We had the pleasure of a talk by David Allen last year on the subject of the London Livery Companies. He returned this week with a fascinating picture of the character of a Georgian Gentleman, and the nature of “the gentry” circa 1770-90s As before this was a fluent piece of story telling.
The gentry, he said, were largely the nouveaux riches, men who had thrived in the early stages of the industrial revolution, had built businesses and wealth, and had developed large country house estates to display their place in society – risen in the class structure – yet not of nobility or heritage. By the 1770s they had evolved a style of life – in the way in which they displayed their wealth, in their clothing, in their artefacts, in their homage to the arts, to a distinctive behaviour and pattern of life.
David illustrated aspects of this culture by means of a number of silver and glassware items that he had collected, demonstrating their significance and utility in the everyday life of the gentry. There were items that the gentleman would carry with him – a gold-lined silver snuff box with its vital spoon; a personal nutmeg grater or a spice box louvred so that he could ease his own personal smell when in company with others; a small pocket knife and fork for use at tea parties.
Wining and dining were essentials in establishing positions of status. Large dining tables, with elegant china, porcelain and cutlery provided the platform for great celebrations. The “French cuisine” was the flavour of the month, with vast menus of meats, poultry, and fish, condiments, sauces and soups and puddings for a starter course and then more of the same for a main course. Food was self-served with long silver ladles/spoons or tongs to enable guests to help themselves and avoid the need to “pass the plate”. Wines, port and gin were the taste of the gentry – in vast quantities. Beers and ales were for the serving classes. Vegetables were an important part of the diet, but the “earthy” potatoes, carrots and swedes were for below stairs. There was a great delicacy in presentation – a silver scoop to remove the haulms from strawberries, elegant knives and forks for the asparagus, precisely laid out on an elegant platter, naturally.
This was a talk filled with information, anecdote and humour. A very choice morning.