FORTY years ago, I was enrolled in a trade union, working as a packer for the Birmingham Assay Office. The National Union of Gold, Silver and Allied Traders was a select sort of band; founded in 1910, it then had just 2308 members. It ceased in 1981.
In one of my first jobs, I handled a large silver rosewater finger bowl that had been sent in to be hallmarked before its presentation to the Duke of Edinburgh, the Baron Greenwich, by, if I recall aright, one of the livery companies.
Modernist and heavily sculpted, the bowl had a Brutalist sloping rim three times as broad on one edge than the other; somewhat unwieldy, it weighed a good deal. I would much like to have heard Prince Philip’s unvarnished comment on his gift.
In the Fitzwilliam’s beautifully staged winter exhibition, which runs through till after Easter, one of the first silver pieces on show is an equally lavish bowl that weighs more than 122 ounces and was used by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he threw a 40th-birthday party for Queen Elizabeth. But that was back in 1573.
© Fitzwilliam Museum, CambridgeThe Thin Kitchen, 1563, by Pieter van der Heyden (c.1530-c.1584), after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-69), an engraving
This bowl features, with its matching ewer that stands 219cm, at the outset of the exhibition as one of the prized possessions of Matthew Parker, who had given it to his old Cambridge college, but borrowed it back to use when he was Elizabeth I’s first Archbishop. More of his table silver, including posset cups, a tankard, a covered cup, and salt, show how wealthy an archbishop might become.
Many households maintained grand tables, some of them recreated by the contemporary sculptor Ivan Day. Others appear from the evidence of the account books for banqueting. The executors of Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, notched up a hefty bill when they treated themselves to mutton, pork, swan, capon, partridge, snipe, and lark, cooked with cinnamon, ginger, saffron, sandalwood, and sugar, eating off the estate.
Some undergraduates, to judge by Isaac Newton’s journal from when he went up to university in 1661, also enjoyed eating; besides shopping lists reported scrupulously in the Trinity Newton Notebook, his scruples over his self-confessed gluttony were recorded in a shorthand code in another notebook that he kept. “Eating an apple at Thy house” (presumably churchgoing at St Mary the Great) offers a different association with apples than the one that we usually hold for the discoverer of gravity.
Pieter Aertsen (1508-75), in a painting loaned from Birmingham Museum, caught a chef trussing a hare before gutting a barrel-load of waiting fish. Through an open doorway, we glimpse the dining table that is already set with white napery. Market scenes were popular, as the 1618-22 series by Frans Snyders — currently in the Hermitage and not in the exhibition — shows.
© Fitzwilliam Museum, CambridgeO The Roast Beef of Old England &c. or The Gate of Calais, 1749, by William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Charles Mosley (c.1720-c.56), after the painting by Hogarth (1748), an etching and engraving
In the Middle Ages, a new town developed at the end of the Silk Route. Now called Baldock, it was named after Baghdad, because of the exotic range of what could be obtained there; and, in its heyday, Stourbridge Fair, held on the River Cam, was the largest in Europe. Granted a royal charter in 1199, it was originally held over three days of the important mid-September holiday of Holy Cross Day. By the years after the Armada, we are told, it stretched to five weeks.
Much of the exhibition is drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s and local collections across East Anglia, which remained remarkably important for arable farming, as well as for livestock. This gives the whole a distinctive Cisalpine balance which is, of itself, not a criticism, but it gives the lie to the title.
Not that all the exhibition is about eating. Fasting continued to be important long after the Reformation. The weekly observances of Wednesdays and Fridays remained for many, as did the penitential seasons of Advent and of Lent, partly when the natural cycle of productivity was, in any case, at a low, and to encourage the maritime fishing industry.
After the Reformation, the power to call for additional national fast days passed, like so much else, from pope to monarch. Charles I ordered a weekly fast during the plague epidemic of October 1636, and Archbishop Laud had to write to Bishop Bridgeman of Chester in January 1637 to tell him that it was all over. We see the Fast Sermon that his successor, George Hall, preached before Parliament three decades later.
© Fitzwilliam Museum, CambridgeChrist refusing the Banquet, from Paradise Regained, c.1816-18, by William Blake (1757-1827), pen and ink, watercolour and black chalk on paper
In April 1639, Bridgeman urged Laud to call a fast while the king journeyed north as civil war was raging in Scotland; Laud cautioned that that power lay with the king, not within his own archiepiscopal authority. Fast days, of course, are still very much a part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, which not every tourist in the Balkans or visitor to the Greek islands understands or respects.
Not only does this exhibition look good, spacious rooms being set out with mouth-watering objects and fascinating utensils, but the accompanying book would delight those who enjoy a cookery book. It is tempting to send a copy to a former Prime Minister to add to her much vaunted collection of culinary volumes.
“Feast and Fast: The art of food in Europe 1500-1800” is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, until 26 April. Phone 01223 332900. fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk