are myself. Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.’

The cold blankness of his subjects is reserved, but his paintings still communicate with the visitor. The Industrial Revolution is a static, intense period of our history – one we could never recreate. But Lowry’s work, though not melodramatic, conveys the period’s traditional, brusque nature. There is no warmth to be found when a tidal wave of industrial values is sweeping the nation: experiencing at once society decaying and industry thriving.

'Pit Tragedy' (1919) by Lowry

In later years he became more cartoonish – capturing the pop of post-war decades. Fun Fair at Daisy Nook (1953) crackles with a staccato of atypical colour, and Piccadilly Circus, London (1960) blares the perpetual Coca-Cola logo, meshing the start of Americanisation in post-war Britain with Lowry’s recognisable industrialisation.

'Fun Fair at Daisy Nook' (1953) by Lowry
'Piccadilly Circus, London' (1960) by Lowry

The grand finale of the exhibit is a series of five stunning panoramas, painted between 1950 and 1955 – the first time all have been united in one place. None are based on one location, but rather are amalgamated fragments of Lowry’s memory and imagination. This isn’t the history of one place, but the backdrop of all society. With soaring, stretching perspective they compound waste ground on bustling streets and industrious factories. Britain was an ordered wilderness of a society, thrown by the new industry thrust upon it.

Lowry’s retrospective imparts not only artistic spectacle, but an enlightening economic and social commentary. He was fascinated by the ‘battle of life’ and urban fabric. His vivid picture of the Industrial Revolution is an important part of our heritage that should not be neglected. No other artist faced the social change so persistently and characteristically. Though he polarises sentiments, even within a single painting, the intangible absence in his art is unique to experience. He interpreted the change that swept over the nation in a way photographs cannot: realism threaded with eerie confusion as to how this laborious volte invaded Britain.

With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC, the Guardian, culture24.org.uk and thedabbler.co.uk for photos.

‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ will be exhibited at the Tate Modern until 20 October. Details can be found at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/lowry-and-painting-modern-life.

Note

Lowry captured the Industrial Revolution in art, whilst others – most notably George Orwell – did so in other mediums. Boldly printed in the Tate’s rooms is this extract from The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), by Orwell. It describes the bleak, frigid, apocalyptic environment Lowry painted:

‘I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag heaps in the distance, stretched the “flashes” – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The “flashes” were covered with the ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore tears of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’

 

 

Hanging Out in Dalston House: Marie Naffah

 

Being an art history undergraduate, I know it’s probably a crime to admit that I don’t always feel like heading into central London to rub shoulders with flustered mothers tripping over their tired children who are bored of Gauguin and have seen enough Rodin and are ready to queue the hour and a half for a mediocre sandwich and well-needed cup of coffee at the gallery café. Sometimes, I’m not so keen to stand on my tip toes and crane my neck over the overexcited school children that surround Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

 

And before you ask – no thank you, I wouldn’t like a headset.

 

Cynicism aside, obviously, with these mainstream exhibitions that have been so ruthlessly executed down to the colour of the walls, it is understandable that everybody wants to climb into such a treasure trove of gems. But sometimes it can prove a little too much, hence why I was delightfully humbled after stumbling upon Leandro Erlich’s encapsulating, three dimensional pop up installation of Dalston House recently commissioned by the Barbican.

 

Above: First photograph of the cast of ‘Buoy’

Modest in its exhibition space, the work occupied an understated lot on Ashwin Street, displaying a Victorian façade of a terraced house that has been created on the ground. Through the placement of mirrors, the façade had been reflected, replicating a lifelike upright representation of a house as we know it. It’s a photographer’s paradise, toying with the different angles as members of the public lie on the ground pretending to hang, fall, jump and climb from the various windows and doors. I found the atmosphere of this ‘hands on’ project so very uplifting, and although the free admission meant there was a queue, time flew by as you watched each individual bring their own imagination to Erlich’s innovation.

 

Above: Second photograph of the cast of ‘Buoy’

For those that have read my previous entries, you will be aware that a recurring theme and personal fascination of mine is art’s ability to involve the viewer. Erlich takes this concept to a whole new dimension as the boundary between the work and its viewer is not only blurred, but indeed, fully abolished as we interlock ourselves within the spectacle, a powerful development of a common 17th century characteristic of creating a new found role of the viewer (As discussed in my previous blog which you can read here.) The facade itself was executed from the foundations of a house that had been bombed during the Second World War, lending the artwork the capability of linking past and present, as the artist unites contemporary society and historical architecture.

