"Epergne." Like "redingote," for me it is a "Georgette Heyer word," since I first encountered it in the pages of one of her novels, though that was so long ago I cannot remember which one. I knew from the context that it was the centerpiece of a dining table. But of what was it made, how big was it, how was it shaped, what was its purpose? If you wanted to know things like that, Heyer left it up to you to figure them out for yourself. Of course, a standard dictionary was not much help in that effort, as it provided essentially the same information I was able to glean from the context of the passage in the novel.
Years later, while a student of the decorative arts, I finally did take the time to investigate the epergne. Only to discover that the epergne was something different in different countries and at different times. Here I shall outline the evolution of the epergne in England, with a focus on the Regency Epergne. You may then judge for yourself whether the epergne you encounter in the next Regency novel you read is accurately depicted.
The word "epergne" is believed to have its source in the French word épargne, which translates as "saving," or "treasury." And saving is precisely what the epergne did on the dinner table or sideboard. When the form was first introduced in France in the 1690s, it was an elaborate device with several arms ending in brackets, small saucers or shallow boxes projecting at different heights. This structure would accommodate the many condiments and spices which were served with a great meal, thus saving table space. Since the spices and condiments which were contained in the epergne were all very expensive, it also served as the treasury for the meal.
It is generally acknowledged that the epergne form was first introduced into England in the 1730s by the silversmith Paul de Lamerie. Lamerie was descended from French Huguenots who had come to England by the late seventeenth century, when he was still a child. He was a leading London silversmith who was patronized by many of England’s elite. He was also extremely skillful, and one of the first silversmiths in England to work in the new organic Rococo style.
The early English epergnes were nearly all of silver, and a great many were in the Rococo style. By the mid-eighteenth century epergnes had become de rigueur on the dining tables of the British aristocracy. However, by that time they had ceased to hold spices and condiments and had become the crowning adornment of the dessert table. The dessert course of a grand meal was traditionally lighter in tone and more frivolous than the preceding courses. The tablecloth was usually removed for the dessert course, so the gleaming silver epergne at the center of the table stood out against the dark color of the polished wooden table-top. The delicate and sinuous motifs of the Rococo perfectly exemplified that lighter tone of the dessert course. The Rococo vogue for chinoiserie was happily incorporated into epergnes made in England during the second half of the eighteenth century. Pagoda-shaped canopies on these epergnes were hung with many silver bells. The brackets, saucers and boxes of the early epergnes were replaced on these later Georgian epergnes with small pierced silver baskets which could be detached from the main structure. Typically, the large top basket would be filled with fresh or preserved fruits, while the smaller baskets would be filled with nuts, small candied fruits and sweetmeats. Again, as the epergne became the dominate feature of the dessert table, it continued to live up to its name. It saved table space with its tiered baskets, and it was indeed the treasury of the dessert table, as the most expensive delicacies were to be found on the epergne.
Please click the links below to see illustrations of English silver epergnes from the eighteenth century in several different styles:
- Early Georgian epergne by Thomas Gilpin
- 1762 Epergne by Thomas Pitts
- Gold epergne commissioned by George III of Thomas Heming in 1762
- Epergne with openwork base and solid baskets c1763 by Emick Romer
- 1778 Pierced and chased epergne by Thomas Pitts
- Large multi-basket epergne by James Young c1782
- Late Georgian epergne in the chinoiserie style
- Late Georgian epergne with pierced large and small silver baskets
- Late Gerogian epergne with pierce upper basket and solid small dishes
- Late Georgian large multi-basket epergne
In the last decade of the eighteenth century, epergnes began to be arrayed with glass saucers, bowls or baskets. At about this time candle-holders were sometimes interspresed among the branches which held the bowls or baskets. By the Regency, cut glass bowls or baskets were a common feature of the "modern" epergne in the Neo-Classical style which was slowly supplanting the Rococo. The straight lines of the Neo-Classical silver supports contrasted well with the deeply cut Regency glass. Imagine a Regency table set for the dessert course. The dark, highly polished mahogany surface of the table supports the silver epergne and its multiple cut glass bowls filled with colorful fruits, nuts and sweetmeats. These gleaming surfaces would all reflect the light from the candles burning in the holders on the epergne as well as those in the candelabra around the room. The perfect frivolous fantasy focus of the dessert course.
Please click the links below to see illustrations of English epergnes from the very late eighteenth century through the Regency, in several different styles:
- Late Rococo silver epergne with candle holders c1790
- Neo-classical epergne by Thomas Pitts c1790
- Neo-classical style silver epergne by Matthew Boulton c1790
- Silver and Waterford crystal epergne c1790 – 1810
- George IV silver epergne with cut glass baskets c1820
- Ornate silver-plate epergne with glass bowls c1820
- Regency silver-plate epergne with cut glass baskets on mirrored plateau
- Late Regency silver-plate epergne with cut lead crystal baskets
- Silver-plate epergne with cut glass baskets
- Silver and gold neo-classical epergne c1830
- Sheffield plate epergne c1830
- Silver epergne with cut crystal bowl and silver candle holders c1833
There are a number of illustrations of Georgian epergnes and centerpieces at an Antikalar page. The text is not in English, but the illustrations alone make this page worth a visit.
Through the nineteenth century, epergnes evolved again, ultimately into objects completely of glass. They also changed their purpose again, deserting the dessert course to re-establish their dominance on the dining table for all the courses of the meal. But now, instead of holding delectable sweets, epergnes now held flowers. Some of these later epergnes consisted of an array of "trumpets" to hold bunches of cut flowers, others also included detachable hanging baskets which typically held large single blooms.
The links below will take you to illustrations of Victorian glass epergnes:
- Silver and glass epergne
- Tiffany silver-plate and glass epergne c1866
- Green vaseline glass epergne with trumpets and hanging baskets c1880
- Victorian cranberry glass epergne
- Mold blown clear glass epergne
- Vaseline green and red glass epergne
- Northwood blue "thread and rib" epergne
- Stourbridge red and blue epergne
As with decorative objects today, particularly expensive ones, people did not discard older items when new items became available. Thus, epergnes from the eighteenth century could just as easily turn up on a Regency dessert table as an epergne of more recent manufacture. However, the glass epergnes of the Victorian era would never have been seen in a Regency dining room since they had not yet been developed. The silver epergnes of the Georgian era and the silver and glass epergnes of the Regency era were quite expensive, even when they were new. They would only have appeared on the tables of the wealthier classes. The later glass epergnes of the Victorian era were available in a wide range of prices, and would thus have appeared on the tables of a much broader range of classes. Now, the next time an author puts an epergne on a dining table in a Regency novel, you will have a better idea what that epergne might look like and how it should be used. You will also be able to judge if the epergne was an appropriate possession for the characters in whose home it appears.
For further reading:
Spillman, Jane Shadel & Hermanos, Susan S., The Elegant Epergne: From the Bunny and Charles Koppelman Collection. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., Publishers, 1995.
Miller, Judith, (general editor), Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia. London: Octopus Publishing, 2003.
Smith, Georgiana Reynolds, Table Decoration: Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E Tuttle Company, 1968.