Curating the Table
Art of the Table, NGV International
As the year wanes, and thoughts turn to preparations for the Festive Season, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (International) provides both insight, and possibly some inspiration, as to dining traditions, tableware and the foodie etiquette of centuries past.
Discussing the link between food and art in Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999), Professor Carolyn Korsmeyer writes, “Certainly food does not qualify as a fine art; it does not have the right history, to make a complex point in shorthand. Culinary art can still be considered a minor or a decorative art, or perhaps a functional or applied art (for we should not minimise the fact that eating is a daily aspect of living in the most literal sense of that term)”. But while food degrades, art endures, and the beautiful receptacles devised to contain and enhance the pleasures of the table fortunately remain to tell us about the cultural and aesthetic preoccupations that inspired their production.
Drawn principally from the NGV’s exceptional and diverse collection, with the addition of nearly twenty loans, Art of the Table (until 31 December, 2014) is the concept of Amanda Dunsmore, Curator of Decorative Arts & Antiquities, and Dr. Matthew Martin, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts. “We wanted to tap into the vibrant food culture in Melbourne and throughout Victoria, and marry this with the strength of the NGV’s decorative arts collections which are rich in historical objects relating to dining and social practices around food, its preparation and particularly its presentation”, Dunsmore says.
The earliest work in the exhibition is an Italian Spoon (c. 1450) of silver, agate and enamel from an era when diners brought their own utensils to a function, and these implements denoted the owner’s level of wealth and social position. The most contemporary work is a Cylinda-line tea and coffee set (c.1965) by Arne Jacobsen for the Danish firm of Stelton, which demonstrates how streamlined modern design emphasises functionality and mitigates the maintenance requirements of previous eras. Stainless steel gives a shiny metallic surface reminiscent of silver, but without the tedium of constant polishing.
The entertaining and evocative tableaux belie the challenges faced by the curators in realising quite a complex project within the parameters of what the exhibition space, and the permanent collection itself, can support. “A major strength of the Decorative Arts collection is table wares of the eighteenth century, especially British material. This is really an accident of collecting. Most objects produced in ceramic, glass or metal ware which end up in a collection like the NGV’s are objects designed for dining.”
“Given the abundance of material, the theme of dining practice seemed like a coherent story we could explore”, Martin explains. “The variety of display strategies employed in this show is a response to the limitations of the available space; fifteen identical glass cases in a row can be quite monotonous for the viewer. Introducing variety to create visual rhythm in the viewing experience is important. Another important consideration is the creation of atmosphere, if you can achieve that within a display, half the work of interpretation is done- you already have the viewer thinking along the lines you want, and they will see objects in a different way”.
Dunsmore and Martin worked closely with exhibition designers John Eccles and Katherine Horseman to achieve the desired presentation for the works in the show. “Even during installation we had to sacrifice a few works to fit the final displays. We worked very closely with our exhibition designers to conceptualise each case and the individual display requirements. The show is very theatrical and some of the design aspects took quite a lot of working out and time to install … Overall, the installation of the show took a good month to six weeks”, Dunsmore relates. “The designers take the concept and then translate that into usable display fixtures. This involves considering all sorts of materials and techniques that can be used to make our ideas a workable, concrete reality”, Martin agrees. “They have to consider cost, the safety of the works on display, ease of fabrication and so on. This can be a time-consuming process – sourcing materials, trialling ideas – and expensive too; that’s one reason why only a few cases get selected for such treatment. It also needs to be a case and theme where the treatment actually adds something to the interpretation of the material”.
This attention to detail is amply demonstrated by a case devoted to cutlery and its evolution from the Renaissance to the very late seventeenth century. At this time the practice of acquiring sets of cutlery, to provide for guests’ use at a meal, as opposed to them bringing their own set, began to take hold in polite society. During the eighteenth century specialised forms of cutlery began to develop for eating and serving particular types of food. “A case full of knives and forks could be quite tedious, visually. But by introducing a display idea which is a bit unusual – a tablecloth being pulled off a table – you create visual interest, as it looks very different to the cases before and following it”, Martin contends. “You also create a bit of drama and a compelling way to present the objects. This is a dining table we are looking at, so everything in the case, even if they are of a form you might not be immediately familiar with, is something … that you might find on a dining table”.
To a certain extent, Art of the Table also demonstrates the way in which some collections within an institution can compensate for others by filling the visual gap, as it were. The NGV does not, for example, have many historical paintings that depict aspects of dining, nor is it strong in immediately relevant images. Still Life With Fruit (c.1640-50) by Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606-84), hangs in the 17th Century & Flemish Paintings Gallery, alongside Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Glasses and Fruit (1663). Both works are referenced as part of the seventeenth century dining feature within the exhibition. From the 1640s, de Heem was the most important and influential still-life painter in the Netherlands. He invented a painting style known as pronkstilleven, or ‘sumptuous still life’, which was widely copied, though few could match de Heem’s technical brilliance. Kalf (1619-93), developed the banketjes or ‘little banquet pieces’ style of painting into a novel form of pronkstilleven by combining rich groupings of objects (gold and silver vessels, glass and Chinese porcelain) upon a table draped in damask or fine tapestry.