 

Above: ‘Pip’ – Digital Photograph with poster edges filter

A definite exhibition highlight of my summer, Dalston House left me wanting more amusingly perceptive works from the artist, for those days where you just crave something a little different.

For more information on Leandro Erlich and where to see his work visit his website.

Coppola-coloured: is there really so much difference between film and painting? AHA alum Julia Turner explores

If Sofia Coppola were a Renaissance painter, she would be Titian. Or maybe Tintoretto:  two painters whose mastery of colour and light were crucial to their artistic output. Their approach to painting represented the Venetian school’s insistence that colorito (colour), rather than Florentine disegno (drawing), was the key to recreating the essence of nature. Impossible though it may be, therefore, I think that if the two men were to watch Coppola’s Marie Antoinette over a bowl of pop-corn, they would nod in approval at her pistachio greens, duck egg blues, and accents of deep crimson and plum.

Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556-1559

 

Tintoretto, St Mark Working Many Miracles, 1562-1566

 

Still from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, 2006

Coppola’s debut feature film, The Virgin Suicides, paid equal attention to production design and light in creating a sense of theatricality, not dissimilar to Tim Walker’s fantastical photographs.

Tim Walker, Lily Cole, for Vogue UK, 2010

 

Still from Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, 1999

Another director who I love for his use of colour is Wes Anderson. His use of paint-box colours make his works instantly recognisable. In fact, Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic style inspired artist Beth Matthews to produce her own work, the Wes Anderson Film Colour Palette, in which she pulled together the colour treatments used across six of his feature films.

Poster Image for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, 2012

That said, Coppola’s films, also capture design or ‘disegno’. Since directors are able to use a camera to capture nature directly, they arguably have the ‘design’ box automatically checked before they even begin. What’s more, the photographic aspect of cinema can provide an opportunity for directors to focus especially on the composition of their frames. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles used monochrome to create kaleidoscopic, architectural shots that could stand alone as striking photographs.

Still from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane

On the other hand, through his symmetrical compositions Anderson’s use of colour becomes most evident and most efficient in balancing his frames. Similarly, both colour and design are put to work in Somewhere, Coppola’s meandering portrait of a famous actor living in the Chateau Marmont, whose life happens to him rather than the other way around. Curved and straight lines, repeating patterns, and clean-fishbowl-hues build up a considered portrayal of a place that almost feels like the set of a movie itself: somewhere with lots of charm but no personality.

Still from Wes Anderson, The Darjeeling Limited, 2007
Still from Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, 2006

I suppose in this way, film could resolve another Renaissance debate: whether painting or sculpture is the better art form. Michelangelo was able to master both and this is one of the reasons he was so celebrated. Not only can film offer both colour and a three-dimensional perspective on the figures, but it can go one step further, by introducing soundtrack and dialogue to flesh out the characters and add texture and tone to the piece such as with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony capturing the sweeping majesty of Tadzio’s beauty and von Aschenbach’s loneliness in Visconti’s Death in Venice or French rock band Phoenix’s cool nonchalance pervading Coppola’s Somewhere.

Still from Coppola, Somewhere, 2010
Still from Coppola, Somewhere, 2010
Still from Visconti's Death in Venice, 1971

So really, the medium that is most associated with modernity – the moving image of the Nineteenth Century, the talkies of the 1930s, and the music videos and blockbusters that dominate youtube and facebook feeds today – are actually involved in fulfilling a very traditional aim:

to capture the spirit, the sense, the essence of a thought, a feeling or a truth.

 

Notes from Venice: A summer student talks about one leg of the Northern II trip

My trip to Venice with Art History Abroad was glorious! The location of the hotel introduced me to a new and exciting area of Venice with which I was unfamiliar, allowing me to become delightfully lost in Venice’s intimate streets. For a large part of the group the aim was to become lost: you can only really appreciate Venice when you are in a state of mild desperation when the map has abandoned you and your bearings have failed.

 

Days in Venice were fascinating, visiting various Churches that boasted works by artists such as Titian, Bellini and Carpaccio. One of my favourite afternoons in Venice was my visit to the Accademia. The display of Gothic art in contrast to the later developed Renaissance Art was remarkable and with the help of the tutors this transition in art was explained effortlessly. However the teaching role was not always left to the tutors: student pairs were formed with the instruction to choose a curious painting to explore in front of the rest of the group. For my pair, ‘The Crucifixion of Ten Thousand Martyrs’ by Carpaccio was sufficiently curious to allow for a thorough exploration. Despite our ignorance of the event and having little knowledge of the artist, we were able to give a short presentation on our reaction to the painting.

