History of Food : Desserts with Philippa Glanville

A botanical drawing of a pineapple

Philippa Glanville discusses Margaret, Duchess of Portland’s dessert table, drawing on historic recipes and bills from the Portland archives held at Nottingham University and Welbeck Abbey.

Laying a fine dessert table was the duty of a noblewoman, and no expense was spared in elaborate entertaining.

Duchess Margaret was a famed hostess. Her dessert table at Welbeck groaned with delicious homegrown delicacies, accompanied by sweetmeats from the Italian caterer Domenico Negri.

It was laid with treasured porcelain brought from fashionable English factories as well as Dresden, Sevres and Asia, and glittered with an astonishing 178-piece silver-gilt service, made for the Duchess by London goldsmiths John and William Café – despite her chronic shortage of cash.

Two distinguished members of the family, mother and daughter.

The mother, Henrietta Cavendish Holles was born in 1694 at Welbeck and two years later her father was made Duke of Newcastle. She was an only child as indeed was her daughter so there were two heiresses and said to be the two wealthiest women in England; they had very extensive estates, Welbeck and Wimpole in Cambridgeshire.

Reconstructing the life of an 18th Century woman is quite hard, there are portraits, recipe books, memoirs, but these women don’t have much in the way of buildings or interiors. There are a few glimpses of the gothic interiors that Henrietta, the mother, created at Welbeck in the 1740s, she was a very early adopter of the gothic style but very little else. Wimpole passed out of the family, the indebted Edward Harley had to sell it in the 1730s.

These two women who were great hostesses, one of them an antiquarian, the other a natural historian and a great collector. We’re fortunate enough to have many descriptions of family activities. Wimpole had the charm of being a flat Cambridgeshire land, beautiful hunting countryside.

The view was something that the young Margaret was brought up rather privately because they were afraid of her being kidnapped, so she had this extraordinary experience of being isolated in childhood with rather few friends. When she did come to London, the family had London houses and used them.

Her father who sadly became indebted and was drunk and was eventually having to get rid of Wimpole. He was the most extraordinary antiquarian and bibliophile and his collections formed the Harleian collection which formed the basis of the books and manuscripts at the British Library.

A handwritten curry recipe from 1927

‘How to make a Curry to eat with Pillo’, 1927 © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


He collected recipes, as did his wife, and as his daughter was trained to do. One early recipe is a curry recipe, which was an East India Company import. This is the first recorded English description of a curry recipe based on spices, there were no commercial curry powders until the 1750s, and this is much earlier- 1729. It was served with a pilau and when we look at the recipes that Margaret collected, we find curry crops up several times, clearly a popular stimulating contrast to the traditional English or French menus, which were very much part of culture through the 18th century.

Bernard Lens painted a delightful watercolour of a Thames water party that has the watermelon with the musicians. In 1729, Bernard Lenz actually taught the young Margaret to paint and her way of life was, although constrained, was full of artistic effort as a child which reflected itself in her later interests. The Bernard Lens water party actually finds her just trying to record an echo in a description that the later Mrs Delaney, the family friend, described a water party of 1722 with the family. They went up from five o’clock leaving from Whitehall and up to Richmond, 8 musicians playing, including a trumpeter playing all the way up the river and then a picnic in the dusk at Richmond and then back in the dark.

When we look at other aspects of family life, we have to remember that the women were peripatetic. We see that Margaret in the 1740s with young children, is spending time at Weymouth-by-the-sea collecting sea creatures while her children were swimming. She then brings sea creatures back to Bulstrode, her house in Buckinghamshire where she built greenhouses, hot houses and fish houses; which she supplied with sea water, as to keep her creatures alive.

Later in Margaret’s mature life, George III and his family came frequently, riding out or travelling by coach, often with very large parties. To enjoy the amenities and enjoy the pleasures, not only of the delicious food and drink and the landscape, but also the natural history enthusiasm and passion of the Duchess of Portland and her Bluestocking circle. She was a leader of the Bluestockings, and it was a group the younger Queen Charlotte joined, as indeed did the royal princesses. Mrs Delaney, known for her wonderfully accurate coloured cut-outs of plants, worked closely with the Duchess throughout their lives as they were friends from childhood.

The menus that were recorded in the memoirs and diaries of the time were based on very specific recipes, collected by both mother and daughter.

The kind of meal that could be expected at a summer dinner at Bulstrode in the 1740s is described where there were many dishes laid out in the first remove; soup, veal fillets, rabbits with onions, blancmange, cherries, Dutch cheese; a mix of sweet and savoury that we might find strange today. Then the second remove, salmon, quails, turkey, chickpeas, mushrooms, and apple pie. Then the most costly and fascinating and delicious part of the meal, which depended so heavily on your capacity to preserve fruit from your orchards.

The dessert was the most significant part of the meal, a very successful London confectioner, Domenico Negri, the sign of the pineapple, his trade card is depicting and listing the kind of delicacies that could be hired and his staff would bring it and prepare for you on site. He had actually worked for the Fitzwilliam family the neighbours to Welbeck, and there are bills at Welbeck for delicacies provided by the Negri.

Philippa Glanville

Philippa Glanville, OBE, FSA is member of the Harley Foundation’s board of trustees and author of the book ‘Dinner with a Duke: Decoding food and drink at Welbeck 1690 – 1910’.

Philippa is the former chief curator of the Metal, Silver and Jewellery department at the V&A, and is a leading authority on all aspects of0 historic silver plate and the history of dining. She has written many books and has recently been an adviser to the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art. She is also a Trustee of the Art Fund and the Museum of Freemasonry.