Biting Satire: Food and Drink in Caricature
2 March 2005
Reported b y Fiona Lucas
Members of CHC were given a rare visual treat on the evening of March 2, 2005. We gathered in the Martin Gelber Print and Drawing Centre at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to view some exceptional English and French 18th- and 19th-century prints of culinary caricatures, and to hear commentary by Dr Katherine Lochnan, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings. Most recently, Dr Lochnan was the curator of the acclaimed exhibition “Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions,” at the AGO, June–September 2004, then showing at the Grand Palais in Paris, and the Tate Britain in London. For CHO’s March program, she had especially assembled eighteen coloured images that conveyed biting satire through depictions of dining and foodstuffs. It was a thoroughly enjoyable education in the cleverness of artists as socio-political critics.
Caricature flourished in 18th-century England owing to its parliamentary political system. Apparently, George III loved caricature, even of himself, unlike the absolute French monarchs of the ancien régime who suppressed it on pain of imprisonment. By the 1830s, under Louis-Philippe, France was sufficiently changed to accept caricature. Virtually all 18th-century prints were caricatures, whereas High Art was reserved for gods and goddesses, ancient mythology, and Christianity. Since caricature was about social life, albeit exaggerated, it clearly revealed real manners and (mis)behaviour, a boon for historical research. Eating and drinking habits were a safe vehicle to satirize politicians, aristocrats, and male/female relationships, while simultaneously critiquing the underlying social assumptions of such things as military errors, aristocratic behaviour, gender relations, social hierarchies, self-serving legislation, and cultural xenophobia. As a young colony, Canada did not develop an independent body of socio-political caricature until the early 20th century.
Thomas Rowlandson is a well-known English print artist from around the turn of the 19th century. Dr Lochnan showed us five of his prints in the AGO collection. “A Student in Good Lodgings” depicts a romantic encounter between a young wife and her paramour, under the unsuspecting nose of her crotchety old husband. She is cooking sausages in a skillet over a cottage fire, while a cold ham and a pudding (a sign of cuckoldry) wait on the table. Her husband drinks beer from a stein, but the boyfriend lifts an elegant wineglass. Behind them is a huge hutch with platters. The image mocks the trio, while showing the age-old association between food and seduction. Three of the other Rowlandson images were versions of upper-class men separating themselves from their womenfolk in order to drink themselves senseless and the resulting social chaos. All his prints queried the role alcohol played in gender roles.
Also on display were two images each by the Englishmen Hogarth and Gilray and the French artist Daumier. All were bitterly and wittily political, full of double entendres and sexual innuendo. For example, in “Le ventre legislative” (1834), one of Daumier’s most famous, he showed a group of solemn (white and male) politicians wearing waistcoats strained over their conspicuously engorged stomachs, as they hypocritically pronounce on royal greed and corruption. Such images got Daumier thrown in prison. “Anti-nationale” (1833), a lithograph made as a fundraiser to release him, depicts various European monarchs sitting at an elegant table in order to carve up the globe (made of cheese) into portions, while throwing crumbs to the lower classes and forcing the Turkish potentate to drink wine. Similarly, women were often depicted as objects of consumption in these caricatures.
For culinary historians, several themes emerged during Dr Lochnan’s extemporare presentation. Since 18th- and 19th-century English and French caricatures mostly portrayed daily life, they were full of details of meal-time etiquette, such as the hierarchy of seating placement, table settings, body image, and attitudes toward gluttony. Also depicted were the minutiae of such arcane things as the number of prongs on forks, the glaze on different types of ceramic, the use of various vessels (salt caster, teacup, wine cellarette, etc.), and the storage of wine. These visualizations are enormously informative for recreating such scenes in movies and museums, in understanding how table items were used, and in seeing how specific foods were served. They help to explain written instructions, in which much subtleness is missed. Chicken, for instance, could be eaten with the fingers, although beef was by knife and fork, according to a nicely dressed lady of the demi-monde in Rowlandson’s “ Vauxhall Gardens” (1785).
Dr Lochnan wears her immense knowledge lightly. Through her we were given some fascinating insights into the foibles of foods, dining, and drinking several centuries ago. It makes one wonder which of our food foibles will amuse our descendants!