The ancient Roman orator Cicero [106 BC -43 BC] believed that ‘to style the presence of guests at a dinner table’ lay at the heart of civilised life ‘because it implied a community of enjoyment, a convivium, or ‘living together’.
Roman Emperor Nero (37 – 68) certainly embraced the art of fine living. It is reputed that when he entered his newly completed Domus Aurea (or Golden House), built in 64 AD he proclaimed, as he gazed upon its many splendours, words to the effect… ah, now at last I can live as a human being.
In its essence this idea, which has come down to us from antiquity, has always been at the heart of many of our ideas shaping traditions of hospitality and social and cultural development over the centuries.
Sharing a meal together today, whether around a campfire on a starry night out in the Australian Bush with the smell of the eucalyptus assaulting your senses or, seated at a beautiful mahogany antique table groaning with silver and crystal with a string quartet playing a tune by Mozart, can both be memorable experiences if they are thoughtfully prepared and presented.
The show will explore the aesthetics attached to the centuries old European tradition of dining at table, arranged for enjoying culinary delights.
Art of the Table will draw on the NGV’s superlative collection of decorative arts, many of which originally came from their significant bequest left to the state of Victoria, and NGV in particular, by merchant, importer, businessman and philanthropist Alfred Felton (1831-1904).
Giving dinner parties for centuries was the direct route for men of power and influence to obtain a sure and secure ‘footing in society’. Everyone endeavoured to own stunning accoutrements.
They were designed to deliver daily delicious dairy and desserts, as well as fortifying and fancy foods, especially imported luxuries of tea, coffee and chocolate so integral to fashionable eating, living and dining in style.
There was no better passport than gaining a great reputation for giving good dinners.
This not only involved the food, but also the hosts observing the minutest details of etiquette, the beauty of the setting in which they sat their guests, the way they were treated by their hosts whose aim was to ensure that those invited would feel welcome, relaxed and enjoy each other’s company and dining in style.
Alfred Felton had no direct descendants. He established a trust benefiting both charitable works and the community of Victoria.
The gallery team chose outstanding items from his personal collection for theirs, which today form the core decorative arts for their fabulous collection.
They also purchased amazing art works with a trust established with the modern day equivalent of over $35 million dollars.
French cuisine, French chefs and French style were the rage in Europe and England, while its language was that of diplomacy, and spoken at all the courts.
In England and Europe the emphasis on hospitality from ancient times until World War I meant having the right equipage was both a social duty and a splendid means of displaying one’s power and influence.
Everyone, whether rich or poor, took great pride in giving the best they could afford to all their visitors.
Gorgeous glassware, sensational silver, amazing porcelains, superb stoneware, crisply starched damask and sensational linens were all essentials.
Porcelain figurines and objet d’art decorated the table with glorious flowers arranged as if they had been gathered loosely from the garden to adorn the table. These all became de riguer for those in the know, and with the ready necessary.
Art of the Table will showcase a recent NGV acquisition – a mid-18th century French traveling service, (Nécessaire de voyage) designed to dispense chocolate, which will be on display for the first time.
The origins of the word “chocolate” came from an Aztec word “xocoatl,” which referred to a bitter drink that had been brewed from cacao beans.
The Latin name for the cacao tree on which the beans were produced was Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods.” Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed it had divine properties.
For much of its long history ‘chocolate’ was only a beverage that people drank, and sugar was not an additive. It was an active aspect of historical trade for centuries before sugar was added.
Chocolate means anything made from the ‘Cacao’ bean, while ‘cocoa’ is chocolate in powdered form.
Purchased by the NGV Supporters of Decorative Arts, 2012, the mediums used for the ‘chocolate service on display are porcelain, glass, silver, leather, wood, brass and other materials.
So in one fell swoop, you have a work of art that is representative of many disciplines.
The Mennecy Porcelain Factory, François Joubert (silversmith) and Louis Samson II (silversmith) are the main contributors.
The Mennecy manufactory was founded under the patronage of Louis-François-Anne de Neufville, Duc de Villeroy (1695-1766).
Produced from 1748 in the outbuildings in the park of his Château de Villeroy in Normandy, with workers from the nearby village of Mennecy, the soft paste porcelain wares produced there have great charm.
It particularly specialized in small figures, such as Harlequin and Columbine, characters from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte.
