Monday, April 12, 2021

Cabinets of Curiosity and Sussex Pond Pudding

  Cornelius Gijsbrechts 1630-75

I guess it should come as no shock that a person who choreographs objects for a living might be drawn to the art of Assemblage - 3D collages, 2D representations of them AND their spectacular antecedents, Cabinets of Curiosity or wunderkammer (wonder rooms). I’m mad about Cabinets of Curiosity.

     Frans Francken the Younger, Chamber of Art and Curiosities, 1636
Kunstschrank of Gustavus Adolphus, 1631, Ulrich Baumgartner cabinet maker

Dresden Grünes Gewölbe (The Green Vault).
treasures of Dresden Grünes Gewölbe (The Green Vault).
treasures of Dresden Grünes Gewölbe (The Green Vault).
treasures of Dresden Grünes Gewölbe (The Green Vault).

What are they? They are, more often than not, an obsessive collection of antiquities, wonders of craftsmanship and materials or naturalia gathered from exotic locations and housed in cases known as kunstschrank (art cabinets) or displayed so that they covered nearly every inch of space on walls, floors and ceilings of curiosity rooms or wunderkammer). Although there were collections curated by scholars, scientists and apothecaries whose aim was to educate more than impress and thrill, many were assembled to show the world where the owner had been or make it clear that they had enough money to harvest the plunder of those who had done the exploring. The collections could really be anything that appealed to the collector.

     Allegory of Sight Jan Brueghel the Younger 1660

Painting and sculpture of the day were often arrayed with the collections to enhance the immersive viewing experience. Monsters were frequent attractions.

MONSTRORUM HISTORIA from Aldrovandi 1642
Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) (father of natural history

From the 1534  Inventory of St Denis

Although the cabinets had their genesis in medieval displays of religious reliquaries (the Treasury of the abbey of St Denis had one of the largest collections of these in Europe), cabinets became popular in the 16th century as a way for imaginative collectors to entertain guests with tall tales and dramatic show-off & tell presentations. Their cabinets were their worlds to reveal, control and explain - Fiji Mermaids and all. The created mythology of the collections created a sense of order and logic in a world that was suddenly very large, very confusing and full of dark chasms of the unknown. 

I’ve had Patrick Mauriès’ fabulous book, Cabinets of Curiosities for 20 years. In it, he explored  the collector's weakness for outré theories when he observed,  “Cabinets were perpetually susceptible to the passion for finding analogies, a theme that belongs as much to the realm of magic as to that of aesthetics, and which haunts the history of the cult of curiosities from the beginning.” Items related to alchemy, botany, geology, archeology, paleontology, zoology and many other disciplines had places in the cabinets. They could show the collector had 'figured it out'.
Tradescant crypt
Catalogue of the Tradescant Collection

Some collections moved from private homes to public spaces to profit from the wonderment of an audience – most famously the Tradescant Collection . Their “Ark” opened to paying customers in 1634. It had been collected over many years by the Tradescants as gardeners for lordly estates who traveled to collect botanical wonders for their masters. Their collection became the basis for the collection at Ashmolean Museum at Oxford in 1683 after Elias Ashmole’s shady dealings with Tradescant’s widow to gain control of their treasures. 

             Sir Ashton Lever's Leverian Museum, Leicester Square, London, 1785

Thankfully, some of these collections were immortalized in engravings and paintings since few of them remain as physical collections. Some artists employed the Trompe l’oeil technique of fooling the eye so the objects were incredibly realistic. Often wooden doors, curtains and backgrounds made the viewer do a double-take to realize that the whole thing they were looking at was two dimensional!

Andrea Domenico Remps 1690
Andrea Domenico Remps 

Andrea Domenico Remps 

Andrea Domenico Remps 

In the 17th century, Andrea Domenico Remps was a master of the form. He excelled at painting imaginary collections or simple arrangements of objects attached to a memory-board of plain wood – 3D became 2 dimensional yet startlingly realistic trompe l’oeil. All of them tell a story.


The form has never really gone out of fashion for long. It was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and Picasso (among others) started working in the 20th century with assemblage around 1914 - choreographed objects in 3D (and 2D still lifes of them on canvases).

                Ritratto Museo Ferrante Imperato, 1599 (he was an apothecary)
Erik Desmazières
In the 21st century, we have Erik Desmazières  – a genius printmaker who creates engravings of imaginary cabinets to rival the antique examples.

Joseph Cornell
Joseph Cornell with Garbo Box

Joseph Cornell’s  magical boxes were my introduction to the art form.  They captivated me many years ago and got me started making my own collections – having a highly developed magpie nature and an affection for objects was not a hindrance for accumulation and display. I love things and their stories.

What are these collections, but, “receptacles for personal mythology”? They are memories – whether purchased from explorers or earned tokens and talismans of personal experience. They really run a parallel course to an important element of film design, don’t they? Asking and answering the questions, why do you have that and what does it signify to you? What do you want it to say to others? Do you hide it or show it off – did you get it for yourself alone or to impress others?

One of the most famous film memory boxes from To Kill a Mockingbird came to mind this winter when I was researching for a film project – but some potent memory objects on film are not enclosed in a box (a classic car under a tarp in a garage - ROSEBUD).
        To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s cigar box of treasures

Yet what drove me to write about them at last was seeing a listing for a house for sale in Newport RI that’s full of murals by someone named Martin Battersby. His work is magical. I fell in love with the idea of memory boards and cabinets of curiosity all over again.

Bois Doré, Newport RI

Martin Battersby

Martin Battersby was an artist, decorator, set designer and former assistant of Cecil Beaton. He wrote books on Art Nouveau and Art Deco (I have had the Art Nouveau book since I was a kid!).   He was a modern master of the style that Remps perfected and he created shadow boxes, memory boards and trompe l’oeil still lifes. He painted them for clients all over the world. 