The establishment of seaborne trade routes to the Americas and to Asia in the sixteenth century saw a range of exotic new commodities enter Europe for the first time in significant quantities during the seventeenth century. Important amongst these was porcelain from China and Japan imported by the Dutch East India Company, which became enormously popular acquisitions for Europe’s wealthy elite. As demand exceeded the volume of imports, European ceramic manufacturers, especially in the Netherlands, began to produce tin-glazed earthenware imitations of the imported porcelain. The town of Delft became synonymous with this style of tableware, the blue and white palette and fanciful decoration echoing the imported Ming and early Qing dynasty porcelain. Dutch and German glassmakers also produced imitations of the sophisticated glassware made in Italy, creating façon de Venise glass (glass in the Venetian manner). A superb example of this style, Serpent-stem goblet
Flügelglas (early 17th century), is the type of delicate and refined vessel intended for use in formal banqueting situations, and immortalised by artists in paintings of sumptuous tableware and victuals.
The arrival of tea, coffee and chocolate in Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century prompted the development of new wares to serve and imbibe these beverages. All three were initially marketed as medicinal preparations and curiosities before becoming drinks of daily consumption. Tea was imported from China and made its first appearance in England during the early 1660s. It was often promoted as having exceptional health-giving properties, and capable of curing innumerable ills. By the early eighteenth century, however, the taking of tea had developed into a highly fashionable pastime. The convivial repast of ‘afternoon tea’ is credited to Lady Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857), in the mid-1840s. As a means to refresh herself over the long afternoon before dressing for dinner, the Duchess began inviting her friends to join her for tea served with sandwiches and cakes. Porcelain manufacturers responded to the growing popularity of this social ritual, adopted by numerous middle and upper class households, with new sets of tea ware and table accessories.
By the mid-seventeenth century coffee had been introduced to Britain from the Middle East, and by 1652 the first coffee house had opened in London. Chocolate made its way to Europe from South America in the early seventeenth century via the Spanish and Portuguese. In 1615, the custom of drinking chocolate was introduced at the French court by Anne of Austria (1601-66), daughter of the Spanish King Philip III (1578-1621), who had recently married Louis XIII (1601-43).
Like coffee, chocolate was consumed by a broader cross-section of society than tea, yet its popularity developed more slowly, possibly because it was more expensive than coffee and its preparation comparatively complex.
Writing under the pseudonym of Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, the French doctor and antiquary Jacob Spon (1647-85) compiled his Traitez Nouveaux et Curieux du Café, du Thé et du Chocolate: ouvrage également nécessaire aux Médecins, et à tous ceux qui aiment leur santé (A New and Curious Treatment of Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate: a work equally necessary for Doctors, and all who love their health) originally as a small treatise in 1671, which was revised and augmented as a book published at The Hague the year of Spon’s death from tuberculosis. The exhibition uses the frontispiece from a subsequent edition of the book, “The tea, coffee and chocolate case employs a period print as a backdrop which illustrates early eighteenth century stereotypes about the origins and consumption of these imported beverages. The imagery adds to the contextualisation of the objects, introduces a real period source, and invites the viewer to consider a time when these beverages were still exotic and not the everyday commodities we deem them today”, Martin asserts.
The exhibition marks the début of a recent acquisition, Travelling Chocolate Service (Nécessaire de voyage) (c. 1765), produced in France. Conservation work was carried out on the leather and silk interior of this delightful portable coffer, which is displayed in a designated cabinet on the South balcony. “This set, with its white Mennecy porcelain, is an excellent complement to our outstanding holdings of eighteenth century white porcelain by a range of early French factories. It also represents an important class of object that was not represented in the collection”, Martin remarks. “These sorts of travelling sets, assembled by Parisian luxury goods dealers known as Marchands-Mérciers, were important markers of status in eighteenth century France, as much for display as for use. They gathered into a single case the basic necessities that one could not contemplate doing without, no matter where one was. This set, with equipment for two to take chocolate and one to dine, talks about sociability and dining for the individual of rank and discernment”.
Dessert, a word derived from the French desservir (to clear the table), is the course hankered after by many a sweet-tooth. It developed out of the mediaeval practice of consuming spices, wafers and sweet wine as digestives at the end of a meal. In England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this ritualised conclusion to the formal dining developed into an elaborate presentation of delicacies that came to be known as the banquet. ‘Banquet’ had two meanings at this time, the first one is still in use today, a grand meal. The second meant a dessert course often eaten in a designated house or a temporary space, which was intended to delight the eye as much as the palate.
Depending on the munificence of the host, such a course could incorporate a range of seasonal fruits, sweetmeats, syllabubs, suckets either ‘wet’ (fruit preserved in syrup), or ‘dry’ (fruit preserved in sugar and sometimes dried in the sun), comfits (seeds, spices and fruits coated in sugar), fancy biscuits and gingerbreads, jellies, and leach (strained almonds, new milk, spices and rosewater set with gelatin). The Italian writer and gastronomist Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina (1421-81), rhapsodised about sugar in his treatise De honesta voluptate et valetudine (On honourable pleasure and health), (c. 1465). “By melting it, we make almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts, coriander, anise, cinnamon, and many other things into sweets. The quality of sugar then almost crosses over into the qualities of those things to which it clings in the preparation”, he observed.
