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Feast Your Eyes: The fashion of food in art explored in new exhibition at the Bowes Museum
Paul Jean Baptiste Lazerges, Still Life with Crabs and a Bottle. ©The Bowes Museum.

COUNTY DURHAM.- Exploring fashions in food and drink throughout Europe, the exhibition Feast Your Eyes is a celebration of the representation of food in art over the past five centuries.

Ranging from Arcimboldo’s fantasies of the 16th Century to still life photographs by Irving Penn in the 20th Century, the exhibition, which opened at The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle on Saturday 6 October, explores themes including Still Life, Faith , From Market to Table, Fashionable Beverages, and Feast.

The exhibition looks at how food is used to convey a story, or as a message, as symbolism or decoration. It considers the changing fashions in food and how these influenced artists’ depictions of food in their work.

One of the earliest works in the show, lent by Southampton City Art Gallery, is a fantastical reference to Summer by the 16th Century artist, Guiseppe Arcimboldo; one of the artist’s famous fruit and vegetable head-shaped compositions for which he is best known. By contrast, the most recent works on display are two photographs of still life by the American photographer, Irving Penn, on loan from the Tate.

In between is an eclectic mix of subjects and styles – from formal still life works revealing the abundance of food from orchard, field, farm and sea, to paintings which show the human relationship with food in all walks of life, from the nobleman dining in style to the humble widow surviving on a diet of broth.

Still Life explores the differing approach artists have taken across the centuries to capture nature in all its forms.

Faith shows paintings where food takes on a symbolic presence.

From Market to Table charts the progress of food from the fields to market and eventually to mealtime; the depiction of household interiors, animals and people giving a glimpse into the social conditions and customs of the time.

Fashionable Beverages demonstrate how new fangled drinks such as tea, coffee and chocolate grew in popularity amongst 18th Century fashionable society, as new trade routes exposed western culture to new foods and customs. The coffee houses of London buzzed with gossip and discussion as these drinks gave rise to a new model of social interaction.

Finally Feast features works showing people enjoying the pleasures of eating, from a hearty picnic to an indulgent banquet.

The exhibition draws 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.

An interesting addition to the exhibition is the 3D re-creation 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 will be explained to bring these paintings to life.

A cookery book based on recipes from the Museum’s Café Bowes and featuring sumptuous images from the Museum’s collection – with details of paintings in the exhibition as well as historical notes and comments by Ivan Day – accompany the exhibition.

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