Food and Drink


Food and Drink

In this blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.

Explore the theme of Food and Drink in this week's blog as we take a closer look at an elaborate Sèvres tea service, a seventeeth-century Bohemian beaker and Jan Davidsz. de Heem's stunning painting, Still life with Lobster.

Probably Bohemia, Beaker (humpen), 1609

Vessels for festive drinking were popular in Bohemia and Germany, particularly in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Wealthier households may have owned silver vessels, but glass versions were much more widespread. This type of capacious beaker is known as a ‘Wilkomm’ and was specifically used to welcome guests, who were expected to down the beer or wine in one go. The glasses were often decorated with scenes of hospitality and corresponding inscriptions.

The enamelled decoration here shows scenes of merriment, and the two inscriptions encourage a hospitable welcome: the translation of one reads: ‘Raise me up, drink me up, set me down, fill me again and bring me a good brother again’.

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Sèvres, Tray and tea service, 1759

Drinking tea, coffee and chocolate were popular pastimes in eighteenth-century Europe, enjoyed in social gatherings and presenting an opportunity to show off one’s wealth and good taste. The Sèvres porcelain manufactory produced highly fashionable tea-sets, known as ‘déjeuners’ - literally meaning break-fast in French – comprising a small tray with cups and saucers, a sugar bowl and sometimes a teapot and milk jug.

This one is extremely elaborate, with an underglaze blue and an overglaze green ground, lavish gilding and charming painted scenes of children in rural pursuits. It is likely that the set was bought by Madame de Pompadour at the end-of-year sale of 1759 organized by the king at Versailles.

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Pieter de Hooch, A Boy Bringing Bread, c. 1663

A humble, seemingly everyday transaction — the delivery of bread — is glorified and given a mysterious narrative charge in this serene painting. The composition depicts a little boy, standing at a threshold, offering a basket filled with rolls to a well-dressed lady in a softly-lit interior. Beyond them, the viewer catches a glimpse of a tiled courtyard, another dark interior, and farther still, a canal. In the very distant background, one can make out the ghostly outlines of another woman who seems to watch from afar. Is she merely a curious neighbour? Or is she a more interested party — for instance, an anxious mother surveying her son as he runs errands?

That the viewer is left free to interpret and imagine is typical of the artist, genre painter Pieter de Hooch. He likely made this painting in the early 1660s, soon after his arrival to the city of Amsterdam from Delft, where he was a contemporary of another artist well-known for his mysterious interior scenes: Jan Vermeer.

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Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Still life with lobster, 1643

À table! This seems to be the message of De Heem’s sumptuous banquet still-life, a foodie’s dream come true in which platters of grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruit jostle with pearly oysters and a splendid red lobster. The abundance of good things to eat means that that each gleaming silver charger nearly crowds the others off the richly-dressed table.

Yet there are subtle hints that this luscious painting may not be quite as straightforward as it first appears. On closer inspection the image of the artist at work is reflected in the wine glass and on the silver drinking vessel. Perhaps we are meant to infer that the rich display is an artistic illusion. And the precarious position of the glass, shown nearly tipping off the casket at the top left of the picture, may refer to the transience of earthly pleasures. Bon appétit indeed— but at what cost?

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Probably France, Knife, fork and spoon, 1730s

The extremely high quality of this ornate cutlery set, made of gold set into bloodstone, has no doubt contributed to its attraction for collectors since it was made. It is perhaps the myth surrounding it, however that appealed to Sir Richard Wallace, who acquired it not once but twice in the nineteenth century. At that stage it was believed to have been owned by Cardinal Mazarin, the powerful chief minister to Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the seventeenth century.

Exaggerated or entirely spurious provenances were sometimes used to attract connoisseurs, and Wallace was himself attracted to art objects that had been owned by famous historical figures. For financial reasons he was forced to sell the set with a significant proportion of his early collection in 1857, but he bought it back in 1872 at nearly five times the price he had paid for it originally. Despite the illustrious association, the style of the cutlery suggests that it actually dates to the 1730s.

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