The most impressive and costly aspect of the dessert course would be a display of fanciful decorations; in Italy trionfi da tavola (‘triumphs of the table’), or ‘subtleties’, as they were called in England. Architectonic sculptures made of sugar or marchpane (marzipan), and amusing table figures made of sugar, or sometimes candied sesame and honey paste, generally followed allegorical, mythological, or historical themes. Sugar modelling paste was made from powdered sugar tempered with a mucilage of gum tragacanth, and had been used by confectioners since the late mediaeval period. In England it was known as sugar plate or gum paste, while in France it was called pastillage. Sugar was a compliant medium, but its ability to absorb moisture undoubtedly made these fragile and expensive sculptures highly perishable, and storing them presented a considerable challenge.
Trionfi da tavola could also take the form of precious metalwork objects like those made by Giulio Romano (1492-1546) for his patrons the Gonzaga family of Mantua, and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) whose famous Saltcellar (1540-43) was made for Francis I of France (1494 -1547). Once porcelain manufacturing had developed in Europe, porcelain figures gradually replaced their earlier sugar paste counterparts as table decorations. Turkish woman, sweetmeat dish (c. 1755) depicts an aristocratic woman, dressed as an exotic Turkish lady, and holding a large scallop shell that forms a small sweetmeat dish. Made by Derby, The four continents, figures (c. 1770), shows the development of these table decorations into something more durable. Today’s lavish wedding and themed specialty cakes replete with intricate sugar decorations remind us of these ‘edible art’ fantasies born of the Renaissance imagination.
By the eighteenth century when the display of the dessert course had reached its most extravagant expression, many of the same dishes and sugared confectioneries were just as popular, but had increased in sophistication and were not as labour-intensive to make. The proliferation of professional confectioners made hosting a large function easier on household preparation for those who could afford to outsource. Sweet courses were presented in shallow dishes, tazzas for elevation, tureens for stewed fruits, and pyramidal stands for candied and fresh fruits. The Venetian Covered Bowl and Stand (late 18th century) hints at its possible contents, the top decorated with a glass lemon with the leaf still attached.
The most fashionable sweet dish of the second half of the eighteenth century were known as ‘ices’, frozen confections that came in a large range of flavours and were made either as liqueurs glacées (a type of granita), or neiges (a sweeter version of modern ice-cream). A Wedgwood Ice pail (c. 1790) and a later Ice cream pail (c. 1810) by Derby give us some indication how ‘ices’ were stored and served. Typically, the pail contains an inner bowl in which the ice-cream would have been placed. The vessel would have then been packed with ice below the liner, and in the top of the deep lid, in order to stop the contents from melting.
The occasions for dining in the grand style increased during the Regency Period (1811-20) in Britain, prompting ever-more ostentatious table displays to impress invited guests. Previously, lighting had been restricted to candlesticks or table candelabra, but in the early nineteenth century the glass chandelier, a multi-branched candelabra suspended from the ceiling, made its appearance. The geometric faceting of the drops and prisms – a feature of glass during this period – served to magnify the flickering light of the candles, aided by the highly refractive nature of the English lead crystal.
Chandelier (c. 1810) would have been commissioned for the dining room of a grand country house or public building. The flamboyant celestial-themed design, with fine ormolu mounts featuring a woman’s face at the centre of a sunburst, and surrounded by starbursts, indicate that it would have been made by one of the leading manufacturers in England.
The placement of the starbursts in between the candles maximised the effect of sparkling light, and would have served to amplify the impact of other fine objects on the table, such as silver and gold vessels. The the play of light generated by the chandelier would have also enhanced both the array of glittering jewellery and the beautiful clothes adorning the assembled guests, making for a truly opulent evening. The curators have envisaged an Alice In Wonderland scenario, whereby the chandelier looms over a slanted chequerboard floor. A blue and white Miniature tea service (c. 1785), made by the Caughley Porcelain Manufactory in Shropshire, rests on a diminutive table.
Art of the Table concludes on the North balcony with something of an NGV collection favourite, a silver Epergne (1762-63) made by the London firm of Thomas Pitts. An epergne usually formed the centrepiece of the table, and the hanging baskets would have been filled with seasonal fresh fruit, nuts or perhaps a range of sugared confectioneries. This example is a masterpiece of silver smithing, and represents one of the most delightful manifestations of the mid-eighteenth century Rococo taste for chinoiserie. It is a fanciful representation of a Chinese garden pavilion, the apex crowned with a pineapple, considered to be an exotic fruit in the eighteenth century, and a symbol of welcome and hospitality. Bon appétit.
Art of the Table Decorative Arts Passage, Second Floor, NGV (International), 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne (VIC), until 31 December 2014 – ngv.vic.gov.au
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.