Or mantle-shelf. Or curio cabinet.
Ceramic, usually porcelain, figurines have figured in a number of Regency novels which I have read over the years. Angry heroines throw them at the hero, oftentimes smashing them to bits. A cruel stepmother might deliberately break one which the heroine, or the hero, treasured as a special memento of loved one they had lost. A particular figurine might serve as the key to solving a mystery or revealing a secret. But what was the origin of all these charming, yet fragile, porcelain figures? Surprising as it may seem, they trace their origins to the ornate decorations made of various foodstuffs which were fashionable on aristocratic medieval dining tables during grand feasts.
First, of course, we shall address the source of the name of these amazing ornaments. During the Middle Ages, the word subtle was defined as something with a fine or delicate texture. When said of a craftsman, that his work was skillful, expert and dextrous. When said of a thing, that it was characterized by cleverness and ingenuity in conception and execution, that it was artfully contrived. It was from these concepts that the term subtlety was derived as a name for the special dishes and decorations which adorned aristocratic medieval dining tables in between courses. In France, they were known as entremets, and in Italy as intermezzi, due to the fact that they came in between courses, while they were called subtleties in England, due to the intricacies of their designs.
In the Middle Ages, dinner was not only the main meal of the day, it was often the only meal of the day. Dinner began much earlier in the day than it does now, typically at about 11:00am in most places. But in the great aristocratic houses, particularly on special occasions, the meal could go on for several hours. These marathon meals would consist of several courses, with long periods between each remove. It was considered very bad manners to leave the table while a meal was in progress, so each diner was provided with a container placed discretely under the table to accommodate the call of nature. Initially, to entertain and amuse the diners in these intervals between courses, simple but spiced and colored dishes were served. Soon, inventive cooks and pastry chefs began to create ornate and sometimes dynamic dishes to be served for the amusement of the diners during each interval. Large, hollow pie shells were baked with a hole in the bottom, and just before serving, the shell was filled with many small live birds which would fly out when the shell was opened at table. Ground meat was flavored and colored with spices such as saffron, and then sculpted into fantastical shapes. Peacocks and swans were skinned, roasted, then put back inside the feathered skin, which sported gilt-edged feathers and were often set with numerous jewels. Boar’s heads were roasted whole with the mouth open, the cavity was then stuffed with flammable material which was set alight just as the head was served. Many noblemen tried to lure away particularly talented chefs from other aristocrats, to ensure they could provide the most spectacular subtleties at their own grand dinners, thus increasing their own prestige. Unlike our often mundane meals of today, medieval meals were as much theatre as feast.
Subtleties began to change once the crusaders returned from the Holy Land, for they brought with them not only the new commodity, sugar, but also the knowledge of how the Arabs used sugar to build complex models of trees, gardens and even buildings as table decorations. By the end of the Middle Ages, subtleties were more likely to be models of castles filled with tiny lords and ladies, or menageries of diminutive animals, all made from sugar paste, rather than flaming boar’s heads or gilt and jeweled peacocks. These sugar creations became even more complex, intricate and fantastical during the Renaissance. There were subtleties with heraldic themes, religious themes, or mythological themes. There were also miniature representations of famous military skirmishes with knights on horseback, and naval battles with ships in full sail. There are a few recorded instances of these sugar table decorations being sculpted in the form of both male and female genitalia, apparently to break the ice among the diners. For royal and aristocratic weddings, the table was often decorated with miniature sugar sculptures of each of the main members of the wedding party. The figures representing the wedding party might be set within a model of the church in which the wedding took place, in the churchyard, or in a lush garden. In a noble house wishing to ensure its prestige with spectacular sugar sculptures for their tables, but lacking a chef with the necessary skill, local sculptors were employed to create them. For those seeking even grander prestige, painters and goldsmiths were brought in to further embellish the small sugar sculptures. After the wedding celebrations were over, those members of the wedding party who had been captured in sugar were typically given the statuette of themselves as a memento of the event. Part of this tradition lingers even today, in the custom of placing figures of the bride and groom on the top of the wedding cake.
By the sixteenth century, marzipan, called "marchpane" in England until well into the nineteenth-century, was becoming popular for the making of these fanciful subtleties. In the preceding centuries, subtlties made of molded sugar which were not given as gifts to the diners at a grand feast were often left on the table with the other leftovers of the meal. The dining hall was then opened to the nobleman’s dependents and/or the local poor after the meal was over. This practice began to change at about the same time that marchpane became the fashionable material for the making of these intricate table decorations. Not only could it be easily molded but it held its shape. In addition, it could take and hold deeper colors than plain sugar, thus expanding the palette of the artists who created these sweet ornaments. Almost as important, thoroughly dried marchpane could be stored for long periods, even years, so long as it was kept reasonably warm and dry. Thus, these sweet, intricate, but now much more sturdy, table decorations could be stored away for re-use at future grand banquets. By the seventeenth century, since it was no longer common to open one’s home to the less fortunate after a meal to allow them to consume the leftovers, it did not seem parsimonious to retain the subtleties for re-use, as there was no one to eat them. It then seemed much more proper to store them away for the next feast.