Amanda Dunsmore, Curator, International Decorative Arts & Antiquities, NGV, said: “Art of the Table will present a variety of exquisite ceramics, glass, cutlery and silverware that adorned the dining tables of the affluent from the 16th to 18th centuries.”
Superb porcelain dinnerware by Meissen, produced under the auspices of the Prince-Elector of Saxony ‘Augustus the Strong’, will also be on display.
The Meissen factory was the first to produce dinnerware’s made from European style hard paste porcelain, inspired by Chinese wares as Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony went on a passionate pursuit of princely power and prestige.
The result would inspire many other ceramicists in Europe and England to follow suit.
The Chelsea manufactory from England will also be represented.
It produced truly delightful soft paste porcelain wares.
Chelsea was a village on the outskirts of London at the time, famous for its plant nurseries and market gardens, notably its Physick Garden.
It was founded on land leased from Sir Hans Sloane in 1673 by the Apothecaries’ Company ‘for the cultivation of useful medicinal herbs and trees’.
Establishing a commercial factory in a residential area may seem strange to us now, however in 1743 the considerations were mainly those of commercial convenience.
Huguenot (Flemish protestant) silversmith Nicholas Sprimont (c1716-1771) lived in Chelsea and he and his partner Charles Gouyn set about making decorative pieces for the luxury market, often copying designs from Meissen in Germany or Vincennes and Sèvres in France.
In the early days of porcelain manufacture, a great many designs were taken from silver models, so there was a great advantage for Sprimont to extend his commercial interests, and to make more money.
Clearly watching contemporary television series such as Downton Abbey, which documents life upstairs and downstairs in great detail, including the art of dining at table both above and below stairs, has such a large influence worldwide.
It has brought ideas about dining together back into focus in the public arena for a whole new generation to discover.
Over the centuries every ancient culture on earth in its day has attributed the origin of agriculture to some beneficent deity. The Egyptians had Osiris, the Greeks, Ceres and so forth.
Somewhere along the line however humankind elevated his and, or her mind, to associate sociability with food.
Gradually over a long period time it evolved to represent and reflect their cultured, ‘civilised’ state... he may live without love, – what is passion but pining? But where is the man that can live without dining? *
The time for dinner varied enormously over the centuries. It was the principal vehicle for hospitality, as well as the main meal of the day.
In England it crept from 12 noon to 3 o’ clock by 1763 so that by 1784 it was at 5 o’clock.
In the country it was between 2 and 4, but by 1811 it was 7pm.
For a long time giving grand dinner parties were ranked as the first amongst all entertainments, having more social significance and being more appreciated by society than any other form.
Roman feasts originally had been given by the pontiffs of pagan Rome, men of exquisite delicacy and matured taste who earnestly believed they were.
In the countryside Romans would collect in the late afternoon when the air was not so hot, to recline and eat enjoying the panorama of the neighbouring countryside, which was presented, without obstruction, to the gaze of the guests.
It was a custom that has continued through history from their culture for two thousand years.
The Emperor Nero saturated the air with exotic perfumes and showered flower petals on his guests.
His bread, his ale were finest of the fine
And no one had a better stock of wine
His house was never short of bake meat pies
Of fish and flesh and these in such supplies
It positively snowed with meat and drink
The Art of the Table should not only attract a whole new generation to discover the art of dining at table, but also hopefully inspire them to innovate a whole new range of possibilities for dining well, with care and in style.
Entry is FREE.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
National Gallery of Victoria
28 February to 31 December 2014
10am to 5pm Daily
Matthew Martin, Assistant Curator, International Decorative Arts & Antiquities, said that each of the cases will exhibit dining wares developed for particular foods and beverages, such as imported tea, coffee and chocolate, medicinal and fortifying foods, and foods for the dairy and desserts. “We have developed themes to highlight a variety of dining practices. This will include the serious business of drinking with all the theatrical accoutrements; 18th century equipage relating to the newly imported luxuries of tea, coffee and chocolate; the invention of the porcelain dinner service showcasing a splendid Meissen service from a private collection and Renaissance dining featuring 16th century Venetian Maiolica plates and German stoneware. “Art of the Table will also compare traditional items from the 18th century with their contemporary counterparts in a case themed ‘then and now’,” Mr Martin said.