Dining by Design: Nature Displayed on the Dinner Table, opening April 1, 2018, takes a fresh look at the history of dining and dinnerware from the 1600s through modern times and celebrates how hosts and hostesses have brought the natural world into their dining rooms over the centuries. Everything from painted butterflies and hand-modeled flowers to tureens in the shapes of the foods served in them will be on view, set among a fascinating range of ceramic and silver tableware.
The show will feature more than 500 objects, requiring more than 50 staff members and contractors to be involved in the project! Setting up an exhibition is more complicated than you might realize. Take, for instance what’s involved in creating a single display for this show, such as the 1700s table plan, which will be displayed hanging on a wall.
Consider the fact that for centuries, elegant dinner tables have been laid out in formal, bilaterally symmetrical (mirror-image) arrangements. Many early cookbooks not only provided recipes but also included table plans illustrating how to lay out the dishes. After reviewing many such plans, I settled on one showing a first course for a banquet from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper. Although Winterthur includes the book in its library, Kansas State University has one in better condition and is letting us borrow an image.
Besides being an excellent example of such table plans, this one has the right dish shapes to match Winterthur’s assembled Chinese export porcelain dinner service in the German or Saxonian floral pattern.
Twenty-five plates and dishes were needed to reproduce the table plan. Fortunately, the service includes more than 250 objects. Unfortunately, they are dispersed throughout display and storage areas in the nine-floor museum building. So joined and assisted by graduate student Becca Duffy from the University of Delaware/Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, I headed off on a quest.
In addition to narrowing down the choices to objects that were of the right proportions and were not in need of conservation, we looked closely at the colors painted on each plate and dish. As is true of other patterns, German or Saxonian floral designs were popular and were created over many years. During a period when colors were mixed by the batch, shades might differ dramatically on dinnerware produced at different times. The full Winterthur service for example, has some shades of purple that are quite pink, while others have bluer tones. For the display, we wanted to select pieces with closely matching colors.
Once a likely group of about 50 objects was selected, we gathered them together in the Ceramics and Glass Study so we could narrow the choices down to 25 objects. A space approximating the size of a mid-1700s dinner table was taped off on the floor, and we began laying out the pattern.
After the arrangement was finally completed, it was photographed. Then the accession (collection) number was listed, and measurements were taken for each object. These were reproduced on a sketch that showed the placement of each plate and dish.
The sketch was then shared with the exhibition designer, Doug MacDonald, so that he could complete the measured elevation view that will be so important when exhibition installation begins in March. Hats off to Doug, who had an even greater involvement in the placement of all of the other hundreds of objects in the show!
And is all the work for this one display done, yet? No way! Special mounts will be made for each plate and dish, and it all will be installed on a purpose-built backdrop, approximating the size of an early dinner table. But that’s a story for another day.
Be sure to join us for Dining by Design: Nature Displayed on the Dinner Table at Winterthur, April 1, 2018, through January 6, 2019!
This is the first in a series of posts about the making of the Dining by Design exhibition.
Post by Leslie B. Grigsby, Senior Curator of Ceramics and Glass at Winterthur