Fig. 2

Asparagus Server, museum no. C.129-1916 © Victoria and Albert Museum

Asparagus Server, museum no. C.129-1916 © Victoria and Albert Museum

This object is a small asparagus server made at William Duesbury’s Derby porcelain factory in the late eighteenth century, most probably between 1770 and 1785.[1] It is roughly seven centimeters long and made in soft-paste porcelain, hand-painted in underglaze blue.

The English porcelain industry was well established by the 1770s having initially taken its lead from continental manufacturers such as Meissen in Germany and Sèvres in France which were set up after the discovery of soft-pasted porcelain in Germany in the 1710s. This asparagus server, however, is not of the finest porcelain for which those continental manufacturers were renowned, but is an example of blue and white wares, which accounted for the majority of the production of several British porcelain factories and was considered to be for ordinary everyday use. In contrast fine porcelain would have cost as much as silver – the famous diarist James Boswell remarked, during a visit to the Derby china factory in 1777 that ‘the china was beautiful, but Dr Johnson justly observed it was too dear; for that he could have vessels of silver as cheap as were here made of porcelain.’[2]

Blue and white wares would have been considerably cheaper to produce than fancy wares, not only because of the different cost of the materials but because the underglaze decoration required only one firing compared with two, or even three, for gilded and enameled products. This meant not only lower consumption of expensive fuel, but also less chance of breakage during the high-risk firing process. What is more, the decoration would have been crudely applied by poorly-paid women and children rather than the highly skilled craftsmen who were responsible for the enamel decorations. Despite the advantages of the production of blue and white wares this particular, ostensibly simple, shape of the asparagus server is not easy to achieve in ceramic. The flat bottom and ninety-degree angle of the sides are liable to warp during drying or in the kiln and so a certain level of attrition during production must have been inevitable.

These servers were made by several of the English porcelain factories, including Caughley, Worcester and Wedgwood. The china factories were constantly in competition and copying each other’s shapes, which means that it is impossible to ascertain exactly when the shape emerged or who invented it. Superficial decoration aside, they all take the same basic form and were made exclusively in ordinary wares rather than the finest porcelain.[3] The period of production of these servers seems to have been remarkably discrete; no earlier than c.1765 and not beyond the early nineteenth century. It is also notable, given the influence of continental fashions upon tableware of this time that the production of asparagus servers appears to be a uniquely English phenomenon.

An increasing interest in, and understanding of, hygiene marked the beginning of a fashion for individualized and specialized tableware which saw dining move away from the more communal eating practices of the Early Modern era when plates, and even glasses, would be shared between several diners. Asparagus servers seem to exemplify this fashion; further examples of other innovative tablewares of this sort can be seen in a list of Derby products that were described as being part of a shipment to London in 1763, which includes: ‘blue fluted boats, mosaic boats, sage-leaf boats, potting pots, caudle cups, blue strawberry pots, fig-leaf sauce boats, octagon fruits plates, vine-leaf plates, coffee cups, […] honeycomb jars, coffee pots, blue gluglets, and basins to ditto, butter tubs.’[4] All of the major china factories were producing similar inventories of products and it is possible that the rivalry between the businesses fuelled this innovation as they competed for a share in the market with novel products.[5]

Illustrations or specific descriptions of how exactly an asparagus server would have been used do not seem to survive. The fashion during the late eighteenth century was to serve meals à la française whereby the various courses, consisting of many different dishes, would be laid out upon the table from which the seated diners would help themselves. Presentation of these dishes was important; in his instructions to a household Steward, Vincent La Chapelle describes how ‘At this Time a Table must be furnished with the exquisite Dishes, and the whole dispos’d in such a manner as may please the Eye.’[6] These servers may well have been used to enable decorative presentation of asparagus in this style.

Their small size implies that each tray would have been used to serve an individual portion of asparagus while the wedge shape suggests that several servings may well have been presented in a circle upon a larger platter, presumably with the tapering tips of the asparagus at the thin end of the wedge, pointing towards the centre of the dish and creating a geometric effect in keeping with the aesthetic of service à la française. This form of presentation is compatible with a recipe for asparagus published in The London Art of Cookery in 1784 which instructs the cook that:

‘Having scraped all the stalks very carefully till they look white, cut all the stalks even alike, throw them into the water, and have ready a stewpan boiling. Put in some salt, and tie the asparagus in little bunches. […] Cut the round off a small loaf, about half an inch thick, and toast it brown on both sides. Then dip it into the liquor the asparagus was boiled in and lay it in your dish. Pour a little butter over your toast, then lay your asparagus on the toast all round your dish, with the white tops outwards.’[7]

A piece of toast could have been placed inside the asparagus server with the vegetables laid on top, the tray functioning to keep the two separate elements together, or perhaps the server could have replaced the toast as a base for the asparagus, the upright sides keeping the spears contained.