When it was first introduced into Europe, sugar was extremely expensive, so its use in the making of subtleties for the table made a lavish statement of wealth and power. But in the early eighteenth century, the secret of a new "white gold" was discovered, hard-paste porcelain. In 1707, the alchemist and sometime adventurer, Johann Friedrich Böttger, unable to turn base metals into gold, saved himself from the wrath of Augustus, Elector of Saxony, by developing a reliable, reproducible formula for porcelain. This new Continental porcelain was soon known as "white gold" due to the extremely high demand for porcelain objects throughout Europe. By 1710, the great porcelain manufactory at Meissen was in production. Their earliest products were vases and other garniture, as well as tea, coffee and chocolate services, but soon they expanded to the production of complete dinner services. And the grandest of those dinner services included subtleties molded in porcelain. By this time, subtlties were made and used only for the dessert course. They tended to be lighter and more playful in theme than earlier subtlties had been, as it was believed solemn themes at the end of the meal would spoil the digestion. Perhaps the grandest service of all the Meissen porcelain dinner services was the great 2200-piece Schwanenservice (Swan Service) made for the manufactory’s director, Graf Heinrich von Brühl, between 1737 and 1743. In addition to all the dinner plates, tea cups and soup tureens there were also made hundreds of porcelain figures for table decorations. In order to ensure that the porcelain table decorations were made to his liking, Graf von Brühl sent his chief pastry chef to Meissen to assist in the creation of the molds for the numerous figures which were made for the Swan Service.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the back-to-nature philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was taking hold across Europe. This was to have a decided impact on the table decorations which were now typically restricted to the dessert course. Sugar and marzipan subtlties were still made, but they were slowly being supplanted by those made of porcelain. And those porcelain figures included flocks of shepherds and shepherdesses, as well as their sheep, dairy maids and their cows, peasants gambolling about trees picking fruit, and all manner of wild, exotic and mythical animals. Since these figures were made for the dessert course, which was intended to be light-hearted and entertaining, there were also figures of the various characters of the Commedia dell’arte, musicians and conjurers, acrobats and dancers, the many gods and goddesses of the classical pantheon, and exotic peoples such as Turks and Chinamen, Arabs and Indians. For very grand meals, it was not enough just to set these figures out on the dessert table. They had to be placed in an appropriate setting to complete the decorations. These set pieces might have been made of sugar, marzipan, greenery, flowers, porcelain, silver or gold. A popular setting was a silver tray or looking glass which was surrounded with small flowers and greens, to give the impression of a lake or pond. The vignette might be enhanced with sugar or marzipan trees and shrubs to create a table-top meadow or forest. Within it would be placed a group of themed figures, such as shepherdesses and/or dairymaids with their charges, or peasants gathering fruit. Alternately, a group of various wild and exotic animals might be placed among the sugar shrubbery and trees to create a miniature wilderness. A model stage might have been constructed, with sugar or marzipan props, onto which would be populated a scene with the characters from the Commedia dell’arte.
By the late eighteenth century, these porcelain figures had escaped the dining table, with the help of many people who thought they were much too charming and enchanting to be enjoyed only during the dessert course at grand formal meals. The secret of hard-paste porcelain had escaped the Meissen manufactory several decades before and spread across Europe. As the popularity of these small statuettes grew, porcelain manufactories throughout England and the Continent were turning out legions of porcelain figures which were not part of any dinner or dessert service. Porcelain figurines remained popular right through the Regency, either as part of a dessert service, or separately, for interior decoration. And, since these small works of ceramic art were then sold individually, many people who could not afford a porcelain dinner or dessert service could afford one or two porcelain figures to brighten a special room. At the other end of the spectrum were those who collected an example of every porcelain figure they could find, displaying their collections throughout their houses.
Now you will better understand the "genealogy" of those hosts of small porcelain figurines which could be found in many homes during the Regency. You will also now understand why shepherds and shepherdesses, dairymaids, peasants, and the characters of the Commedia dell’arte were among the most popular porcelain statuettes to be found on Regency mantle-shelves and dressing tables. Exotic peoples, mythological figures and wild animals were also quite prevalent in larger and more sophisticated porcelain collections, as these pieces tended to be more expensive. Dear Regency Authors, I would be remiss if I did not also point out that though I have used the word "figurine" in this article, our Regency ancestors would never have used it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary online, the word "figurine" did not enter our language until the mid-nineteenth century, long after the Regency was over. By the mid-nineteenth century, porcelain figurines continued in popularity for interior decoration, but had fallen out of favor as dessert table ornaments. But there is no reason why the dessert table at a grand Regency dinner party could not be decorated with a model stage filled with diminutive characters of the Commedia dell’arte or a miniature meadow, complete with mirrored lake, through which wandered delicate porcelain shepherds and shepherdesses seeking their flocks. Surely such a delightful vista would make the dessert that much more enjoyable and could not help but improve the digestion, as our ancestors believed?