Wednesday 5 December 2012

Feast Your Eyes

A sugar paste church based on one originally made for Queen Victoria;s ball supper in Hatfield House in 1845
I spent a great deal of time this summer working on Feast Your Eyes, the Fashion of Food in Art, an exhibition at the marvellous Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in County Durham. If you do not know this extraordinary place, which is one of the best kept museum secrets in Britain, make an effort and visit it. You will return again and again. It is a world class museum in the  beautiful market town of Barnard Castle in Northern England. It is on a South Kensington scale. It is the third exhibition there that I have worked on over the years. I was also the guest curator in 2003 of a spectacular show called Royal Sugar Sculpture and worked with decorative arts curator Howard Coutts in 1994 on the seminal food history exhibition The Tempting Table. In the last twenty years, the Bowes Museum and Fairfax House in York have led the field in food history exhibitions. What we did in those early shows set a worldwide trend among decorative arts curators. This is why I keep getting asked by institutions like the Met in NYC, MFA in Houston and other major American museums to work with them on this fascinating area. I am writing this in my hotel room in Minneapolis, where I will start setting up a lovely exhibition on dining in renaissance England entitled Supper with Shakespeare which opens at Minneapolis Institute of Arts on December 13th. It is going to be spectacular. My next post will be about the show.

It has been a great deal of fun setting up Feast Your Eyes with the Bowes Museum team. And what a selection of paintings relating to food and other works it is, the majority from the Bowes collection. A stunning Peter Aertsen of market traders washing vegetables was specially restored for the show. You can see videos of the actual restoration on the Bowes Museum blog, but the crown must go to the 'breakfast' table still life by Jacob van Hulsdonk, which is a striking example of the work of this early seventeenth century Antwerp school artist. He was a contemporary of Osias Beert and the wonderful Clara Peeters, two other important artists working in the city who specialised in painting dining settings of this kind. His work deserves to be better known. He painted a very similar, though less ambitious study which can be seen in the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede in Holland. Both celebrate simple merchant class meals, a plate of trotters, some rye bread and a glass of weissbier. They must also be among the earliest European paintings which depict Chinese porcelain being used on a table. The same knife with a decorative handle appears in both pictures. Was this a studio object? Or is it the actual knife with which the artist ate his food. I have noticed that other early Netherlandish masters, such as Clara Peeters and Pieter Claez repeatedly depict the same knife in their works too. Was it a kind of signature? I have said this before, but during this period you carried your eating knife around with you and it was frequently one of the more valuable objects you owned, just as much a treasured item of jewellery and not just an implement to spear your meat on. You flaunted it, just as some people nowadays flash their iphones and blackberries, (though I hope you don't do this at the dinner table).

Jacob van Hulsdonk, Still life. Antwerp. 1615. Courtesy of the Bowes Museum.
Jacob van Hulsdonk, Still life. Antwerp. 1615. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Twenthe.
Josephine Bowes, Bodegón. Oil on Canvas. Photo Syd Neville - courtesy of Bowes Museum
In a similar vein is a much later food still life by the co-founder of the museum Josephine Bowes, actress, art collector and a fine painter herself. Since the gadrooned copper cauldron is still in her collection, with some help from Sue Hall and John Hudson, we were able to recreate the table top arrangement of objects which Josephine worked from - still life imitating art if you like!

However, my main task was to have a go at bringing to life a tiny little watercolour of a ball supper in the collection of Hatfield House. This anonymous and unassuming work depicts the marble hall at Hatfield set up with trestle tables covered with food and floral arrangements

It depicts an actual event at Hatfield House attended by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1845. It is one of those rare things, a painting of food being consumed in an English setting. We printed an enlargement of the painting so it completely covered a wall and then set up a table in front of this covered in the typical delights of a high status ball supper. The painting shows a pie in the form of a castle emblazoned with Victoria and Albert's initials and also a sugar paste church, which was probably made by a London confectioner especially brought in for the occasion called Ferdinand. I made both for my recreated table. The Hatfield archives have a very large and particularly detailed account book with entries made at the time of this visit listing the extraordinary amounts of provisions and beverages consumed during the event. While the aristocratic guests enjoyed their supper, the estate workers and poor of Hatfield were treated at Lord Salisbury's expense to a huge ox roasted on a spit in front of the house.

The Hatfield House ball supper. Photo Syd Neville - courtesy of Bowes Museum

A section of the exhibition relating to tea and sugar consumption - Photo Syd Neville - courtesy of Bowes Museum

General view of exhibition. Photo Syd Neville - courtesy of Bowes Museum 
A jelly depicting the early Queen Victoria with its mould made by Ivan at a demonstration on Victorian food he did at the opening of the exhibition.

Feast Your Eyes is on until Sunday 6th January. For more details go to the Bowes Museum website
I an giving a lecture there on the 4th January called - 

The Twelve Days of Christmas
4 January, 2.15, £6.00
Join critically acclaimed food historian Ivan Day for this animated & energetic lecture and food demonstration to complement the current exhibition, Feast Your Eyes: The Fashion of Food in Art. Booking required on 01833 690606.

Don't miss it!


  1. Wow! Love the posts and wonder what the Victoria jelly tasted like?

    1. It tasted pretty good. The lower section was made with a very light raspberry and lemon jelly while the young monarch's profile was moulded with a maraschino Bavarian cream. The process of devouring a an edible cameo representing the ruling monarch at a patriotic Victorian dinner party must have been interesting. Did the hostess ask her guests, 'Can I tempt you with an ear, a regal chin, a Sax-Coburg Gotha nostril perhaps?

  2. I now regret not splurging and traveling to Minneapolis to see the exhibit and hear Ivan's talk!

  3. Your blog and your wonderful installations are always a source of inspiration for me. thank you very much.
    My (re)production is not so tasty! it is more fibrous!
    Madame Tricot by Tricotgourmand

  4. I have always wanted to see a cameo style jelly, having been intrigued by the moulds. It looks splendid, the opaque against the translucent pink!