Fooling the eye: Trompe l'oeil ceramics

In the 18th century, a fashionable person's taste was always under scrutiny – from what they wore, to their home decoration, to the food on their table. One of the greatest representations of good taste at dinner came in the form of 'trompe l'oeil' ceramics.

Most folks consider first, I suppose, how their dinner will eat; but my first and last thought is, how it will look.

Elizabeth Carter, 1765
Teapot shaped like a pineapple and tureen shaped like a cauliflower
Left: Teapot, made by Edward Warburton, about 1760, England. Museum no. 414:1068/&A-1885. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: Tureen and cover, made by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory, about 1755, England. Museum no. C.676&A-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Trompe l'oeil, literally meaning to 'fool the eye' in French, was inspired by a long and global history of optical illusion in the arts, including works in silver, stone, paintings and even architectural design. The fascination for closely imitating nature intensified in 18th-century England, with the global exchange of goods, ideas and scientific exploration during the 'Age of Enlightenment'. New plants and animals were being discovered and shipped back to England, opening the eyes of the country. While not all households could afford unseasonal and foreign fruit and vegetables, trompe l'oeil ceramics offered elite society the chance to boast a spread of exotic cuisine all year round, demonstrating their wealth and cultural awareness.

Plate with moulded peppers
Plate with moulded peppers, about 1770 – 1800, Alcora, Spain. Museum no. 333-1876. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Trompe l'oeil ceramics were intended as fantastical objects, meant to embody the theatricality of 18th-century dining. Through humor and attention to detail, they would spark a conversation as dinner guests picked up porcelain chicken heads or melon halves. An asparagus-shaped tureen might hold asparagus soup, or conceal a sweetened cream dessert. Our Ceramics collection holds an impressive range of these deceptive vessels, in various sizes and shapes, from vegetables to animals. Most of these were made by English porcelain factories, including Chelsea, Bow, Worcester and Longton Hall. Earthenware factories in Staffordshire also joined the trend, all keen to satisfy the tastes of a growing consumerist society.

Tureen shaped like a bunch of asparagus
Tureen, made by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory, about 1756, England. Museum no. C.176&A-1940. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The majority of English trompe l'oeil objects were made of very delicate soft-paste (pâte tendre) porcelain, which was slip cast and then painted with enamels. The method of slip casting, where liquid clay is poured into a mould, created lighter porcelain, compared to the heavier and more robust alternative of press moulding. The result – incredibly easy-to-handle light-weight pieces – was perfect for a fish or boar head soup tureen. Soup tureens were in fact one of the main uses of trompe l'oeil, often with metal liners fitted inside, as soft-paste porcelain couldn't handle extreme temperatures. Due to the influence of French cuisine, dairy-based dishes, including soups, sauces and desserts, were on the rise in England at the time.

Tureen and cover shaped like a rabbit eating lettuce leaves
Tureen and cover, made by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory, about 1755, England. Museum no. 414:328/1, 2-1885. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Trompe l'oeil was also the star of the dessert course, as a 1758 letter from Benjamin Franklin to his daughter shows:

I send you by Capt. Budden, a large Case mark'd D.F. No. 1. and a small Box DF No. 2. In the large Case is another small Box, containing some English China; viz. Melons and Leaves for a Desert of Fruit and Cream, or the like.

Porcelain was very well suited for dessert, as it could handle the acidic qualities of fruit better than metals or lead-glazed earthenware. As the final course of the evening, dessert was the last chance to make an impression, and so it tended to be elaborate. Under the guise of candlelight, the dinner party would expect to see sweetmeats, fruits and syllabubs, instead finding the extravagantly laid table filled with bundles of asparagus, partridges and fish. The trickery of trompe l'oeil, where the sweet contents would not always match the savoury exterior, was a huge selling point.

Tureen with cover and stand shaped like a partridge or pheasant
Tureen with cover and stand, made by Bow Porcelain Factory, about 1760, England. Museum no. 414:330/C to E-1885. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Once the guests had recovered from the joke, they would enjoy the beauty and craftsmanship of the fine porcelain vessels, which they would handle themselves (dessert was the only course not attended by servants).

Sugar bowl with cover and stand, shaped like a melon in green and yellow
Sugar bowl with cover and stand, made by Longton Hall Porcelain Factory, about 1755 – 60, England. Museum no. 414:332 to B-1885. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The success of trompe l'oeil ceramics often lies in their incredible attention to detail. The potters cleverly used the features of each animal or plant to create the vessel's handles, for example, seaweed resting on top of a plaice, a bent piece of asparagus, or the vines on a melon. There is also a certain level of scientific and botanical accuracy in the decoration: plaice found in Europe have small orange or red spots, which have been included in this porcelain counterpart. The beauty of trompe l'oeil porcelain lies in the interplay of illusion, imitation and materiality.

Tureen with cover and stand, shaped like a live plaice.
Tureen with cover and stand, made by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory, about 1756, England. Museum no. C.1451 to B-1924. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Background image: Tureen, made by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory, about 1756, England. Museum no. C.176&A-1940. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London