The Regency Christmas Dinner Table - a monument to extravagance

Christmas Festivities have always provided an excuse for the inveterate show-off to excel, and this was perhaps truer than ever during the latter part of the 18th century and beyond, where hosts of Regency dinners made it their business to offer as extravagant and impressive an experience as possible to their guests.

This was very much an early case of zeitgeist in action; the first stirrings of the industrial revolution had afforded ample opportunity for entrepreneurial and resourceful folk to take advantage of entirely new avenues of betterment and there was a growing caste of increasingly wealthy businessmen well placed to reap the potential rewards, and for whom even the gathering storm clouds of the Napoleonic wars were similarly ripe for exploitation, reaffirming the status of the officer class. Alongside the growing proficiency of British craftsmen in the production of increasingly high quality glassware and porcelain there was a perfect storm of supply and demand which meant that the trappings of finery which had thus far been the exclusive preserve of royalty and the extremely wealthy now found their way on to the dining tables of the slightly less exalted citizenry. Commonality drives competitiveness, and the aspiring gentleman of Regency England was almost duty bound to try to outdo his peers when it came to acquiring the latest, most extravagant, most opulent dining accoutrements with which to make a statement as to his relative wealth, and therefore the esteem in which he should be held.

There was seemingly little or no limit to the effort applied to effect approbation and wonderment from ones guests in the 18th century. Take, for example, the following description of the quite literal opening salvos of a formal dinner from The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary of 1723 (I’ll skip the opening paragraphs which describe the creation of a flour and water paste castle, fully-rigged man o’war and stag, which are already in place at table – the first two including fully-functional canons made out of cow parsley stalks decorated with gold leaf !). These centre-pieces are set in a ground of salt and surrounded by blown eggs filled with rose water - as you do…

The red-wine filled stag is first pierced with an arrow, causing the contents to “issue out like blood out of a wound, and cause some small admiration in the spectators; which being over, after a little pause, all the guns on one side of the castle are discharg’d against the ship, and afterwards the guns of one side of the ship against the castle…as in a battle. This causing a great stink of powder, the ladies or gentlemen take up the egg-shells of perfum’d water and throw them at one another. This pleasant disorder being pretty well laugh’d over, and the two great pyes (didn’t I mention those ?) still remaining untouch’d, some or other will have the curiosity to see what’s in them, and, lifting off the lid of one pye, out jump the frogs; this makes the ladies skip and scamper, and lifting up the lid of the other, out fly the birds, which will naturally fly at the light, and so put out the candles, and so with the leaping of the frogs below and the flying of the birds above, it will cause a surprising and diverting hurly-burley amongst the guest in the dark, after which, the candles being lighted, the banquet is brought in, the musick sounds and the particulars of each person’s surprize and adventures, furnishes matter for diverting discourse”.

So, Trivial Pursuit, charades and – dare I say it – even the appearance of the Ferrero Rocher are simply not going to cut the mustard at your festive dinner table compared to the faux artillery barrages, scented water fights, frog trampling and feather’d candle-extinguishing chicanery of yesteryear…
Amidst the mayhem enters the banquet – by candlelight – and this is where the well-set dining table came in to its own. Georgian table glass was richly cut and facetted almost to the point of impractical excess in some instances, giving a myriad of highly polished crystal prisms to capture and reflect the flickering candlelight, and one can only imagine the effect of a fully laden table suitably illuminated. William Braythorpe, writing in The Yorkshire Gentleman’s Review of January 1774 gives his impression of proceedings as follows:

Our party was brought up in to the dining room, whereby – one at a time – the staff lighted candles and oil lamps with tapers until such a time as the room was bright as day. It was a vision; like the brightest summer sun at its zenith frittering on the rippled waters of a clear lake under a zephyr; as the guests took their seats, their passing-by made the flames flutter, and each was reflected myriad times by the tazzas and decanters, the sucriers and piggenes. As our repast continued, these same illuminations were cast through our wines and cordials and the colour of each would dance across the (table) linen.

Clearly, such a sight was quite something - and it was, of course, no accident. The glassware was cut to achieve exactly such an effect and the more complex the faceting, cutting and slicing to the surface of the crystal, the more intricate the refractive nature of the piece would become. It’s no coincidence that Regency glass began to take on a sturdier nature as the 19th century progressed, by way of affording the glassmakers more substantial pieces on which they could work their magic – a progression that was to continue throughout the Victorian era.