Our evening lecture -told with glasses of ‘fragolinos’ in hand- allowed the group to fully appreciate our day ventures by associating the transitions in the style of art with the time period.

The Venice Biennale was a delightful contrast as a display of contemporary art. Meandering around the ‘Giardini de Venezia’ was wonderful; stumbling across the various countries’ entries and enjoying the cool shade provided by the trees. The group had different interpretations to the countries’ entries, allowing for good conversation on our thoughts. Despite differing interpretations on the exhibitions, the enjoyment of the morning at the Biennale was shared between all.

 

 

Our free afternoon after the Biennale allowed the group to branch out into all parts of Venetian life: some benefited from a relaxing time at the Lido, whilst others took advantage of the current Manet expedition held at the Doge’s Palace.

One of the highlights for me was our visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum on the final day in Venice. Its location on the Grand Canal made the group green with envy and the Modern Art was quite a contrast to the works we had seen before; yet there seemed to be themes running through, as if art was cyclical in nature. I loved their decision to display Peggy Guggenheim’s works of art alongside pictures of her in the house when she lived there.

 

On our last night the tutors arranged a picnic supper on the Punta della Dogana. The view of Venice at twilight was gorgeous. It was a great time to relax and reminisce (with hints of nostalgia) on the trip so far, while also feeling excitement for the next two cities.

Everyone loved our Venice stay; how could we not? The magnificent art, the charming city, the relaxed nature of the visit and the good nature of everyone involved meant that enjoying ourselves was simply inevitable!

 

With thanks to Helen Elston for putting together her memories of Venice, Summer 2013…

A letter from a Summer Student… Northern II 2013

We were so happy to receive such a nice letter from one of our summer students that we wanted to share it with you. Feedback like this makes all the hard work worthwhile ten-fold so thank you to James for his kind words.

Dear Nick,
I am afraid I failed to hand in part of my feedback form so thought I’d take the opportunity to write and thank you personally for organising such an unforgettable two weeks in Italy.

First and foremost I was struck by the levels of enthusiasm and dedication that the tutors (Helen, Andy, Tristan and Alex) displayed. They were able to inspire and enthuse myself and everybody else in the group with their knowledge and interpretation of the various forms of art that we encountered, and I was similarly impressed by their readiness to involve everybody in the group and ask for our observations. Our group numbering 21 must have also been something of a logistical nightmare (also being on the young side) and all the tutors showed remarkable levels of humour, fairness and patience, in dealing with what must have been some fairly trying situations.

I thought the balance between art and free time was just right, whilst the free evening in each city was an interesting change and allowed for a greater degree of independence (although I’m happy to say that our group showed no sign of any cliques and we all ate together on these occasions!!). Ultimately I am under no illusions as to how lucky I have been to go on your excellent course, which I believe is virtually flawless and I will certainly be recommending AHA to anybody who will listen!

Thanks again for coordinating such a fantastic course.

Best Wishes

James Monroe

 

An Evening at the Opera: Helena Roy attends London’s Open Screens…

It sometimes seems everything in London is gaining the prefix ‘pop-up’. Restaurants, cinemas, galleries and shops: you name it, and somewhere you can bet there is a temporary, compacted and quirky installation offering fleeting services.

Opera, however, was ahead of the curve. Pop-up screenings of Royal Opera House performances have been taking place for over twenty years across the UK. This summer, the ballet blockbuster Mayerling, Puccini’s La Rondine and Tosca all hit the big screen.

Ballet is a pretty popular spectacle, but opera has garnered a bit of a Marmite reputation. So the perfect way to see my first opera was to choose the iconic Tosca and watch it – G&T in hand, picnic at the ready – with friends, free of charge, in Trafalgar Square.

The fantastic thing about open screenings is how informal they are. As much as I love the Royal Opera House, it would have been hard to learn to appreciate opera in a stuffier,  more intimidating atmosphere. Outside, on a blistering hot day in Trafalgar Square, the ambiance was idyllic.

Everyone brought picnics, and laid out their blankets so we were packed into the Square like sardines. People were sharing food and opera trivia. Free and unticketed, everyone appreciated being there – a select few decided it was not to their taste and left before the final act, giving the remainder space to lie down and watch the tragic finale.

