A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Victorian Dining

I recently purchased an Etruscan Corn patterned bud vase. In my 25+ years of buying majolica I've only seen two others so naturally I was thrilled to have the opportunity to pick one up for myself. It's probably the most unusual of the Etruscan Corn pieces as it's the only one that was modeled directly from a corn cob. This is a tiny vase, very delicate in its potting, only 4" in height  and an inch in diameter, but very detailed in the modeling of each and every corn kernel.

This led me to think of how different the food of the Victorians was from that we know today. I don't know if this was the standard size of a corn cob then but if it was it's probably about half the size of the hybrid corn we eat today. So many of the foods we know today were unknown then and so many others were new. Others were common for the time but practically extinct today. Sardine boxes, celery vases, strawberry servers, and ice cream sets were all created to feature these new foods on the Victorian table. But not only was the food different, the way they ate was very different as well.

For Victorians, dining was an art with each course it's own work of art. The dining services alone could be huge with each setting consisting of up to 24 pieces, between the china, silver and crystal all tailored for a specific purpose.

In Martin Scorsese's 1993 film of the Edith Wharton novel The Age of Innocence, set in the 1870's, Scorsese took great pains to try and communicate this high Victorian preoccupation with the elegant preparation and serving of food.

As is shown in the film, Victorian meals were astonishingly complex with twelve courses commonplace per meal. Here is a suggested menu for Christmas dinner from Francatelli's The Cook's Guide and Housekeeper's and Butler's Assistant, the Martha Stewart's Entertaining of its time:

Turtle soup
Turbot à la Vatel
Fillet of soles à la Tartare
Roast turkey Perigueux sauce
Braized ham à la jardiniere
Spiced round of beef
Marrow patties
Salmis of pheasants à la financière
Sweetbreads à la St. Cloud
Mutton cutlets a la vicom
Roast Woodcock
Roast Grouse
Mince pies
Plum pudding
Broccoli with Parmesan cheese
Salad à la Rachel
Punch jelly
Italian cream
Croûtes à l'ananas
Meringue à la Parisienne.

This is the world majolica was made to service, something to keep in mind as you make your way through the fish services, oyster servers and spoon warmers made in majolica.

By the way, I did spot a piece of majolica in the movie. It is a blended glaze majolica jardiniere of the type made by dozens of manufacturers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It can be seen in the photo below, behind star Michelle Pfeiffer.

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