Saturday 24 October 2015

Animal Magic On Your Table

The dining room at Chatsworth House

With winter just around the corner, now comes the season of socialising and entertaining.
Before you know it we will be scrambling around in our lofts and cupboards in search of all the necessary bits we need to host the perfect party or dinner.
Where summer tends to be a more casual approach to feeding your guests, often al fresco over hot coals, winter seems to lend itself to a more formal approach.
Though most of us are unlikely to enjoy formal dining on a day to day basis, a lot of us will still push the boat with the occasion calls for it.
However, back in time, it would have been much more likely that formal sit down dinners happened on a more regular basis.
The Georgians enjoyed long and elaborate meals, often lasting several hours, with endless dishes served up on beautiful porcelain and fine sterling silver serving dishes.
By the time we see the reign of the Victorians, astute hosts began to realise that throwing the perfect dinner party was a way to improve one’s social standing.
The more items of cutlery and utensils you provided the more you were showing people just how affluent you were. It was not unusual to be faced with up to twenty utensils at one place setting alone! Pickle fork anyone?
Along with the  many tableware items that were of practical and specific use, what better way to show off your wealth and importance than to adorn the table with items  which had no use whatsoever.
As well as the table being laid with the necessary tools for the job, you might find silver candlesticks, flower bowls and possibly a decorative pheasant or, perhaps, a cock or two.
As well as the Georgians, the Victorians too, had a particular fascination with the animal kingdom.  It shows up time and again, and is reflected in their use of fine materials to recreate various lifelike creatures.

This handsome pair of fighting cockerels, though only made by Edward Barnard in 1970, is a reminder of making something simply as a showpiece.

Some fine models of birds and beasts began to be made in sterling silver. The less wealthy could emulate the look by choosing silverplate.
Although most often these models could be very realistically recreated, you will come across some rather dubious figures on occasion. When you consider most people at the time would never seen some of the animals that had been lovingly sculptured ( including the silversmiths themselves), it’s hardly surprising.
Most likely, the silversmith would be working from sketches and drawings done by intrepid explorers and this would be the only reference they would have.
Really, how many people at the time would even know  what an elephant looked like?  
So, in a way, a silversmith could only be as realistic as the sketch he was presented to work with.
However, they were prized and admired for their value perhaps even more than their accuracy.
For me, some of the most charming examples are not necessarily the truest representations.
Dressing the table with odd and unusual things meant your guests would certainly have something to talk about.

Detail of a Georgian sauce boat with eagle head handle
hallmarked in 1748.

Adorning the table with such frivolous things would be a sure fire way to impress your guests and, hopefully, help you up the social ladder.
Today, these charming animal figures will still be found on the dining table, but are just as likely to find their way to the den or the boardroom.

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