BP Open Screen in Trafalgar Square 2013

The sun set slowly – neatly imitating the chronology of the plot itself – but the evening was balmy, and with the National Gallery softly lit behind us and Nelson’s Column in front, the setting was as impressive and mighty as Rome was in Puccini’s masterpiece. In the first interval, one opera singer was whisked away from the stage of the Royal Opera House, fresh from his performance in the first act, to teach us the final verse of the superlative finale. Singing opera with the whole of Trafalgar Square – a man in priest’s vestments conducting us – felt surreal.

The view of the National Gallery during the performance

Tosca is brilliant. Its powerful story and intense emotion has all the Othello-esque drama Shakespeare can offer, combined with magnificent music. The backdrop of Rome in 1800 gives opportunities for ornate and splendid stage decoration: from a church filled with cardinals and priests, to a palace complete with winding golden railings.

Martina Serafin as Tosca, in the Royal Opera House's 2013 production

Blending passion, intrigue, murder, religion and revenge in one heady mix revolving around a love triangle, it is inescapably captivating. The eponymous star, beautiful soprano Tosca, is tragically torn between two men in a world of political intrigue, lust and love.

The finale of Act I of Tosca at the Royal Opera House

I would indubitably go and see Tosca again. But although I now know I like it, I still may not choose the Royal Opera House. The open screens were so enjoyable in the atmosphere and appreciation they created, that I would be sad to miss out.

Molière said ‘of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.’ In terms of this experience, it was not expensive, but priceless nonetheless. Enjoying outstanding cultural talent with a myriad of strangers, where the only thing that got you there is enthusiasm and the willingness to lose some time by queueing early, is a uniting and unique experience.

With thanks to the Royal Opera House for photos.

Melon Ice-cream and Travertine: A student’s impression of Rome

The capital of Italy was our final and busiest city visit. Before I get to the art, I’m going to have to mention a couple of the most amazing things that happened in Rome. First of all: Melon Ice Cream (ever tried it?), this is best when made by ‘GROM’ and if you ever have the pleasure of going to Italy, your trip will be incomplete without this life-changing substance. Secondly, travertine stone – I admit – I originally thought this quasi-sedimentary calcium carbonate was rather boring – but Helen Oakden’s enthusiasm eventually had our whole group caressing a travertine stone in the centre of Rome. We ignored the slightly startled passers by.

GROM...

Melon and Travertine aside, the art in Rome was beyond belief. The Colosseum and Forum let us dive beyond the world of the Renaissance and appreciate the ancient Rome that was beneath our feet and The Vatican City certainly lived up to expectations. A short tan-top-up for the girls as we queued outside lead us to the most incredible frescos, sculptures, architecture and paintings I’ve yet had the pleasure to see.

The Glorious Basilica of St Peter

 

Michelangelo's incredibly moving Pieta

St Peter’s Basilica was incomprehensibly large – the small letters around the base of the dome interior were in fact, we learned, each 2m high… and finished nearly 400 years ago. Not only is this place the largest church in the world, but also it is also home to Michelangelo’s genuinely moving Pieta. I had never seen my favourite fresco, Raphael’s The School of Athens (best fresco in existence), in the flesh, but when I saw it in the Vatican Palace for the first time I really did feel like I was meeting an old friend.

Raphael's 'School of Athens' in the Vatican Palace
Amazement at seeing the School of Athens, finally...

The two weeks had been good enough already, but it made them all the more worthwhile. To top the day off we had also seen some mind-blowing classical sculpture. Us boys in the group did feel jealous upon seeing the Belvedere torso…!

The Belvedere Torso in all is muscular glory

Of course it wasn’t all go – we did have some down time; the ever-knowledgeable tutors took us out to supper to a roof terrace restaurant which was great fun albeit bittersweet as we knew we were coming to the end of our trip.

Bernini's David in the Borghese Gallery
Outside the Borghese Gallery on our last day...

Our final day was in a similar vein; while we were all soaking up the atmosphere and some incredible sculpture (Berlini’s David is both very emotive and unfortunately overshadowed by Michelangelo’s) in the villa Borghese, everyone was sad to be saying goodbye to such an atmospheric city, and of course to each other. Rome, in the true sense of the word, was awesome, and I know that all of us will want to go back very soon.

With thanks to Hugo Dunn, student on our Northern II summer course 2013.

Kettle’s Yard- the first steps…by AHA alum Maddie Brown

 

This coming summer holiday, I am writing a long essay on Kettle’s Yard. For those of you unfamiliar with this Cambridge collection, it is neither a gallery nor a museum… Uniquely, it is described as a ‘way of life’.

