Among high society in England in the mid- to late 1700s, dining customs changed dramatically in emulation of the French. A new range of extravagant table ornaments evolved, to imitate the French ceremonies that were focused on dining. Prior to this time in England, during the 1600s and early 1700s, food items were arranged at the center of the table, creating a lavish centerpiece; as the food was eaten, the table lost its ornament.
Among high society in England in the mid- to late 1700s, dining customs changed dramatically in emulation of the French. A new range of extravagant table ornaments evolved, to imitate the French ceremonies that were focused on dining. Prior to this time in England, during the 1600s and early 1700s, food items were arranged at the center of the table, creating a lavish centerpiece; as the food was eaten, the table lost its ornament. In the new practice of meals served à la française (“in the French manner”), the food was presented on the table in a carefully planned, symmetrical arrangement. The elaborately prepared food and sauces contained in multiple elegant vessels proved to be a great spectacle.
Once the food had cooled and had been properly admired, diners parsed out the cuisine and ate it on individual plates.
Throughout the meal and afterward for dessert, the center of the table remained highly ornamented—an open stage for silver like this epergne and the plateau beneath it. The multiarmed epergne (from the French épargne, meaning “saving”) aided in food service à la française by gracefully presenting the necessary trimmings for meals. At the ends of their sinuous branches, epergnes held pierced baskets (often with glass liners) that contained fruits, pickled sweetmeats, nuts, sauces, mustards, and other condiments to complement the cuisine. The removable baskets could be interchanged between courses. The epergne was the single most extravagant table ornament, and it was considered incomplete without the foundation of a mirrored plateau below it. The mirrored surface of the plateau enhanced the magnificence of the epergne (especially if the epergne had candleholders) and everything else around it. Sometimes people purchased the epergne and plateau at the same time, but in other cases they would seek out complementary pairings from different sources, as Julian Wood Glass Jr. did.
On this epergne the even, geometric piercing on the baskets, the sharp oval of the support, and the uniform festoons are typical of the restrained neoclassical decoration found on London-made silver of the 1790s.1 The towering central basket and four secondary baskets are boat shaped, while the four corner baskets are round. The paw feet of the epergne match exactly those on the elegant, but simple, plateau.2 The plateau is a well-preserved example of Sheffield plate, created by fusing silver sheet to a copper body, a process that was the precursor to electroplating. Made by hand and at great expense, plating gave strength to a form that needed it. Thus, the great weight of the epergne was sure not to crush this plateau.
The taste for French goods permeated American mercantile society at the same time that it did the British. George Washington spent months looking for a proper plateau and epergne for his Cherry Street house in Philadelphia; he had an urgent need for them because, as he observed in 1789, “Mr. Morris & Mr. Bingham have them, and the French and Spanish Ministers.”3 Nearly two centuries later Julian Wood Glass Jr. likely felt the same pressing need to add these two ornaments to his table to ensure that its display was fittingly grand.
Medium: Silver sheet on copper, silvered glass, and wood backing
Dimensions: H: 2 1/2 x W: 26 x D: 16 in.
Place: England, probably Sheffield
Collection: Julian Wood Glass Jr. Collection
Category: Silver - English
Purchased March 27, 1991 from S. J. Shrubsole Corp., New York.