This is one of my favorite paintings of Charles II. I like it primarily because he's dressed in the expensive but restrained style and sober colors that he preferred for everyday, rather than in those over-the-top robes of state. I also like it because it's a quirky picture. Kings are always being presented with gifts, and here Charles and a couple of his numerous spaniels are receiving not a priceless jewel or golden trinket, but a pineapple. The giver is John Rose, the royal gardener, and his offering is proof of the rarity and value of pineapples in 17th c. England. The pineapple had earlier been brought to Europe from the Caribbean by Columbus, but it remained an exotic treat, grown only with care in greenhouses, and, apparently, by royal gardeners.
All that makes sense, history-wise. But sometimes the caption on this picture includes a bit more, about how the pineapple represents Charles's reputation for royal hospitality. Most of us would accept that, too. Everyone knows the pineapple as a symbol for hospitality. The fruit turns up everywhere, from cocktail napkins to Christmas decorations, always waving its spiky top in welcome.
But it turns out all those holiday napkins are wrong. One of my favorite history blogs, History Myths Debunked, recently performed a most thorough debunking of the hospitable pineapple. Seems that while pineapples do turn up as 17th and 18th c. decorative motifs, they're used for their exoticism rather than as official greeters. More perplexing is how Dionysian pine cones are often mistaken for pineapples – though I have to admit the examples are convincing.
Even the most famous pineapple in 18th c. Britain – the Earl of Dunmore's fanciful 1761 garden pavilion (aboveright) – has been included in the debunking. A birthday present for the countess, the pavilion was designed to represent power and wealth, not hospitality. As one commentator notes, "The earl built it because he could." The pineapple on the tower reflected the hothouse on the ground floor, where pineapples were in fact grown for the kitchens of Dunmore House.
So there it is: the truth about historical pineapples. But whether pineapples are welcoming or not, I have to think that the guests of both Charles II and the Countess of Dunmore were mightily pleased when, on a chilly winter night in London or Scotland, this golden taste of the tropics appeared on the supper table.
Top: Charles II Receiving a Pineappleby Hendrik Danckerts, 1675. Copy of an original in the Royal Collection. Lower right: The Dunmore Pineapple, 1761, Dunmore Park, Airth, Scotland
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.