 

Kettle's Yard house
Exterior of Kettle's Yard

 

In a quiet corner of Cambridge, a two minute walk from Magdalene College, Kettle’s Yard was originally the home of Jim Ede, previously an assistant director at the Tate and was intended to act as a balanced space where modern art would be displayed alongside domestic and natural objects. From the outside, the building looks as if it could be anyone’s house; the brown/yellow brick building is pretty but not all that inspiring. It is from within that inspiration flows; central to the interior space are the ideas of physical and atmospheric harmony as well as cultural dynamism.

 

There is a real focus on the layout of objects and art in each room; there has to be enough space so that the visitor does not feel enclosed and is able to appreciate the art and artefacts around them. Shapes and colours of art or objects are meant to compliment one another so as to ensure they are pleasing to the eye. Ede’s intention was to create somewhere that students and young people could enjoy modern art and feel at home in a tranquil space. He wanted to create a contrast to more austere museums or public art galleries.

 

I first came across Kettle’s Yard in circumstances that I think Ede would be satisfied with. It was the beginning of my second week at Cambridge. I had just begun as a bright-eyed fresher although was feeling overwhelmed thanks to the combination of late nights and a sudden swamping workload… plus the fact that I was essentially living off alcohol, coffee and cold baked beans. I felt like I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and relax since I had arrived. My trip to Kettle’s Yard was an hour of the week when I decided to take some time out and see what else Cambridge had to offer beyond the clubs, Sainsbury’s and the college library. I entered the house and immediately felt myself relax. My essay worries were put to one side and I sat in the ‘sitting room’ able to focus my mind on something completely different to the Norman Conquest (first essay at Cambridge=disaster). It was at this point, now nearly a year ago, that I was first inspired to look into Kettle’s Yard and I continue to appreciate the serenity that it helps to create.

 

Jim Ede

 

But for this long essay, a part of the paper named: the history of collecting’ I need to go beyond my personal feelings and the origins of Kettle’s Yard, to contextualise both the collection and the man behind it…but where to begin?

These blogs are going to be a little record of my progress, interesting things I am reading and hopefully those who read will learn something too.

Next blog: Reading the ‘Rise of the Modern Art Market in London 1850-1939’ by Fletcher and Helmreich. An insight into the changing presentation of exhibitions in the twentieth century and links with Kettle’s Yard.

 

 

 

Sources:

http://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/house/

An Exploration of Material Culture by AHA alum Julia Turner

For many, an interest in material culture grows from an aesthetic perspective. It was with the simple aim of spending as much time as possible staring at Botticellis and Berninis that I chose a paper on Early Modern Material Culture as part of my history undergraduate degree.

Botticelli's Angels

On studying the course, it soon dawned on me that I was still expected to consider wider structural and political issues, and Botticelli’s angels were probably far too busy drinking too much nectar to whisper the answers in my ear. Yet by considering the content and context of works of art as part of a wider catalogue of objects and buildings, and by exploring how their value and meaning are subject to their function as much as their form, the study of material culture can be as viable a form of historical study as the more traditional focus on written documents.

Federico da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo by Pedro Berruguete (c.1475)

It was on the basis of early modern inventories revealing a widening range of social groups buying non-essential goods that German social-historian Werner Sombart argued that the birth of capitalism took place in the fifteenth century. In turn, the elaboration of goods reflected the proliferation of wealth through society, as more people could afford luxury items. Already by the late fifteenth century, nobleman Federico da Montefeltro felt compelled to surround himself with references to his higher status in his portrait, including polished armour, a weighty book and an exotic shell.

Indeed, the content of material culture can bear powerful political messages: the radical sans-culottes of the French Revolution refused to wear the fashionable silk knee-breeches of the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries. In contrast, the nineteenth-century jeunesse d’oree wore seventeen buttons in their jackets in reference to the deposed Louis XVII and even sported wigs reputedly made with the hair of guillotine victims.

Le Stratageme Amoureux, ou la Toilette a la Mode, Anon. (1770s): A Frenchwoman is kissed by her elderly husband , while a procession of cupids climb a ladder along her ridiculously tall hair arrangement to deliver letters to her young lover above.

At the same time, material objects can reveal wider cultural trends, as well as contributing themselves to cultural norms and practices. The increasing criticism of the formal fashions of the French court as ‘feminine’ in the later seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries formed part of a shift of political power away from the court, as well as perpetuating the patriarchal gendering of political virtue as male. Similarly, the layout of cities reflected the interwoven nature of religious and secular life in the early modern period. For example, large, central and elaborate baptisteries, such as that adjacent to the Duomo in Florence, reflected not only their role in welcoming people into the Christian Church but also into the civic community.