There was a certain degree of contrivance to Georgian table glass that meant that its extent quite surpassed what was entirely necessary. Braythorpe’s four-point list barely scratches the surface and when one takes in to account the jelly and custard glasses, salts, monteiths, carafes, bowls, sweetmeats, rinsers, jars, jugs, pepper sifters, servers, condiment bottles, cruet sets, patty pans and cutlery rests, it’s no surprise that a full service would number several hundred individual pieces in its entirety (and this without taking drinking glasses in to consideration). We have encountered a great number of these pieces in our time, and there is an extensive catalogue listed and detailed on our website, as per the link given below – to take a look to get a better idea of the vast range of items that were produced.

Of course, table glass and entertainment notwithstanding, there were two further elements which were integral to the dining experience – crockery, and the food itself. With regard to the former, the Regency period enjoyed the same fortuitous coming together of commodity and market place as with glass, given that the latter part of the 18th century saw British porcelain manufacturers perfecting their techniques for both the production of the base material and its decoration. Beautifully crafted plates and dining services were as much sought after as glassware, if not moreso given the cachet of owning items produced by renowned artists working at the leading manufactories, many of which are studied in great depth in the porcelain section of our website. Extravagant gilding and exquisite painting ensured that what were essentially nothing more than cups and saucers became much sought after, again – all part of the grand design and the projection of a display of affluence on the part of the host.

The food itself, as a general rule, is not something that we have tended to explore in any great depth, but given that the traditional Christmas feast is rather a la mode at this precise moment, we thought it might be fun to take a look at a couple of Regency dishes that seemed to capture the spirit of the age rather well – one simply cannot go wrong with Roasted Turkey and Chestnuts as a festive staple:

Truss your turkey as directed for roasting (these direction extend to a page and half and involve breaking the legs of the thing, securing it to a hook in the wall, drawing out the “thigh strings” and sundry other divers procedures best left to your local butcher…) and make a stuffing as follows: take the crumb of a halfpenny roll, rub it through a cullender, a quarter of a pound of beef suet chopped fine, some sweet herbs, parsley and lemon-peel shred fine, grate in a little nutmeg, season it with pepper and salt, mix it up with an egg and put it in the breast of the turkey. Take half a hundred of chestnuts, boil them till they are tender, peel them, chop half a dozen very fine, and put in the stuffing as above. Take the marrow out of two beef marrow-bones, cut it into pieces and stuff the belly of the turkey with the marrow and chestnuts; spit it, and tie the vent close to the spit with a string; singe and paper the breast, put it down to a good fire and baste it well all the time it is roasting; then take off the paper, baste it with butter, sprinkle as little salt on it and dredge it with flour to make the froth rise; take it up and put it in to a hot dish; have ready a dozen of the chestnuts split in two, stew them in half a pint of brown gravy, a gill of white wine, two shallots chopped fine; thicken it with a little butter rolled in flour, boil it smooth, pour it in the dish and garnish with lemon and beet-root, with bread sauce and gravy in boats; NB – it will take a quarter of an hour longer roasting than without the marrow and chestnuts.

Sounds a bit more edifying than shoving a handful of Paxo in a frozen bird in the same way that the canon/frog/bird ensemble makes for a more substantial preamble to dinner than Alan Carr’s Chatty Breakfast Show, some flaccid vol au vents and half a small glass of luke-warm Bucks Fizz – but then what would you expect of something extracted from a publication as illustrious as Richard Brigg’s 1788 English Art of Cookery & Complete Guide for All Housekeepers ?

Finally, another contemporary concoction which is (newly) dear to the heart of the very laird of Scottish Antiques - the top man, no less - but who exhorted me to include this particular item for your edification and delight, having assured me that it is a very fine thing indeed and absolutely delicious. Pray silence if you will, please, for Georgian Hot Chocolate:

Take a quart of milk; four ounces of chocolate without sugar, fine sugar as much; fine flour or starch (half a quarter of an ounce), a little salt; mix them, dissolve them, and boil them together over a good fire which will be done in ten or twelve minutes; take the finish and mix while hot with one third part as much good port wine; take cloves and pound them to a fine powder such as will make one teaspoon and sticks of cinnamon the same and a pinch of cubeb (pepper) and stir these three for such a time as they are dissolved away. Take as you would a hot punch, lifting from the vessel as to leave sediment behind.

And there you have it, our wholly traditional recipes for some particularly festive fare to evoke the spirit of Christmas past in all its authentic glory. Talking of festive traditions, it is – of course – almost time for our own Christmas Sale which this year will be running from Christmas Eve to midnight on January 3rd. There are a number of items available at greatly reduced prices, and more will be added to replace stock as it is sold during the festivities; so do please log on and browse through the bargains and – above all – have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year, from us all at Scottish Antiques - Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ùr !

website link - Georgian Table Glass

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