Processes of Conservation

Peter Binoit, Chicken Dinner, 1600-1625, Oil on Wood, 56,4 x 77,2 cm, Paris, Louvre

The still lifes and market scenes on the walls of the Pranketing Room gallery depict an idealized combination of foodstuff of a variety and freshness that practically unattainable in early modern reality. Enjoying such diversity was made possible only through the eyes mediated by the skill of a painter, or, ideally, through the amazing skills of a gentlewoman or housewife who, similar to the artist, was privy to the art of conservation. Artist and housewife were united by their common goal of perfecting nature’s bounty by making it last and easily digestable (one by the eyes, the other by the palate and stomach). Even if painting was arguably the art more commonly known for stopping time, it failed to satisfy hunger. The preservation of food by pickling, boiling and candying, vital tasks in the household, share a main goal of all art, which is to abolish the transience of things, to preserve nature as if no time had passed for future consummation (Caroline van Eck, Art, Agency and Living Presence: From the Animated Image to the Excessive Object 2015).

There is a second topos in art theory shared by both artist and cook: The joy of deceiving the viewer or guest by toying with form and matter. Lady Arundel and her servants used marzipan and fine sugar to shape objects, just like a sculptor, and painted with colours like a painter would, in order to trick their guests with sweet imitations of real things, aiming for a moment of surprise and astonishment in the lavish dessert, the banqueting course. The skills and playfulness of Zeuxis, famed to have depicted grapes so lifelike that birds tried to peck at them, is emulated in the imitation of various objects as precious, delicious sweetmeats, with the deception to be dissolved by swallowing up the delicacy. Lady Arundel’s recipes for both medicines and confections improved upon nature by combining and refining ingredients and extracting individual active ingredients, like a painting might improve upon the physical aspects, the lighting and combinations of objects, and like a painting they sometimes took joy and pride in playing with their audience.

Frans Snyders, Chicken Coop, 1600-1657, Oil on Canvas, 99 x 144 cm, Madrid, Prado

In Tart Hall, most works of art were exhibited in the two gallery wings, which were in turn surrounded by nature in the gardens visible through large window fronts. Paintings were found throughout the whole building, but only a small selection was hung on the lower floor of the Pranketing Room, as the focus was instead on the various utensils made of glass, china and brass already discussed. Among the few paintings we find the description of two paintings as “a Hen depicted drest in a Dish and above that the Picture of a live Hen.” The juxtaposition of a living chicken with its cooked counterpart demonstrates a keen awareness of the transformative process of cooking, reflected in the reverse process of painting. Elizabeth McFadden has illustrated the comparability of such processes using Jan Brueghel’s allegorical paintings as a lense (Food, Alchemy, and Transformation in Jan Brueghel’s The Allegory of Taste 2014).

Now this recalls Aubrey’s gripping tale of Francis Bacon trying to preserve a chicken in the snow on his way to Arundel House resulting in a severe pneumonia and ultimately his death. Might Lady Arundel have tried to cope with this unfortunate (possibly even entirely made up) event by contemplating the different life states of poultry in painting?

Cooking turns the chicken into a nutritious dish, and the depiction of that dish right next to one of the living animal concludes a life circle of animation, quiescence and conservation. The painted chicken, now inedible again, though lastingly preserved, documents the artifice of such processes of conservation.

Cite this blog post
Jennifer Rabe (2022, February 17). Processes of Conservation. Lady Arundel 1654–2054. Retrieved May 23, 2024, from

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