Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Putting the Pineapple in its Proper Place

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Susan reporting:

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 (above right) – 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 Pineapple by Hendrik Danckerts, 1675. Copy of an original in the Royal Collection.
Lower right: The Dunmore Pineapple, 1761, Dunmore Park, Airth, Scotland

16 comments:

Heather Carroll said...

How interesting; I had no idea!

Since it is common knowledge that pineapple=hospitality you would never challenge the idea. But now knowing that the motif was just another baroque-ian show of grandeur, that concept makes total sense.

Marilyn said...

I always found it odd that the rather homely but exotic Pineapple represented hospitality. I do like to see it in 18th century carvings though!

P. M. Doolan said...

Wouldn't the pineapple have also meant England's growing overseas power, especially in the Americas? Although Columbus might have brought the first one to Europe, the one offered to Charles may have been grown on English territory, or at least carried from the Americas on an English ship.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Heather, I had no idea, either, and accepted the tradition/myth just like everyone else. But as is so often the case, once you start to THINK about it, it really doesn't make sense.

Marilyn, I like the pineapple/pinecone as a design motif, too, the whole geometry-of-nature thing. Though if you consider the symbolism, both make pretty interesting elements for bed-posts. *g*

P.M., yes, I'd imagine you're right. The (literal) fruits of conquest! I don't know if this particular pineapple made it all the way from the New World in the hold of a ship, though - I've read that some of those odd potted plants in the background around the fountain are supposed to be pineapples. As I said, one quirky picture...

nightsmusic said...

I love pineapple! I just don't think I'd want to live under one. I can believe the "he built it because he could" comment, but...wow.

ILoveVersailles said...

Oh, that pineapple folly is too divinely mad! Wish someone would give me one for a birthday present.

LaDonna said...

I really liked the bit about how this whole urban legend originated with the pineapple growers industry in the 1930s. Be a good hostess! Roll out the pineapple! Kind of like the diamond miners and their b*s* "two months salary" guidelines for engagement rings. We're all suckers for marketing, aren't we?

KuriosityKat said...

Fascinating article. Who knew?
Now off to toss out all those pineapple-printed paper napkins and plates.

Cynthia said...

I just found out when I was visiting a historical society in Derby Ct that the folks back then, in the 18th century, used to leave a pineapple out on the front steps whenever a member of their household had returned from a sailing trip to the West Indies or Carribbean.
The pineapple on the doorstep meant that neighbors could come over and listen to tales about strange lands and foods the sailor had encountered. So, in that sense, it was a welcoming sign, a sign of hospitality.

Romney said...

I always assumed it meant you were wealthy enough to have hothouses to grow pineapples in. They grow well enough in the UK if you have the money to heat them.

Anonymous said...

I love this painting--Susan, who is the artist?
Notice how one of the epynomous spaniels is doing "play posture," demonstrating its affability and comfort around its owner, and at the same time, "bowing" down to royalty! Nice symbolic touch.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous, the artist is Hendrik Danckerts, a Dutchman who painted a number of fanciful English landscapes-with-figures during Charles's reign. The version I used here is a copy, and kind of brownish, but it was also one I could use without incurring any copyright-wrath via Wikipedia. For a glimpse of the much more vibrant original, you have to visit here, at the Royal Collection:

http://tinyurl.com/283n4xu

The bowing pup is in this one, too. :)

Anonymous said...

The pineapple is definitely a symbol of conscpicuous consumption. It represents wealth and power because it takes a lot of money, time and resources to grow these tropical fruits in decidedly not tropical climes. Other 17c paintings feature other fruits such as oranges and lemons because of the same themes. This is why they appear in Dutch still life paintings along with expensive tablecloths, glassware, china etc - because they are just as much a symbol of wealth and power as the expensive tableware. Also the English and French 17C royals had orangeries that they were particularly proud of. There is a famous portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria with a dwarf standing in front of an orange tree. NOTHING in a royal portrait is simply there by chance. The tree is there to represent power and wealth and possibly as a shout out to the House of Orange where she married her.

Keep the history going. We love it.

Cheers.

Jo H

nesta said...

isn't the thing that the pineapple was a gift in south america? that it was presented to the explorers etc etc as a gift and they bought that idea back with the pineapple, but of course, the rarity of them in Europe made that idea of hospitality rather a token as SO few people could have given the real thing. But one finds them carved into beds and other 'guest' furniture?

Anonymous said...

if one looks at the evolution of the Paisley design from the Tree of Life of India, one can see why a pineapple might be confused with a pinecone as well as with a symbol of life. Some might have thought hat denoted hospitality as well I think the story in is a Shire publication on Shawls.
Another interesting blog.
There are really a great many misconceptions around. I do like that painting as well.

William Huber said...

Hello Ladies, My name is Bill Huber and I'm writing a History/ Mystery about John Murray, the fourth Lord Dunmore and the last British governor of Virginia. I have lived all my life in Virginia and was always fasinated by Dunmore. It's very hard to find accurate information about his life in Scotland and your blog was very helpful. I would love to communicate with you further on this subject if that's okay with you guys. Thanks in advance, Bill Huber

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