The Blue Blot

notes, finds & fragments of research

A Mountain of Mussels, Glass Grapes, and Perfect Peeling ~ Still Foods Under the Hammer

Earlier this week the latest update from Bonham’s London appeared in my mailbox, with a link to the catalogue for this month’s Old Master Paintings auction. Lovely stuff, as always – with quite the number of portraits. I still have to look at those a bit closer, but it is always a sad realisation that over time most of these people have namelessly fallen between the cracks of history: The legion of Les Inconnus, as I wrote previously in my post ‘Remember Me‘, about the Bonham’s miniature portrait sale. Lady with a book, boy with dog, man with letter, girl with a pearl earring; titles of this sort bother me deeply.

Another rather in-your-face section this auction are the seventeenth and eighteenth century flower arrangements. Don’t get me wrong, they are absolutely beautiful and marks of talent and crafsmanship – but after ten peonies, six carnations, five hydrangeas, and fourteen roses, I am all done for. Only if my eye catches birds, bees, or other insects, I might just be able to maintain my focus a little longer.
But then there is food. That’s a whole different thing. Oddly enough, it does not matter what the painter has displayed on a table, if it is food, with plates and cutlery, and glasses, and bowls, peeled and still with branches and leaves – my attention is caught. It’s all about the details. Don’t try to rush me through a hall of foods and drinks paintings: it’s a fruitless effort. So, as I browsed through the catalogue, making notes of the portraits and the Dutch master paintings, I stumbled upon five lots of perfectly lively still foods.


Lot 56 – Attributed to Francesco Barrera, A lobster and a pike on a table-top, first half of the 17th Century; oil on canvas, 48.2 x 62.8 cm. (catalogue)

How about Francesco Barrera’s (attributed) work with a pike and a lobster; fantastic contrast of silvery-blue with scarlet red. Ironically though: The pike at first sight seems to be the most alive, but in fact has the deadest dumbest look a fish could possibly have; whilst the boiling red lobster has all the signs of already being cooked, yet manages to look pretty ticked off. And, in all honesty: justly so.


Lot 59 – Neapolitan School, A still life with an olive branch and sweet meats: An Allegory of Easter, 17th Century; oil on canvas, 50.2 x 76.0 cm. (catalogue)

It was almost directly followed by a work from the Neapolitan School of the seventeenth century. Although the description left me a bit puzzled at first: ‘A still life with an olive branch and sweet meats: An allegory of Easter.’ Perfectly plausible, of course, but my first impression was not meat but bread. And I keep returning to that, especially because this is said to be Neapolitan and I suddenly remembered what was placed on the lavish Easter table of Italian friends: Casatiello. A round Easter bread, filled with cheese, meats, and eggs. It is an ancient recipe and full of symbolism about new life. The display on this painting could just have been a photo taken at my friends’ table, seen to their keen eye for detail and all: The small branches of flowers sticking out, the ribbons in the olive branch. Oh, and extra applause for the painter: He actually painted the branche as a rough cut-off.


Lot 95 – German School, A dish of quince, plums, grapes and other fruit with a glass of wine on a draped table-top with nuts and a blue-tit, 19th Century; oil on canvas, 74.5 x 59.9 cm. (catalogue)

Normally I’m not so fond of nineteenth century still-life paintings. I saw a very bleak French one in the catalogue too, which I choose to ignore. But this German School one has a serious old atmosphere about it; it is quite clear that the artist tried his hand on the old style. For me it had three immediate eye-catchers and one hidden surprise.

First of course the blue-tit standing on the fresh walnut, eyeing the halved one. It took me a little while to discern what it was that lies on the left, but I think it could be green hazelnuts. It would pair up with the walnuts which are also present in fresh and dried versions. Secondly, the two fiercely painted walnuts, ganging up on a single hazelnut; all on a lush jade table cloth. It could be a painting by itself. And, thirdly, the lid on the wineglass. We always seem to focus on the foot of the glass and the chalice, which are not very clear here or even half-hidden. All the more reason for the focus on that interesting glass lid. I cannot remember having seen one of these before. It could be a time thing, this being nineteenth century, but I am most certainly going to be paying more attention now.

And there was the hidden surprise that took me right back to my childhood. I was about six or seven, sitting on the grass in the garden of one of my great-aunts and suddenly this butterfly-like creature of black, dark velvety green and bright red, landed on my hand for a rest. Apparently I sat so quietly mesmerized by it, that my aunt came over to check on me, and immediately said: ‘Oh, how lovely, a six-spot burnet.’ Six-spot burnet. Fantastic name. And that is what this little moth is, there, at the top of the painting. It really is a nice painting with its glasslike grapes and this absolutely perfect orange-with-a-leave.


Lot 186 – Circle of Adriaen van Utrecht, A dish of mussels with a bowl of butter resting on a loaf of bread, and fish, shallots and a jug, on a table-top; and A silver ewer with a dish of oysters, lemons, bread and a porcelain bowl of strawberries on a draped table-top, 17th Century; a pair, oil on canvas, 69.2 x 92.9 cm. (catalogue)

It became quiet for a while, but a good hundred lots down the catalogue I stumbled upon, of course, two Dutch painters with both a double set. One can always trust the Dutch for doing this the right way. The first set is from the Circle of Adriaen van Utrecht. Two pieces, rich in detail: The first one of a table with a half draped table-top, in the centre a silver (not pewter?) ewer and to the right a tall goblet holder with filled goblet. Both stunning. As are the oddly balancing knife and fork too, with their incredible detail. But I’m focusing on food now. The theme is fish, shellfish to be more precise. This first piece has very well-polished silver plates of bread, olives, and look at those oysters! And although slightly out-of-place (unless I have missed some seventeenth century habit of eating them with oysters): the strawberries. Great details – and I try very hard not to mention the bowl. (horse!)


The second painting of this pair looks a bit sturdier than the former one: Wooden table, an earthenware jug, kippers on the table, beter balanced knife, sjallots, and a piece of (salmon?) fillet. And again a great colour contrast with this unidentified, yet well-cut fish on a red plate. Then the loaf of bread with on top of it a bowl of butter. One’s eye turns clockwise around this painting towards the centrepiece: The plate with a mountain of mussels, each looking like they just came out of the pot. The almost azure shell-interior is a very nice detail.

Remains only one thing: I have absolute not the faintest of ideas what that thing in the background might be. I will probably have to ask some culinary historians in my circle about that one.


Lot 189 – J. Bourjinon, Grapes, plums, peaches and other fruit on a stone ledge; and a split melon with grapes, peaches, a peeled lemon and other fruit on a stone ledge, second half 17th Century; a pair, oil on canvas, 51.2 x 41.2 cm. (catalogue)

The last pair resembles the fruits of late Summer with two pieces of grapes, prunes, plums, peaches. They both do not need much words to state the mastery of J. Bourjinon, of whom I really wonder if he’s family of Pierre Bourguignon; but I would like to point out the three strings of shiny gooseberries, the carved melon, the greenest prunes I have ever seen, and last but not least: that immaculately peeled lemon (which I believe to be an orange). Painted fruits do not get much tastier than this.

These auction catalogues, they are not only interesting for research, but also a joy on early mornings with coffee – although I’m feeling a little peckish now.

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