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Design and Material Culture

Alyssa Myers

Alyssa Myers is a recent MA graduate from the V&A/RCA History of Design Programme. She specializes in 17th and 18th-century decorative arts, ceramics and interiors - which can clearly be seen in her MA dissertation: 'My first and last thought is, how it will look: Dining in the Eighteenth-Century British Country House. She earned her bachelor's degree in art history, with a minor in french, from the University of Texas at Arlington. While it was a more traditional art history programme, Alyssa was able to explore her interest in decorative arts through a paper on quattrocento maiolica as well as on a paper analyzing the interior elements of a Mughal miniature painting. She has a passion for bringing art and design history to everyone which can be demonstrated through the design history blog for a non-academic audience that she co-created, Out of Touch, Out of Time. She has several years of museum experience working as a gallery attendant at the Amon Carter Museum of Art in Texas and through her time at the V&A. She is an experienced researcher and cataloguer and has presented her research on formal dining in the eighteenth-century British country house at international conferences, workshops and research forums.

Alyssa is an active member in the Association of Historians of American Art, the American Ceramic Circle, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the English Ceramic Circle, the French Porcelain Society, the Furniture History Society, and the Historians of Eighteenth-Century Art & Architecture. She is also an emerging scholar with the French Porcelain Society's Emerging Scholars Programme.

Alyssa is currently reading The Beau Monde by Dr. Hannah Greig and Ceramic: Art and Civilisation by Paul Greenhalgh.

Image: A Dinner Party, Marcellus Laroon the Younger, ca. 1719-1725, oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

Since graduating in December of 2020, Alyssa has been busy gaining experience and professional development. This has included presenting her research at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) 2021 Annual Conference, the French Porcelain Society's Research Forum Chinamania as an emerging scholar, the Association for Art History's 2021 Annual Conference and BSEC'S Work, Rest and Power: Architecture, Space and Political Life 1500-1815 workshop.

She was recently working as a contract catalogue assistant with Colnaghi Art Gallery and Archives in London cataloguing the Old Master stock books. Over the span of four months, she entered data for over 1,500 handwritten stock book entries dating back as early as 1911 (which greatly increased her paleography skills). By the end of Alyssa's contract, she had finished half of the stock books and was able to move on to cataloguing the loose photographic files that corresponded to the individual paintings for further experience. She also contributed some of her findings to the communications department in the form of Instagram posts and a short article.

Alyssa's current research takes the research she conducted from her dissertation and her passion for ceramics and transplants it from England to America (much like herself) to explore the early American identity through formal dining and material culture. She asks whether Colonial Americans used English customs, food and ceramics in the creation of their own unique 'American' identity or to reject their former 'British' ties.

Tureen, Cover and Stand — ca. 1755, Chelsea Porcelain Factory, London, soft-paste porcelain, painted in enamels, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
'Rough preliminary drawing made for publication for various items of furniture’, including the sideboard — 1774, Kenwood, Hampstead, Robert Adam, © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, SM Adam volume 3/29
Salt Cellar — 1752-1756, Nicholas Sprimont (modeller), Chelsea Porcelain Factory, London, soft-paste porcelain, painted in enamels, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
‘Chimney Piece in China Closet’ — Edward Edwards, 1781, watercolor, ink and wash, from A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, 1784, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Abstract

           A focus on the eighteenth-century British country house dining room as a unique, specialized and ideological space, where both formality and theatricality were intertwined, had largely been unexplored. The dining room as a space solely for the purpose of eating, was a relatively new concept. Previously, dining in state took place in the ceremonial great hall. The inception of the state dining room followed on the increasing sociability and informality of the country house in the eighteenth-century; however, dinner itself remained exclusively formal. This dissertation focused on the great dinners held in these houses. Positioned around the relationship between the host, guest and later servant, it analyzed the uniquely formal space designed and maintained through ritual, hierarchy and Taste. The consumption of material culture was a principal framework used based on the sheer variety of commodities present within the dining sphere. From glass to silver to porcelain, on and off the table, these specially designed objects were ever present. Due to the materiality of the formal dinner, a material culture perspective to design history underpins this research which asked how the upper echelons of society engaged with the experience of dining, as well as the dining material culture present in the eighteenth-century British country house and villa. This dissertation utilised a material culture perspective to understand the way in which dining-related objects could perpetuate elite behavior, namely notions of etiquette, politeness, Taste, sociability and identity. This study also looked at the domestic servants by questioning the significance they had in the formation of the formal dinner and the role they played within the elite ideologies. The interdependent relationship between the host, guest and servants further underlined this research.

Chapter one ('Space') investigated the meaning and construction of space surrounding dinner, analyzing how the ideology of dining went beyond the dining room. Chapter two ('Display') focused on the themes of theatricality and artifice inherent in the design of the table display. Chelsea trompe l’œil porcelain served as a material lens in which to view the performance of and conformity to prescribed social norms. Chapter three ('Servants') was centered around the servants, both in the dining room and behind the scenes, with an in-depth analysis on the role of the footmen.

Medium:

RCA and V&A History of Design MA Dissertation

Size:

21,324 final word count

'Spilling the tea on the history of design'


Out of Touch, Out of Time is an un-academic and informal blog where Alyssa and Abi chat about different aspects of the history of design. Blog post topics range from 'The History of Acceptable English Cleavage' to 'Saucy Sexuality' (a look at a very sexy seventeenth-century sauceboat). During a Unit 3: History as Public Practice lecture going over different types of projects students could complete to satisfy the requirements, Abi texted Alyssa 'We should start a blog.' And the rest is history.

For Alyssa, this blog was a way in which she could present all the new information she was learning from her research in a way that anyone could understand and engage with. No special academic vocabulary required. The driving force for her was really her mom, who has been incredibly supportive of her work and has always wanted to learn more, but, like most people, does not have a design history background. Ultimately, Out of Touch, Out of Time became a way for Alyssa and Abi to simply have fun exploring different topics and have even more fun throwing academic writing out of the window (temporarily, of course).