There is a theatricality that seems to often accompany the consumption of asparagus. Eighteenth – century cook Hannah Glasse speaks of her asparagus dishes as making ‘a pretty Side-dish,’ and an amusing recipe for ‘Asparagus Forced in French Roles’ that is presented so that asparagus ‘may look as if it was growing’ out of the bread is relatively common in cookery books of the period. [8] As well as the asparagus server with which this essay is concerned, silver asparagus tongs and small leaf-shaped asparagus butter boats were also being produced; a wealth of specialised serving implements and accessories that certainly was not afforded to the humble bean or cabbage.[9]

This theatricality may stem partially from so simple a reason as its attractive form means that it is given to elegant presentation. The phallic shape of the spears is also probably the reason that asparagus was also thought by some to have an aphrodisiac affect; Bertram Montfichet writes in The life and opinions of Bertram Montfichet, Esq.; written by himself in c.1761 of asparagus’s ability to ‘erect and stimulate the parts.’[10] Furthermore the affect that asparagus has upon the urine of the eater is much remarked upon in eighteenth century literature, which further sets it apart from other vegetables.

Dining fashions changed considerably at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and it seems that the taste for specialized tableware waned. A satirical poem published in 1794 ponders ‘I doubt if the Romans us’d forks with three prongs,/ Or had chocolate, nutmegs, or asparagus tongs:’[11] implying a weariness with the fussy excess of those fashions. At the beginning of the nineteenth century service à la française was replaced by service à la russe which, like modern restaurant service, sees waiters serving diners at the table and would mean that the dramatic presentation of service à la française would no longer have been required; Victorian tastes for specialized tableware seems to have lain chiefly in cutlery rather than crockery.

It would seem that the introduction of novel products in the late eighteenth century was not only an attempt to capture a competitive market but also as part of the rise of sociability, civility and unprecedented conspicuous consumption at this time.  An asparagus server seems to have been an item that was fashionable for a brief period to enable a particular form of presentation. When eating habits changed such an item became surplus to requirement.

Miranda Vane

 

[1] William Duesbury I (1725–1786). Duesbury worked as an enameller before acquiring a share in the Derby potworks in 1756, along with partners John Heath and Andrew Planche (1728-1805). Duesbury also acquired the failing Chelsea pottery factory in 1770. Heath went bankrupt in 1779 but Duesbury was able to buy his share from his creditors, making him sole proprietor of the works upon his death of a heart attack in 1786. He was succeeded in the running of the factory by his son William Duesbury II (1763–1796)

[2] Quoted by John Haslem in The Old Derby China Factory: the workmen and their productions, etc. (London : George Bell and Sons, 1876) p.25

[3] There is an example in the collection of the V&A of a set of six Sheffield plate asparagus servers that were produced in the late eighteenth century, but this seems to be anomalous, although Sheffield plate is also not a particularly expensive material, being to solid silver roughly what English blue and white porcelain was to finer, gilded porcelain. The production of Sheffield Plate was developed in the 1770s which means that the asparagus tray shape would have been taken from ceramic production, rather than the other way round

[4] Quoting a reference from Jewitt (Llewellyn Jewitt, The Ceramic Art of Great Britain (London, 1878) vol. 2 pp. 68-9) which described forty-two large boxes of Derby China that were sent to London in 1763. Barrett and Thorpe, Derby Porcelain, 1750 – 1848 p.23-4

[5] In a letter to Mr Thomas Bentley dated November 21 1773, Josiah Wedgwood describes all of the items that he would like to be included in the forthcoming Queensware catalogue; ‘The Articles that I should wish to have done are Terrines, 4 or 5 sorts, Oval and round, particularly of the round ones we have in Dead stock. They are good things and will look well in a drawing. They should be Number’d, 1 – 2 – 3 &c. Sa [lad] Bowles, and boats; Sallads; Epargnes Pickle stands; Casters, and that for Oil and Vinegar only will make a pretty drawing; Ice pails for Bottles; Do for Single Glasses; Monteiths; Salts; Buckets for Do, single and double; Candlesticks; Egg Baskets; Egg Cups, with covers and without; Poach’d Egg Cups; Entre Dishes; Cover’d Dishes; Argyles; Root dishes. […] Then for Deserts the Articles may be Glauciers; Ice Cups; Compotiers of different sorts; Cream and Sugar Bowles; Baskets &c. And the same Plan may be extended to Tea ware, and ornaments…’ from Letters of Josiah Wedgwood (London : Cory, Adams & Mackay, 1965) edited by Ann Finer and George Savage p.157

[6] Vincent La Chapelle The Modern Cook (London : The author, 1733) pp. i-vi Detailed illustrations of the table layout are included in this book to illustrate the various proposed bills of fare, although no details of the presentation of individual dishes are given

[7] John Farley, The London art of cookery (London : J. Scatcherd & J. Whitaker; J. Fielding, 1784) pp.171 – 2

[8] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, facsimile of first edition published in 1747 (London : Prospect Books, 2012) p.98

[9] Artichokes seem to have had roughly the same prestige as asparagus, and artichoke cups were also made at the Derby china factory.

[10] Bertram Montfichet, The life and opinions of Bertram Montfichet, Esq.; written by himself  volume 2/2 (London : c.1761) p.210

[11] John Courtenay The present state of the manners, arts, politics, of France and Italy; in a series of poetical epistles, from Paris, Rome, and Naples in 1792 and 1793 (London : printed for G. G. and J. Robinson, 1794) p.85

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