Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Entertaining like an Earl, 1738

Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Isabella/Susan* reporting:

Display was an important part of elegant Georgian dining. Not only did the food have to be properly composed and the conversation scintillating, but every spoon and serving dish was required to show the host's excellent taste. A lavish display of silver and gold plate made a glittering presentation by candlelight, literally reflecting the host's wealth. (Here are some excellent photographs of a splendidly set Regency-era dining table from our friends at Attingham Park.) My favorite fact regarding candlelit dining: a table blazing with candles still only had about as much light as a single 100 watt light bulb. The more gleaming surfaces to reflect that candlelight, the better.

This soup tureen, above, along with other silver, was made c 1737 by London silversmith George Wickes for Thomas Watson-Wentworth (1693-1750), then Earl of Malton, and created 1st Marquess of Rockingham in 1746. A prominent Whig politician, the marquess was enlarging and building his vast Yorkshire country seat, Wentworth Woodhouse, below, and it's likely that this silver was commissioned in anticipation of the level of entertainment planned for the remodeled  house.

It's certainly an impressive piece, and I like imagining all the sumptuous meals this tureen must have served. It's large (my guess is about 20 inches long or so) and must be so heavy that, when filled with soup, it would have required a very strong-armed footman to bear it from the kitchen to the table.

The museum placard describes it well: the tureen's "body has the trappings of this opulent style: cast fruit and floral swags on the cover, banded reeding at the body's neck, and legs with lion mask attachments and ball-and-claw feet, as well as other sculptural elements, which not only proclaim Watson's rank but also lend great visual interest. His arms within the collar of the Order of the Bath are applied to either side. His crest of a griffin passant stands atop the cover and, in variant form, serves as the handles for the body."

I wonder if anyone ever noticed the soup?

Top: Soup Tureen, George Wickes, London, 1737-1738, silver. Collection, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 
Below: View of Wentworth Woodhouse by Thomas Allen, c 1828-1830, illustration from A Complete History of the County of York by Thomas Allen.

*Why the double name? All is explained here.


Hels said...

Great top photo. Only 30 years earlier, silver objects for the dining room were just as stunning and just as expensive, yet were far simpler.

The owners and their 1738 contemporaries must have explicitly asked for cast fruit and floral swags, banded reeding, legs with lion mask attachments, ball-and-claw feet etc.

Julia said...

Great entry and I love the link! The images are so evocative. And the best thing: electric candles that flicker!

The soup tureen is amazing and scary at the same time to me. All the work it must have been to keep it clean with those elaborate decorations! And the money it must have cost - how many years earnings of one of the tenants on the land? I can never quite help thinking of the contrast between the elegant "big" people to whom all those decorations were second nature and their tenants who never got to see them in their lives - well, except of course if it was their job to polish it. ;) Two sides of a coin.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hels, I have to think it was simply a case of more is...more. There's other silver being made at this time that's still simple and elegant in design, but I don't think simplicity is what the earl was after.

And thank you for complementing the photo! No doubt because this tureen is so valuable - not only for its artistry and history, but for the intrinsic value of that much silver - it's protected behind a double-layered glass that was a real challenge for my camera.

Julia, I wish I did know how much this tureen cost. I have to think it was a staggering amount, esp. considering that it was only one piece in the commission. As for the servants who had to polish it - I suppose that was one more aspect of the display. The earl could afford to buy the silver, afford to entertain with it, and afford the servants to maintain and protect it.

Anonymous said...

That is just beautiful! History of food is very exciting if you can just get into it. At this time, display was certainly more important than anything else. Whatever was expensive would have the pride of place, whether or not it was actually useful, or to anyone's liking. Just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. :D

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