See all stories
22 Jun 2021

Wine and dine: 17th-century Dutch still life paintings at Hill of Tarvit

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen, Regional Curator for Edinburgh and East
A close-up view of an oil painting of a still life, featuring peaches, grapes and a ham bone arranged on a table with a white cloth. There are several drinking vessels on the table too, as well as some leafy branches in the background. The blue Naked Wines logo can be seen in the bottom left corner.
Still Life by Willem Heda, c.1640–80, oil on panel, Hill of Tarvit collection
In celebration of our unique partnership with Naked Wines, we explore why wine, oysters on the half shell, ham bones and parrots all feature in the unique table settings in paintings found at Hill of Tarvit in Fife.

Perched precariously on bunches of grapes, peaches tumble from a pewter bowl towards a table covered in a crisp white cloth and laden with a tempting meal. The ham bone is semi-carved, knife marks evident from slices already consumed; a lemon remains half prepared, curlicued citrus peel dangling suggestively over the polished plate. And this is just breakfast!

The restrained colour range reflects a painting tradition for still lifes in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands during the 17th century, which set the food against a monochromatic palette. The painter has chosen the simplest of meals (!), which usually included ham, cheese, bread and a lemon, all washed down with a glass of wine and jug of beer.

In the 17th century, Dutch artists took still life paintings to a whole new level of luxury – producing some of the most lavish table sets ever assembled. The food and drink gathered on a richly decorated table was ripe with symbolism, which the painting’s owners and their guests would mull over while they ate their meal or chatted around the hearth. Still life paintings are paradoxical – they feature plates laden with meat and glasses filled with wine and were hung in the dining areas of the house to whet the appetite of diners and highlight the wealth of the host. Yet, they were also reminders of Christian values, the brevity of life and the hollowness of financial ambition. Apples reminded the viewer of Eve being tempted by the Devil; the grapes alluded to the blood of Christ and his miracle of turning water into wine.

A still life oil painting of a table of rich food. A bright red lobster lies beside a plate of oysters in their shells. A pomegranate and other citrus fruit lie in a bowl behind. A couple of tall and elaborate drinking glasses stand on the table too.
Still Life by Abraham van Beyeren, c.1645–55, oil on canvas, Hill of Tarvit collection

The opulent banquet painting above by Abraham van Beyeren includes lobster, oysters and a selection of fruit, with a Chinese dish, two magnificent glasses and a large silver platter. If you look closer, a pomegranate sits, half eaten, in the blue and white bowl, and there is a timepiece placed carefully on the right-hand corner of the table. While the food and rich red cloth evoke a sumptuous wealth, the watch signals the swift pace of life – here today, gone tomorrow. The half-eaten pomegranate builds on this symbolism with its reference to the cyclical nature of life – signifying both fertility/birth and decline/death.

Still lifes featuring skulls, hourglasses, peeled or wilting fruit, and empty or spilt glasses are often referred to as vanitas – the sets are designed to remind you of the verse from Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanitas vanitatum ... omnia vanitas’, meaning, ‘Vanity of vanities ... all is vanity’. The paintings are designed to illustrate the transience of life: the skull is a reminder of our humanity and fate; the hourglasses refer to the sands of time, drifting constantly towards an inevitable end; and extinguished candles allude to the dwindling and ephemeral nature of time.

All this fascination with death and dying was not designed to be a downer at dinner. The point was to reflect on your life, to take stock of what you had, and to celebrate your friends, family and fortune. A cynic might suggest the rich tucked in, while quietly reminding themselves they were thankful for being well fed! But these paintings became very popular with the emerging merchant classes, who were making money by trading many of the items illustrated in these paintings. You might counter the cynicism by suggesting the owners were celebrating their successes and giving thanks for their fortune, while remembering the pursuit of wealth is a tricky and transitory business.

A close-up view of a detail of an oil painting, focusing on two drinking glasses, with a bright red lobster seen at the bottom. The glass on the right has a chunky stem, studded with berry-shaped blobs of glass. The glass on the left is more delicate, with a shallow bowl on top of an intricate stem.
Detail of Still Life by Abraham van Beyeren

Featured in many still life paintings is the half-filled römer (or rummer): a large drinking glass studded with decorative lumps (or prunts) of glass, which often look like berries. As well as reminding the drinker of the source of wine (grapes were classified as a berry), the prunts also provided a practical grip.

