by Roderick Conway Morris

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Ivan Day/Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Recreation of a Baroque Feasting Table, 1650 by Ivan Day, 2019

Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800

By Roderick Conway Morris
CAMBRIDGE 13 December 2019


'Of all other animals we spend the least time in eating; this is one of the great distinctions between us and brute creation,' observed the 18th century writer Oliver Goldsmith.

And yet, as the splendid exhibition 'Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800' at the Fitzwilliam Museum demonstrates, while our forebears may have spent less time eating than the beasts of the field, a large proportion of the human population was once employed from dawn till dusk, and sometimes during the night, in cultivating, harvesting, hunting, trapping, fishing, storing, processing, preparing, serving, clearing up the remains of food - and washing the crocks and pots. In England in 1700, 45 per cent of the population was still occupied in agriculture alone.

Food was also an important subject for artists throughout this period and they provided us with an enduring record of food production and consumption down the centuries and vivid images of a vast range of comestibles long-since consumed.

Most people subsisted on a daily diet derived from grains: oats and barley in more northern climes, rye in areas such as Germany and Poland and wheat in warmer areas. Meat and fish were more high status foods, the consumption of which was regulated by ownership and privilege. At the apex of the pyramid was venison, a royal and aristocratic preserve. As the republican Thomas Paine wryly commented in 'The Rights of Man' (1791) : 'To read the history of kings a man would be almost inclined to suppose that government consisted of stag hunting.'

Urbanization - London's population, for example, grew from 200,000 in 1600 to 950,000 by 1800 - led to the creation of large central food markets, whose offerings were detailed with unparalleled attention and accuracy by Netherlandish painters. A studio copy of the Antwerp artist Frans Snyder's 'The Fowl Market' from the 1620s, shows a choice of venison, wild boar, hare, swan, pheasant, partridge, peacock, woodcock, kingfisher, skylark, blackbird, grouse, bittern, snipe, and various song-birds, including bullfinch, chaffinch and brambling.

The expansion of Europe led to the import of a large range of new foods, from potatoes and maize, which the poor were slow to accept despite their nutritious value, to exotic fruits, such as pineapples, on which the wealthy were prepared to spend large sums. But the most notable shift in dietary habits came from the mania for sugar, which became increasingly available as a result of slave labour in the Americas and the Caribbean. Two new industries also arose on the back of this: confectionery and dentistry.

One of the chief delights of this absorbing exhibition is a series of three-dimensional displays, created by the food historian Ivan Day, who has co-curated the show along with Victoria Avery and Melissa Calaresu.

The first, which opens the exhibition is a 'sugar banquet', based on a description of an early 17th-century English wedding. These feasts were held after the main dinner, often in a separate room or building, and consisted entirely of sweetmeats and fruit, washed down with spiced wine, and confetti, or comfits, which were at that time were sugared seeds, nuts or candied fruit that could be showered on the happy couple as paper confetti is today.

A special paste, pasta di zucchero - made of sugar, rosewater and gum tragacanth - was used to fashion all manner of objects, including buttons, gloves, slippers, keys, knives, playing cards and even what looked like bacon and eggs. The magnificent centrepiece here is a miniature version of the Banqueting House at Melford Hall in Suffolk - also edible, like everything else on the table.

This is followed later in the exhibition by two further impressive recreations: one of an 18th-century confectioner's window, which includes not only elaborate cakes but also the glasses and porcelain that customers could hire to serve these elaborate dessert courses; and a Baroque Feast, partly inspired by the table depicted in 'The Sense of Taste', from the workshop of Jan Brueghel the Younger. This spectacular recreation includes Venetian glass and silver gilt vessels, a lobster, oysters, fruits and large gilded pies, the contents of which are indicated by the placing of the non-edible parts, such as the wings, necks, heads and feathers, on the top of the pie: in this case swan, peacock, pheasant and partridge. Such decorations of game pies was all the rage during this period, as indicated by a number of other paintings of feasts on display here.

The same era also saw a rise in the demand for still life paintings of food. Despite the extraordinary illusionistic skills required to execute the finest of these, the genre was lowly in the hierarchy of fine arts, the Dutch art historian and painter Samuel van Hoogstraten, in 1678, describing these painters as 'the common soldiers in the army of art'. One of the most beautiful examples here is Joris van Son's 'Still life with Lobster'(1660).

Apart from the boiled lobster and shrimps there are fruits such as oranges, lemons, succulent plums and grapes and a crisp head of celery. As is often the case, the painting features fruits that would not all have been in season at the same time. Significantly, the leaves of the perfect cherries show patches of blight, suggesting an underlying memento mori theme and warning of the transience of all earthly things.

Food was indeed often used by artists for moralising, humorous and satirical purposes. One of the most striking cases here is the 16th-century German artist Virgilius Solis the Elder's 'The World Turned Upside Down', in which a gleeful company of hares is depicted spit-roasting a hunter over a fire and boiling his hounds alive in pots, with an inscription that reads: 'We hares are in good fortune/That we now roast hound and hunter/Those who caught, flayed and ate us/We now treat in the same way', a remarkable testament, though this might surprise some today, to the awareness of some of our forefathers of the cruelty often involved in the pursuit of food.

Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; 26 November - 31 August (with period of closure due to Covid)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024