Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why Porcelain Replaced Sugar Paste as a Table Decoration

by Grace Elliot

In the 18th century,  the cost of throwing a banquet could be ruinous. If you were an aristocrat who wanted to impress, then an impressive display along the center of the table was de rigor.

A table setting more typical of the early 17th century

The displays started off life in the 17th century as impressive symmetrically arranged pyramids of decadently exotic foods, decorated with exotic flowers and foliage. These were in place at the beginning of the meal, with the purpose of being talking points for the guests. But as time went on, the arrangements became increasingly elaborate, and started to demand specialists skills from the chefs involved.
These arrangements running along the center of the banquet table were described as: “A complex marriage of the arts of the silversmith, the potter and the pastry cook.”

A typical sugar work construction

By the 18th century the confectioner was expected to link individual elements on the table to provide a harmonious arrangement along the length of the table; in other words the display had to have a theme. One substance that leant itself well to being modelled and colored to make attractive displays was sugar work.
Confectioners began to come into their own, by creating detailed, whimsical scenes so as to satisfy the guests need for novelty. Indeed, the most popular table decorations were miniature landscapes and gardens. These fantastical creations were amazingly detailed and often contained hedges, walkways, building, flower borders and tiny figures in scale to the creation.
“All the geniuses of the age are employed in designing new plans for desserts. The Duke of Newcastle’s’ last was a baby Vauxhall [Gardens] illuminated with a million little lamps of various colors.”  Horace Walpole. 1750.

An aerial plan of Vauxhall Gardens

Six years after Walpole wrote this, Duke of Norfolk topped that creation with a park scene complete with a water feature and ornamental dolphins spouting water.
However, when banquet halls were lit by candles, they were apt to get rather hot, which caused the sugar work to melt. To circumvent this, the once edible table displays were supplement with non-edible materials such as ground glass, wax, cardboard, and colored sand. This made for added realism, and even though these displays were no longer designed to be eaten (as in the early days) they rarely survived the evening unscathed.
The cost of creating these designs was astronomical, as it required highly skilled craftsmen to create them. This, and the fact that the creations were single use only, meant it was inevitable they would eventually go out of vogue.

An example of unglazed Sevres porcelain figurines

In the late 18th century the development of fine porcelain had reached a point whereby it started to replace sugar work for table decorations. The fine porcelain flowers could last an awful lot longer than sugar ones. And unglazed biscuit porcelain, which Sevres used to create delicate decorative figurines, had an attracted matt shimmer than mimicked a sugary surface. And so it was that porcelain came to replace sugar paste, at least when it came to sumptuous table decorations.


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