A Whimsical Walk through Dining by Design: Nature Displayed on the Dinner Table

Porcelain water buffalo or ox-head tureen and stand, China, 1760–80. Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens at Winterthur 1996.4.234 a-c

We need more whimsy in this world. For me, ever the fan of anything bovine, that whimsy struck as I turned to enter the final room of the Dining by Design: Nature Displayed on the Dinner Table exhibition and was met with the exuberant gaze of an 18th-century soup tureen in the shape of a water buffalo’s head drawn from the Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens at Winterthur. In his contemporary usage, the top of his head would be removed so that the bottom half of the tureen could house hot soup, and once the top was replaced, plumes of steam would have risen from his open ceramic nostrils; ever the diversion then as now.

This tureen is only one of approximately 560 objects in Dining by Design, and museum-goers will surely find that particular object that piques their own curiosity. Naturally I hope that our bovine friend will achieve his own celebrity, but there is a veritable range of objects on display here. Similar tureens in the shape of geese and rabbits occupy their own cabinet, while examples of more traditionally ornate and decorative examples of tureens—including one gilded in its entirety with brass—form a distinctive pyramid of objects as one immediately enters the exhibition. There is no shortage in the range of designs that decorate the surfaces of plates, dishes, and bowls, including architectural drawings upon 18th-century Worcester ware, the botanical drawings of Hans Sloane ware, and moralized depictions of Adam and Eve from as early as 1601, among many, many other designs. All of these objects are on display across three spacious rooms in the upstairs galleries. The first room is an exceptionally light and airy space showcasing the range of object types in the ceramics collection. Moving on, guests walk through a more distinctively European collection that captures the different types of representation these objects could achieve before arriving at the end of the exhibition where a room of Asian objects is punctuated by its own pagoda.

Porcelain plate with classical ruins in landscape, Worcester Porcelain Factory, Worcester, England, 1770–75. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Mayer 1977.86

It’s in this first room that some of the most powerful displays are located. A set dining table is displayed against a mirror, which makes it emphatically clear that the material extent of early modern dining accouterments was as important as the precision and care with which they were constructed, composed, and consumed. Placing these objects in the physical settings of their original use reinforces one of the central messages that this exhibition communicates: dining was an everyday act, but it was also a heavily performative and skilled one. Visitors may see up close a collection of flatware: spoons, knives, and forks all made of ceramic, or with a ceramic component. The agate-esque handles of a collection of knives illustrate the trickery that producers were able to employ and the skill with which they transformed their materials to resemble something entirely different. Furthermore, the floral designs that embellish the handles and bodies of these ceramic spoons show how the designed motifs of dining extended beyond the plates and dishes which held consumers’ food and were an integral part of the key objects that they handled.

Finally, there is a vertical wall display comprising 27 individual dishes and plates, arranged in a typical 18th-century table layout. There is something almost disconcerting seeing these objects laid out in this way. When table layouts and the precise positioning of ceramic pieces are typically displayed in museums and heritage properties, they are usually placed on top of a dining table by way of a re-creation – complete with sad plastic grapes. It is easy to appreciate the perspective that this comes from, attempting to educate visitors in the full swathe of objects that formed the material culture of dining in homes. But by extracting the table from this equation, and affixing the display of ceramic dining ware to the wall, so that it sits alike a canvas in a gallery or graffiti on a building, guests are able to see how thoughtfully put together such dining tables were. The attention to symmetry is striking, but so is the sheer expanse of space that these objects occupy. On a table they may seem more in place, but displayed in this way they speak for themselves. Elizabeth Raffald, upon whose 1769 The Experienced English Housekeeper this display is based, would be excited to see such a use of dining ware.

There is far more to see than a blog post could seamlessly tie together, and one strength of an exhibition curated of such a large number of objects is that it enables the museum-goer to draw their own connections between different corners of the gallery. For others the buffalo tureen will not be the main event—he may be a starting point or a waypoint on an individual’s itinerary through the exhibition. It seems almost blasphemous to say that some attendees may not be interested in the buffalo at all. Either way, Dining by Design makes a very interesting comparison to the Treasures on Trial exhibition which preceded it. Both are thought-provoking displays, but while Treasures on Trial encouraged museum-goers to play Columbo with things and assess authenticity, Dining by Design asks its viewers to be imaginative and immerse themselves in an almost alien culture. It illustrates a very important role of the museum to preserve heritage, provide escapism, and present splendor. If Elizabeth Raffald would have been excited by the exhibition, so too would the museum’s founder H. F. du Pont.

Post by Tom Rusbridge, a Ph.D. student from the University of Sheffield and former visiting scholar at Winterthur

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