These thick-stemmed large glasses were popular in the Netherlands in the 17th century, as was the Berkemeyer, more of a tumbler or beaker. However, the other glass in the van Beyeren painting was probably the work of a Venetian glass maker (many of whom were itinerant and travelled through the Low Countries during the 16th and 17th centuries). This small, delicate goblet is filled with a pale red wine and has a serpent stem; it is known as a ‘façon de Venise’ (Venetian fashion) wineglass. Having one of these on your table was a signifier of absolute luxury and privilege.

As was the lemon, which was not grown in the Netherlands but imported from Mediterranean countries in small quantities. Yet it appears in many still lifes and is often seen dunked in a wine glass or cut open and half peeled. The Dutch had a penchant for using lemon to flavour their beer and spirits. They were the first country to distil grain into a juniper-flavoured alcohol known as genièvre, which was often mistakenly called ‘brandy wine’. It was a proto-gin, laying the foundation of our modern, lemon-infused G&Ts.

A long oblong-shaped oil painting of a still life of a richly laden dining table. Bowls are piled high with fruit; an elaborately constructed pie lies at the centre of the table; and a lobster is displayed to the right. A parrot sits on the left of the table. A jug shaped like a peacock stands on the right.
Still Life by an unknown artist from the Dutch or Flemish School, c.1700, oil on canvas, Hill of Tarvit collection

Above, the vessels and fruit, wine and spirits are all an expression of luxury. This still life is best described as ostentatious – even its size suggests excess. It is over 2 metres wide and would have spanned an entire wall of a merchant’s hall. The dark, velvety cloth-covered table is laden with expensive china, silverware, fruit and glasses. A red parrot is perched to the left; a grand pie topped with a crown takes pride of place in the centre of the table; and a silver jug with handles shaped like the sweeping head of a peacock sits resplendent on the right.

The parrot and peacock were rare birds, considered ‘exotic’ at the time, but were also associated with intelligence (the parrot for its talkative nature; the peacock for its tail feathers and their ‘all-seeing’ eye). This banquet is full of surfeit – a small rummer has been clamped with pincer-like clasps to the top of a chalice, so it towers over the food in the centre of the table. And a seemingly subtle flute glass at the back of the table is so enormous that it soars above the vast pile of fruit and must contain enough wine to keep a grown man quiet for hours.

Art collecting had primarily been a pursuit of the aristocracy prior to the 17th century, but as trading routes opened new global opportunities, a new market for paintings developed. In Edinburgh, for example, there was a concentration of wealth along the High Street – where traders made their fortunes in foreign silks, spices and wines. The richest of the middle classes had enough of a disposable income to start buying paintings to decorate their halls and chambers. In 1697, the first auction of its kind opened, opposite Gladstone’s Land on the Royal Mile, offering paintings for as little as 6 pence sterling (6 shillings, 6 pence in Scots money), which is roughly £3.50 in today’s money.

Over 90% of the paintings for sale in this 1697 auction were by Dutch artists, and over 60% were still lifes, landscapes and scenes of working life. The trend for collecting art started in the Low Countries much earlier than it had in Scotland. A British traveller, Peter Mundy, noted in 1640 that the people of Rotterdam had such an ‘affection’ for pictures that all sorts of traders were buying paintings, including bakers, cobblers, butchers and blacksmiths. This encouraged a shift in the kinds of paintings being offered for sale – specifically, a decline in large paintings of historic events and biblical scenes, and a rise in smaller pictures depicting still life (table settings) as well as scenes of working life.

