Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Lewis Carroll (1865)
Soup is a frugal food, a classic peasant dish enjoyed by all. Soup tureens, on the other hand, had higher-class origins.
Soup tureens, bowls, and ladles owned by kings, queens, emperors, and presidents are on display at Winterthur Museum, which has the world’s best trove of these grand antiques—the Campbell Collection.
In a preface to Selections from The Campbell Museum Collection, Ralph Collier writes that tureens may have emerged in the court of Louis XIV. In this court, Wikipedia explains, “was the new practice of separate courses at meal time, each entrée entering from the kitchens with an air of ceremony. Soup remained the first course of most meals, from the king’s table to the peasant”s, and the soup tureen on its serving platter provided the opening ceremony.”
One can imagine many of Winterthur’s grand tureens being carried ceremoniously into a court. Walk into the Campbell Collection and you’re wowed by a rococo ormulu (finely ground gold applied to bronze) tureen, c1720-1750, made for the Prince of Lorraine. In fact, most of the metal tureens in the collection were made for nobility, like the silver-gilt tureen made for Augustus III, King of Poland, and a Russian silver one, in the form of a ship, made for Catherine the Great.
However, the beautiful hand-painted porcelain tureens in the collection were made for nobility as well. In European Porcelain Jan Divis writes, “In the 1730s the rococo style began to predominate in porcelain, finding its ideal form of expression in this plastic medium.” rococo style, which also emerged in the court of Louis XIV, is abundantly evident in the Campbell Collection.
Less precious tureens at Winterthur are made of tin-glazed earthenware, salt-glazed stoneware, and transfer-printed Staffordshire china.
According to A History of Pottery by Emmanuel Cooper, the Babylonians developed a white tin oxide glaze as early as 600 B.C that created a white, paintable surface for the earthenware. Tin-glazing was “rediscovered” in the 16th century with the popularity of Chinese porcelain. Painting on the tin-glazed forms was done all over Europe, notably in French faience. However, the wares chip easily so only the wealthy bought porcelain from China. In mid-18th-century England, many new techniques were developed, including bone china, transfer printing, and creamware in Staffordshire.
Europeans did not crack the secret of hard-paste porcelain until 1709 in Saxony. Soon thereafter, according to Divis, a factory was established in Meissen. Although French King August II jailed alchemist Johann Böttger, the inventor of Meissen porcelain, for not turning silver into gold, the king soon used his famous “white gold” (or porcelain) for diplomatic gifts.
The book Fragile Diplomacy includes a photo of a covered tureen and stand from the table service presented to Frederik V, King of Denmark. Soup tureens and their stands were the largest and most impressive items in a table service; one can imagine the tureens being presented to monarchs.
August II hired the fine artist Johann Höroldt, and his assistants, to paint beautiful scenes and naturalistic designs on Meissen porcelain. Winterthur has tureens painted in the 1730s by Höroldt himself.
Meissen lost its monopoly when the secret to creating porcelain leaked out, and by the end of the 18th century, most of Europe created porcelain. An elaborately painted porcelain dinner service, including tureens and soup plates, was made at the Chelsea factory in London in 1762-3, commissioned by George III and Queen Charlotte for her brother.
Porcelain was still expensive, so the English hen and rabbit tureens, c. 1755, also at Winterthur, are copies of Meissen designs made of less-expensive tin-glazed earthenware.
Along with Höroldt, other famous 18th-century artists and artisans represented in Winterthur’s collection include the “three Pauls” as Selections from the Campbell Collection refers to the famous silversmiths: Englishmen De Lamerie and Storr, and our own Revere.
Of course, soup tureens found their way to the wealthy in colonial America. Susan Detweiler, in George Washington’s Chinaware, notes that a tureen was one of the first items provisioned to the first couple, “When the center of the American war effort transferred from Boston to New York in April, 1776 … James Deas supplied a featherbed, bolster, and pillows as well as a tureen, eight china mugs, and two dozen plates .…”
Opportunities for history lessons abound at the Campbell Collection, a surprisingly great place to bring kids. Why did Lincoln’s soup plate feature a banner with “E Pluribus Unum”? Which tureens do you think were owned by kings and queens? Who was Napoleon? While children will enjoy the tureens created in such fun shapes as frogs, hens, roosters, swans, cabbages, ships, and even a Buddha and a Chinese water buffalo, adults will appreciate the artistry of the magnificent silver and ormulu, the hand-painted porcelain, the creative earthenware forms, and the range of styles from rococo to modern.