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”.

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)

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

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

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

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