November 19, 2009 | Having immersed himself in bygone foodways and culinary techniques for decades, author, food historian, and master of antiquated cookery Ivan Day is the man to call when England's great historic house museums look to re-create the grand feasts of earlier centuries. He has whipped up historically accurate food and settings at Chatsworth, Waddesdon Manor, Hardwick Hall, and many others. While Day is an expert in kitchen practices from the medieval period through the nineteenth century, his passion is truly fired in the creation of the lavish settings—characterized by elaborate sugar-work—of eighteenth-century dessert courses. Two of these sumptuous displays are currently on view in U.S. museums.
For Imperial Privilege: Vienna Porcelain of Du Paquier, 1718-44, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through March 21, 2010, Day has recreated the sugar architecture and artificial fruit and flowers that would likely have been found alongside porcelain tableware on a dessert table about 1740. In fact, he drew inspiration from an engraving showing the Hapsburg Archduchess Maria Theresa and her consort Franz Stephen of Lorraine at a feast in Vienna on November 22 of that year. For the display he built a pair of sugar-paste pavilions using eighteenth-century sugar molds and sugar sculpting tools from his extensive collection of culinary antiques.
The idea of creating such a table was devised by the show's co-curators Meredith Chilton and Jeffrey Munger. "We wanted to give visitors another point of access to appreciate the porcelain, especially the figures, which are often a mystery to people," says Munger, curator in the Metropolitan Museum's department of European sculpture and decorative arts. "This table allowed us to show them in the kind of context in which they might have been found in their own time, and that can help people to better relate to them."
For Sèvres Then and Now, at Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C., through May 30, 2010, Day arranged a parterre garden of chenille hedges atop a mirrored surtout to complement a dessert service made for Prince Louis de Rohan in 1770. The classical temple and flowers are made from sugar paste, while the statues dotting the garden are a mix of pieces in Sèvres biscuit porcelain or sugar paste. "Objects in both porcelain and sugar were often mixed together on table tops at the same time," says Day. "You would mix and match pieces in your inventory with new pieces to suit the occasion."
In creating this design, Day drew on the engravings in Le Cannameliste Français by Joseph Gilliers (first published in Nancy in 1751, and reissued in 1768), an important source of designs and instructions for courtly entertainments at the time. For example, Gilliers explains exactly how to make those chenille parterres, and Day followed his directions to the letter.
"Sugar paste, a mixture of confectioner's, or powdered, sugar and gum tragacanth, and porcelain paste are remarkably similar," notes Day. "Both materials are incredibly plastic, and both can be freely worked or molded so you can achieve incredibly fine detail." He spent two months designing and assembling these creations in his kitchen in a 17th-century farmhouse in England's Lake District. Like pieces of porcelain, sugar-work is incredibly fragile. In fact, Day's components were shipped to the U.S. by Constantine, the pre-eminent art handlers and movers, who packed them the same way they pack glass or porcelain.
Liana Paredes Arend, Hillwood's senior curator of western European art, had been looking for a chance to work with Day since seeing a table he did in England. "This was a great opportunity for us to show our collections in a new context," she said. "The table is such an immersive experience for visitors. It really evokes the ambience and atmosphere of the ancien regime. People are quite awed when they see it."
* To learn more about Day and his work visit his website, www.historicfood.com.
* To hear a clip of Munger, Chilton, and Day discussing the dessert table on the Metropolitan Museum's website click here.
* To see a video of Day installing the Hillwood table, look for details on the museum's website www.hillwoodmuseum.org.
* For a full profile of Day and his collection, see "Savoring the Past: Ivan Day's collection of culinary antiques," The Magazine Antiques, June 2008.
Images from above: Overview and detail of the dessert table re-creation by Ivan Day for Imperial Privilege: Vienna Porcelain of Du Paquier, 1718-44. Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Overall view of the dessert table recreation by Day for Sèvres Then and Now. Day's own copy of Joseph Gilliers's Le Cannameliste Français (1751). Detail view. Courtesy of Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C.