Thursday, February 2, 2017

Life Imitates Art at Riversdale House Museum's Dining Room, Winter 2017


Curatorial Inspiration: The Paintings of Mary Ellen Best

Mary Ellen Best (1809-91) was born in York, England to Dr. Charles Best and Mary Best. She was well-travelled, having taken three tours of the Continent before she married a German, Johann Anton Phillip Sang in 1840. The Sangs moved to Germany  within the first year of their marriage. 

Mary Ellen (known as Ellen) studied art at school and had a real talent for painting watercolors that depicted very detailed interior building scenes, the people she knew, and, in particular, the everyday lives of women. Her numerous travels also inspired her art. Fish Stall in St. John's Market (Liverpool, 1832), Cellar at Middleton Hall (October, 1837), Children Begging, Scene on the Road Between Gittingen and Brunswick (1839), Kitchen of the Hotel St. Lucas, in the Hoogstraat, Rotterdam (August 1834), and Dairy at Howsham (1830s) represent some of the titles of her paintings. While these titles may seem to reflect the mundane, to a historian they offer a rare glimpse into the lives and material objects of a time long past. 

Other than to her descendants, Ellen's paintings were not publicly known. However, in 1983 forty-seven of these paintings  were sold by Sotheby's. This sale sparked Caroline Davis, a social historian and journalist, to embark on a project to uncover as many of Ellen's paintings as she could and to find out as much about her life as possible. In 1985, Davis published The World of Mary Ellen Best which includes almost 140 color paintings and a very detailed account of the artist's life.

Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I am using Mary Ellen Best's painting, Our Dining Room at York (1838) as the inspiration of the Winter 2017 dining room display at Riversdale House Museum (Riverdale Park, Maryland).

Our Dining Room at York by Mary Ellen Best (1838)

Dining in 1838
This dining room display reflects the dining service called Service à la française whereby all of the food for each course is set upon the table at once and served family style. Note that there is very little to no room for floral decorations or large and complex place settings.  This scene most likely depicts the first course because the soup tureen is on the table and bread rolls are offered at each place setting. If soup was being served, it was always served first in the Service à la française style. However, soup was occasionally offered in a second course, but that was not a common practice.

Connecting the Painting to Riversdale in 1838
The majority of the interpretation of Riversdale House Museum, located in Riverdale Park, Maryland, revolves around its earliest era, from the time construction of the property started in 1801. Its first occupants were George Calvert (1768-1838) and his wife, Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778-1821) and their nine children (only five of which survived childhood). Though this time period is the house museum's primary focus, every tour includes information about later occupants, particularly that of the Calverts' younger son, Charles Benedict.  

Rosalie Stier Calvert died young at age forty-two in 1821, and her husband, George, never remarried; he lived the remainder of his days at Riverdale until his death in 1838, just shy of his seventieth birthday. Significantly, it was the Calverts' younger son, Charles Benedict (1808-1864) who took on the ownership and management of Riversdale and its vast acreage of farmland because his older brother, George Henry (1803-1889), did not want that lifestyle. Charles Benedict (or C.B.), on the other hand, was very interested in agricultural reform practices and even founded the Maryland Agricultural College in 1856, the first agricultural research college in America (now known as the University of Maryland). 

The Tucker Porcelain
C.B. married Charlotte Augusta Norris (Baltimore, March 11, 1816 - December 7, 1876) in Baltimore on June 6, 1839. Possibly to commemorate a new era at Riversdale with the installation of Charlotte as the new mistress of Riversdale, C.B. purchased a very expensive set of China in 1839. There are two November, 1839 documents related to this purchase, a receipt for the purchase and a receipt for the shipping fees, both of which were kindly loaned to Riversdale by a Calvert family descendant. Here they are:

Receipt of Purchase 12 November 1839
Shipping Receipt 16 November 1839

Note that the receipt of purchase is dated November 12th, 1839 from Thomas Tucker to Charles Benedict Calvert. The receipt is for:

“One buff ground and gold grape vine Dinner, Dessert and Tea Set / One pr Cornucopias /One pr Wine Coolers / $600.” 

Thomas Tucker was the brother of William Ellis Tucker, founder of the Tucker Porcelain Company of Philadelphia that opened in 1826. It was one of the first successful porcelain companies in America. Interestingly, it closed in 1838; therefore, the set C.B. Calvert bought must have been made no later than 1838 even though he purchased it from Tucker in 1839. Notice the price of the China set, a whopping $600 in 1839 dollars; that translate to approximately $15,000 in today's money.


Happily, through the generous donations of Calvert family descendants, Riversdale House Museum has many pieces of the beautiful peach and gilt China set owned by the Calverts in its collection. This is a picture of some of the pieces of this set in the collection at Riversdale:



Combining Forces: Using the Tucker Porcelain to Bring Mary Ellen Best's Painting to Life

I always try to find primary sources, menus or in this case an actual painting of a dinner scene, to help create an accurate way in which to set the table at Riversdale. The Mary Ellen Best painting offers a very fine example of period documentation, including lots of detail. Here are some of the details I love about this painting:
  • The soup bowls are set in front of the tureen waiting to be filled. This detail brings this painting to life conveying a sense of anticipation.
  • Though soup is being served, there are no spoons set out on the table. Perhaps they are still yet to be distributed by a servant. I have placed the soup spoons on the side table for this purpose.
  • Each roll is set at each place on top of a small square napkin.
  • There are no candelabra on the table, indicating dinner must have been served early-to-mid afternoon.
The photograph below shows how I used the c. 1838 Tucker porcelain purchased by C.B. Calvert in 1839 and Mary Ellen Best's 1838 era dining room scene as the inspiration for a dining room setting Mr. & Mrs. Charles Benedict Calvert would find familiar and comforting:

Winter, 2017 Dining Room,
Riversdale House Museum
Soup spoons on the side table, waiting to be distributed.

Note: Many thanks to Jenn Flood, Collections Manager at Riversdale House Museum for the information about the Tucker porcelain set.

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