Sunday, February 1, 2015

Regency Era Dining: An Unexpectedly Delightful Scene

Back in 2007, I curated the dining room display for the c.1801 Riversdale House Museum's in Riverdale Park, MD to reflect real life dining based on a painting made by an English woman, Diana Sperling. Sperling painted between 1812 and 1823 while she was living with her family in a country house called Dynes Hall near Halstead in Essex, England. 

What I love about the collection of Sperling's paintings is that they depict everyday life in and around the manor house and include family, friends, servants, animals, and carriages among other things. The events in the paintings range from things you would expect to be depicted of early 19th century genteel life such as dancing, riding horses, playing charades, hunting, and carriage rides.  What is a delightful surprise is that many of the paintings show early 19th century genteel life in a much more interesting, more messy, less dignified, and often humorous way. There is a painting where Diana's mother, Mrs. Sperling and her maid are "murdering" (swatting) flies by standing on a windowsill, there is one where ladies are planting, digging, and subsequently falling over in the garden, a funny one showing a lady slipping on the grass while walking, a very 21st century one showing ladies doing DIY as they try to hang wallpaper in a room, and there is even one of a man and woman having a great time "riding" a newly felled tree trunk.

Of course, while all of these paintings are wonderful, the one that speaks the most to the food historian in me is this one of a dining room scene painted about 1812 or 1813, and a very unusual one it is at that!  Here it is:

From:  Mrs. Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes from Regency Life, 1812-1823 by Gordon Mingay, 1981.

Everything about this Regency dining room scene is wonderfully unexpected and a bit chaotic! The gentleman at the head of the table (the painter's brother-in-law) has just arrived and has just had his coat removed by a servant; and it looks like he untidily placed his hat and a travel bag on a stool. A dog is begging at table and being rewarded with a morsel, and the painter herself is sitting at the foot of the table on a sofa! Even more astonishing than the idea of a sofa drawn up to a fine dining room table is that sitting on that sofa with Diana Sperling is a parrot in a cage!

Riversdale House Museum is the historic site where I have been food historian since 2006. In 2007, I decided to recreate Sperling's dining room painting scene for two very good reasons. First, the time period interpreted at Riversdale is the early part of the 19th century so the timing was just right; and, second, Riversdale's dining room contains a blue sofa just like the one in Sperling's painting in the dining room because the house's original owner, Rosalie Stier Calvert, wrote a letter indicating that there was a sofa upholstered in blue in the dining room. Clearly, enjoying dinner on a sofa may have been all the rage at that period of time. 

Here is the scene as I recreated it in 2007.  I hope you enjoy the scene:

Riversdale House Museum Dining Room Display, a la c.1812 by Diana Sperling, Summer 2007


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