A Delectable Dessert: A Late Eighteenth-Century Dessert Table at the Gardiner Museum

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A Delectable Dessert: A Late Eighteenth-Century Dessert Table at the Gardiner Museum

May 14, 2018 - 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm

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Meredith Chilton, Independent Consultant and Researcher, former Chief Curator, The Gardener Museum, Toronto, Canada

The Gardiner Museum’s European porcelain galleries underwent a radical transformation in 2015.  At the heart of the gallery is a new area devoted to dining and drinking, which includes an interpretation of a late eighteenth-century dessert table. At this period, dessert was a visual feast as well as the gastronomic climax to a meal.  Delectable ices, moulded jellied flummeries, rolled wagers and sugar novelties accompanied dishes of fruits and nuts placed on the table in a symmetrical pattern around a mirrored stand or surtout, ornamented with sugar and porcelain sculptures. It was all conceived to delight the guests and impress them with the taste and wealth of their hosts.

This lecture will tell the fascinating story of how the Gardiner dessert table came to be made.  You will discover how James Woodforde’s “very elegant dinner” with the Bishop of Norwich in September 1783, and an engraving of a dessert table from the cookbook of Vincenzo Corrado, provided period references for the table.  A selection from a Derby botanical dessert service in the Gardiner collection inspired the table decoration, including floral bouquets made of waxed paper using a secret formula dating back to the eighteenth century. The quest for a tablecloth, and a visit to the Cumbrian home of food historian Ivan Day who created the sugar work and the artificial food, completes the account.


Meredith Chilton, C. M., is an art historian who specializes in European ceramics of the seventeenth and eighteenth century.  She has served two terms at the Gardiner Museum, Toronto, the first from 1983 to 2004 as curator, and then from 2015 to 2018 as chief curator. Between these appointments she worked for the Sullivan Foundation and also as an independent curator. Over the course of her career, she has curated numerous exhibitions, has lectured and published extensively.  Her books include: Harlequin Unmasked: The Commedia dell’Arte and Porcelain Sculpture (Yale: 2001); and Fired by Passion: Baroque Porcelain of Claudius Innocentius Du Paquier, three volumes in English and German editions (Arnoldsche: 2009).  She was also the principal contributor to Daily Pleasures, French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection (Los Angeles County Museum of Art: 2012). In 2015, she was greatly honored by being made a Member of the Order of Canada, with a citation reading, “Meredith Chilton, Lac-Brome and Toronto. For her leadership as an art historian and curator who helped to make the Gardiner Museum a leading institution in the study of historical ceramics.” Meredith lives in Quebec and continues to work as an independent curator on a forthcoming exhibition and publications.

Above: Dessert Table at the Gardiner Museum, Toronto.  Photo: by Tara Fillion