A still life oil painting of a table piled with rich food upon a white cloth. At the right is an upended crab on a silver platter. Beside it stand a water jug and an enormous goblet. On the right, another large goblet lies on its side.
Still life with Crab by follower of Heda Willemsz Claesz, c.1640, oil on panel, Hill of Tarvit collection

With a plethora of artists fighting for custom, the still life was a wonderful way of displaying your artistic skill. This still life showing a crab on a pewter plate is a variation of Still life with Pewter, Silver Vessels and Crab by Heda Willem Claesz (held in the National Gallery, London). The lesser artist (unknown to us) has copied a composition from a popular painter to demonstrate their own skill. The objects are scattered to reveal a range of textures and surfaces. The crab lies on a metallic plate that contrasts with the light sweep of glass from the water jug. The mottled dark stem of the rummer is juxtaposed with its light, unadorned bowl, which is half-filled with an amber liquid and holds the reflecting window light. Next to this is a golden goblet on its side, so the artist can demonstrate the differing textures of the base and its decorative surface. The shine of the gilding contrasts beautifully with the dull crust of the bread, the sheen of the blue and white ceramic and the waxy zest of a peeled lemon. This is all topped off with a hint of dusty pepper that has been shaken out of a twist of paper onto the white cloth.

As global trade routes multiplied and merchant wealth increased, flourishing households acquired foods, textiles, furniture and decorative arts as emblems of their success. Paintings were doubly useful, being expensive objects in themselves and containing the objects that created this affluence – the fine silverware and glass, the soft textiles and oriental rugs, the fruit, spices, and wines, all of which were being traded in Scotland throughout the 17th century. Just one example of these merchants with ‘new money’ is John Riddoch, who lived in Gladstone’s Land in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket. He traded in foreign goods in the first decades of the 17th century, selling items like raisins, figs, ginger, sugar, pepper, lemon-peel marmalade and tobacco.

A still life oil painting of a table filled with a variety of quite elaborate drinking glasses. Most stand on silver trays upon a white linen cloth.
Still Life by Hendrick van Zuylen, c.1613–46, oil on canvas, Hill of Tarvit collection

The wine glasses, chalices, jugs and goblets, pipes, shells, musical instruments and abundant food pictured on this wide table above – painted by Hendrick van Zuylen – suggest learning, cultured consumption and a knowledge of travel and trade. A small pipe, tobacco box and rummer sit on an open book, whose pages are curling at the edges. It is likely a musical score; the bow and lute lie on top and behind it on the table. The delicate Venetian glass is filled with red wine; the Berkemeyer is filled with a darker liquid – possibly beer.

This painting is not an invitation to dine, but rather an invitation to travel (in mind, body, and spirit). Thanks largely to the Dutch East India Company, cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Middelburg made the Netherlands a global trade centre, with tobacco and shells coming from islands in the West Indies, gold from West Africa, glass from Venice, and wine from Portugal and Spain. This context changes the bowls of fruit and glasses of wine into an elaborate expression of the 17th-century wealth emanating to and from the Dutch Republic.

A still life painting of a collection of fruit and vegetables arranged on a table with a white cloth. A large decanter of wine stands at the centre, with a glass poured beside it. A bunch of white flowers lies in the background.
Still Life with Wine Bottle, Glass, Fruit and Flowers by George Leslie Hunter, c.1897–1931, oil on canvas, Brodie Castle collection

It is interesting to compare all these Dutch pictures to this later painting by the Scottish colourist George Leslie Hunter. Made in Scotland in the late 19th/early 20th century, this still life has some of the elements seen in the earlier Dutch precedents – the peeled citrus fruit, the bottle and glass of wine. But it has a much more settled domesticity. The ostentatiousness is absent, and the setting feels more like a rough-hewn and basic kitchen (perhaps brought forth by the inclusion of grubby mushrooms and earthy onions). While this is like comparing apples to oranges (no pun intended), Hunter’s painting serves to remind us of the unique way in which Dutch 17th-century still lifes celebrated food and wine.

Member offer

Enjoy 12 delicious bottles of wine from the world’s best independent winemakers for just £47.88 – saving £75.

Even better, Naked Wines will donate 20% of proceeds back to the Trust for every case purchased.

Snap up your exclusive case from our friends at Naked Wines.


I love this place

By joining the National Trust for Scotland, you can protect the places that matter to you and experience the best that Scotland has to offer.

Join today
A young woman walks along a clifftop path, with binoculars around her neck. >