To grace the Newport house’s dining room walls, Battersby conjured up a dozen notables of 17th and 18th century French culture from Voltaire to Madame de Pompadour.  The imminent ladies and gentlemen's cartouches were accompanied by ephemera and witty representations of their accomplishments. 

For Lady Diana Cooper, Battersby created panels that reflected, somewhat ruefully, parts of her life. I wonder how much was her idea and how much was his interpretation of her spirit and times?

Lady Diana Cooper Murals
Like Cornell’s boards, Battersby sometimes played with cultural icons – capturing Brando with boots and chains from The Wild One and Garbo with Camille’s camellias and playing cards.  Playing cards seem to be rather an Idée fixe with the artist – they appear in many of his creations (lately, I seem to be drawn to watches, Daguerreotype frames and ancient adornments for some reason –– I can relate).

Battersby appeals to me because he takes our human inclination to collect memories and injects it with dream imagery. A rather natural paring when you think about it – because memories and dreams exist in your mind – where they can frolic together and commingle effortlessly, rapturously or nightmarishly.

When they meet – the creative mind can even over-write memory. A scent or a tune or a taste can draw you back to an event as if it just happened.

What memory boxes, walls, refrigerator doors or mirror frames can afford you is a special place to arrange important personal objects. It can be a wormhole back to the time you harvested the memorabilia and give you that feeling you can get from re-reading a favorite book or seeing a favorite movie again after many years. It's nostalgia at it's best. You won’t be surprised when I tell you that I have a wall at my place – objects, pictures of places, people and animals that I hold dear. I love to look at it. I also have a leather phone chain decorated with medieval and Roman rings and fibula. I use it like prayer beads when the nearly constant parade of stupidity drops another mess on the world and repeat to myself “this too shall pass” like Dorothy’s “there’s no place like home” to calm me down with the feel of a 1000 years of old metal. I figure they've come through and so will I.

Do you have a place for displaying things? Perhaps these cabinets and boards will inspire you to make something for yourself after this year of Covid and loss. Start over and treasure your time. Remember who you are.

So, what to eat?? This post has covered a lot of ground so why not a recipe with its feet in multiple centuries that’s perfect for cool early spring meals. Sussex Pond Pudding. 

The earliest reference to Sussex Pudding is in the 1672 in  Queen-like Closet by Hannah Woolley

The recipe calls for a ball of dough to be stuffed with butter, tied in cloth and then boiled. It’s opened when done and rosewater and sugar poured into the buttery interior. Another option was to wrap a whole apple in the dough or fill the pastry mold with green gooseberries, cover and boil till done. Either way they were finished with rosewater and sugar poured into the contents. 

Nearly 300 years later, Jane Grigson came up with the inspired idea to fill it with a lemon and use suet in the crust like a classic boiled pudding. If you haven’t had enough richness with just the pudding – some like to serve it with Crème Anglaise. Vanilla ice cream would work in a pinch as well. .  

Sussex Pond Pudding is serious comfort food to soothe as you contemplate your memories – or make new ones. ENJOY!

SUSSEX POND PUDDING from Jane Grigson (1974 English Food)
220 g (7.8oz) self-raising flour
110 g (3.9oz) chopped fresh beef suet [or equal amount of butter, chopped]
150 ml (5 3/4 oz) milk
150 ml (5 3/4 oz) water
110 g (3.9oz) unsalted or lightly salted butter, plus extra for greasing, cut into small cubes
110 g 3.9oz) demerara sugar [light brown sugar will work]
1 lemon (organic, or at least unwaxed) [perhaps add another 1/2 lemon to it?]

1. Mix the flour and suet together in a bowl. Combine the milk and water in a measuring jug.
2. Pour the milk and water mixture into the flour to make a dough - you may not need to use all the liquid. The dough should be soft, but not too soft to roll out.
3. Roll into a large circle and cut a quarter out, to be used later as the lid of the pudding. Butter a 1-1.5 litre pudding basin lavishly. Place the three-quarter circle of pastry into it and press the cut sides together to make a perfect join.
4. Put half the butter into the pudding basin, with half the sugar. Prick the lemon all over with a skewer, so that the juices will be able to escape, then put it on top of the butter and sugar. Add the remaining butter and sugar.
5. Roll out the pastry which was set aside to make a lid. Lay it on top of the filling, and press the edges together so that the pudding is sealed in completely.
6. Lay a piece of foil, pleated in the centre over the pudding [this allows for steam]. Tie it in place with string and make a string handle over the top so that the pudding can be lifted about easily.
7. Put a large pan of water on to boil and lower the pudding into it; the water must be boiling and it should come halfway or a little further, up the basin. Cover and leave to boil for 3-4 hours. If the water gets low, replenish it with boiling water [I did this about 3 times -- adding 5 c or so]
8. To serve, ease the pudding from the sides of the basin with a knife, put a deep dish over the basin after removing the foil lid, and quickly turn the whole thing upside down. Serve immediately.
The sugar and butter should be in equal proportions, although the total amount may vary.

**And a note from Lost past: It didn't need that much liquid -- I'd say 3/4 -2/3 of the amount would be fine.  I threw it all in a food processor and gave it a few pulses and added the water a bit at a time.  Also -- the dough is soft and the lemon lost its shape -- I might say put in another 1/2 lemon sliced in half -- the dough was very soft so it collapsed when I took it out of the pudding basin (which was about 1 liter size).
I also might try doing it with chopped lemon if you like that hit of bitter with the sweet in every bite.

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