Here is a pair of silverplate table pheasants, unmarked, probably circa 1900, English or Continental, that sometimes adorn my table when I entertain. Lately, I have been wondering about the origins of my metallic feathered friends. Maybe they refer to the Medieval table in the Great Hall with its abundant feast of game birds presented in elaborate displays. And perhaps they simply suggest the hunting of game itself, and thereby they would appropriately occupy the table of an English country house where shooting game was a traditional pastime.
A cursory look on the internet for silver pheasants in both sterling and plate (and also in .800 grade silver) showed that most of these birds were late Victorian to 1930’s in date and were usually of British or German manufacture with some Italian birds thrown in the mix. This late appearance of such shiny birds suggests that while they refer to hunting and the past, to the English country house, they are also maybe part of the end of this world that began with the Great War. Silver table pheasants are then perhaps a metal symbol of past glories and traditions both for those who actually came from that dying world, but also for an aspiring middle class that could buy a cheaper plate bird and have their table look as splendid as the lord of the manor. Pheasants as fantasy for all.
When I look at my silver table pheasants I am pleasantly reminded of Dutch and Flemish still-life painting of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Jan Weenix The White Peacock, 1692, oil on canvas, 75.2”x65.4”, The Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
These lavish, lush and tactile displays of dead game in paint sometimes with accompanying fruit and flowers are full of rich, sumptuous texture and color. They are gruesome, yet deliciously appetizing. Dead animals become something gorgeous to look at (rather than to be avoided) in carefully arranged compositions which could inspire a magnificent tablescape for a dinner party. Yet, dead animals on your table while beautiful in pigment is unappealing in actuality.
And indeed while these paintings were meant as displays of wealth and of the skill of the artist to be visually admired, they were simultaneously vanitas- reminding the spectator that the material world is fleeting and everything and everyone dies in it. Animals are killed, flowers wilt, fruit rots and man turns to dust.
Attributed to Jan Fyt, Still-life with Fruit, Dead Game and a Parrot, late 1640’s, oil on canvas, 33.3”x44.6”, The National Gallery London.
One might suggest an animal stuffed by taxidermy as a substitute for your tablescape to get that Dutch/Flemish look. However, this solution may not be ideal either. Strangely a October 2011 post on Kovel’s Komments, an online antique newsletter, warns, “A popular magazine is featuring taxidermed birds in the center of a table near dishes that would hold food. It makes a nice photo, but it’s a bad idea. Stuffed animals attract many types of insects, especially head lice (we learned the hard way), and feathers and furs are difficult to clean.” Oh dear!
I guess stuffed dead birds are out too for an arresting tablescape. Luckily, I have my silver table pheasants to step into the breach and provide a beautiful table for my guests and remind them of hunting and shooting, of English country houses, of times long gone and hopefully since this would endlessly please me, they would see in my metal birds a hint of Dutch and Flemish still-life painting. Here are some further examples of this genre to whet your appetite:
Jan Fyt, Partridge and Small Game Birds, 1650’s, oil on canvas, 18.25”x14.25”, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Jan Fyt, Dead Birds in a Landscape, 1640’s, oil on canvas, 16.4”x22.4”, The National Gallery, London.
Jan Weenix, Gamepiece with Dead Heron, 1695, oil on canvas, 52.75”x43.75”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Jan Weenix, Deerhound with Dead Game, 1708, oil on canvas, 68.3”x61.8”, The National Gallery, London.
Jan Weenix, Landscape with Huntsman and Dead Game, 1697, oil on canvas, 135.4”x127.2”, National Gallery of Scotland.
Jan Weenix, Still-life with Jack Rabbit, 1697, oil on canvas, 45”x37.8”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Jan Weenix, Still-life with Birds and Rabbit, 1714, oil on canvas, 67.7”x63”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Frans Snijders, Still-life with Game, Flowers and Fruit, 1600-1657, oil on canvas, 47.4”x69.4”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Frans Snijders, Still-life with Game, Flowers and Fruit, 1600-1657, oil on wood, 22.4”x34.6”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Wybrand Hendriks, Fruit, Flowers and Dead Birds, c.1780, oil on canvas, 26.7”x21.5”, The National Gallery, London.