Feast Your Eyes: The Fashion of Food in Art


6 October 2012 - 6 January 2013


Celebrating the representation of food over the past five centuries, Feast your Eyes explored fashions in food and drink throughout Europe from the 16th to the 21st Century.

Ranging from Arcimboldo’s fantasies to 20th Century still life photographs by Irving Penn, the exhibition explored themes prevalent in depictions of food in art such as Faith and Feast, From Market to Table, Fashionable Beverages, and Still Life.

Faith and Feast explored paintings depicting religious subjects and scenes of feasting where food takes on a symbolic presence. Highlights included Jacob van Hulsdonck’s Breakfast Piece which is an elaborate meal of sheep’s trotters, herring, lamb’s liver, ham, black bread, butter and cherries presented on exotic Chinese plates and accompanied by beer and three knives (forks not being introduced until the mid 17th Century.)

From Market to Table charted the progress of food from the fields to market and eventually the table; the depiction of household interiors, animals and people in art giving a glimpse into the social conditions and customs of the time. This section referenced the bustling market scenes of artist Frans Snyders and others, as well as two Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton: Market Day depicts two ladies in their finery being rowed to market in a boat full of vegetables, and September in which ladies in long dresses and aprons are harvesting apples in a cabbage patch, with washing flapping in the wind.

Within the Fashionable Beverages section, works demonstrated the increased significance of new fangled drinks such as tea and chocolate amongst 18th Century fashionable society, as new trade routes exposed western culture to new foods and customs. Portraits seem almost incomplete without the inclusion of delicate teacups and silver and china vessels. The coffee houses of London buzzed with gossip and discussion as these new drinks gave rise to a new model of social interaction. And a century later, the Impressionists documented café life and their popularity with intellectuals, leading literary figures and everyday people.

And finally Still Life explored the differing approach artists have taken across the centuries to capture nature in all its forms. Works included Still life with Red Macaw (Spanish School 17th) to a tableau of Turnips (French School 17th / private collection) and a 20th Century Miner’s Still Life by James Mackenzie lent by Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum. 

The exhibition drew on cookery books, accounts and letters from The Bowes Museum Archive and elsewhere, to discover the dining habits and tastes of our ancestors, including those of the Museum’s Founders, John and Joséphine Bowes, whose Anglo-French style reflected the increasingly sophisticated palate of the upper classes in the 19th Century.

Feast Your Eyes also included three dimensional recreations of two paintings, a still life by Joséphine Bowes and an exquisite watercolour of a Victorian supper party to celebrate a royal visit, from a private collection. With the help of food historian Ivan Day, the table settings and the dishes themselves were explained to bring the paintings to life.

There was also a stimulating events programme including talks on various aspects of the history and social history of food, practical workshops and food and drink tasting events – all designed to celebrate this most fascinating subject.