Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Surtout? Says Who?

Don't you just love all of those old photos of elaborately set tables? What I find most charming about them are the various table accessories that seem to have fallen out of favor with today's hosts and hostesses. I don't smoke nor do my friends, but I find the old custom of placing a silver urn with cigarettes at each place setting to be terribly chic. (I know, I know, smoking is bad for you, but has there been anything as stylish as sterling ashtrays, urns, and match strikes? My answer is a firm no.) I also think that scattering small sterling or porcelain dishes filled with nuts or candies around a table is a nice gesture and one for which I can't claim credit. It used to be commonplace to do so at formal dinners. At a dinner party a few years ago, I included a small dish of candy at each place setting, and I have to say that it actually looked quite nice.

The table accessory that I really hope makes a comeback is the surtout de table. Originally designed in the 18th c. to hold dragées and condiments like oils and vinegars, these elaborate centerpieces later became more decorative than functional. One of the more impressive examples is that created for Wilhelm I of Hesse in 1815-1820. This particular gilded bronze surtout de table measured 22 feet long:

Of course, I'm not so out of my mind that I'm advising any of you to commission something similar for your own banquets, though if you do, I will be thoroughly impressed. Fortunately for us, there are more modest surtout de tables that I think would be absolutely charming for our tables. Below, you'll see examples in which each centerpiece is comprised of multiple pieces. While some of the pieces like the porcelain birds are purely decorative, others are basically channels which can be used to hold flowers, candies (how pretty would gold Jordan almonds look in the crystal versions?), shells, or really just about anything. I think that sprigs of Boxwood in the bisque porcelain version would look terrific and might possibly be as chic as the above-mentioned smoking accessories.

I personally prefer the centerpieces that are made of crystal or a creamy porcelain so as not to interfere with one's china pattern, although I believe that Capo di Monte centerpieces (like that belonging to Mrs. John Pierrepont, at top, or a different one, below) could work with more subdued colored linen and china. And if you have a small table, especially a round one, then you might want to consider the circular surtout by Lalique. That centerpiece only consists of five vessels.

If you really want to gild the lily, you could place your surtout on a mirrored plateau as was historically done, but if you ask me, I say that's too much of a good thing.

A 31(!) piece glass centerpiece by Val St. Lambert, c. late 19th c./ early 20th c.

A 20th century Japanese example made of porcelain.

Early 20th c. Capo di Monte surtout de table.

This smaller example by Lalique (and made in the 1930s) is perfect for those of us with more modestly sized tables.

A small crystal surtout de table was used as a base for a centerpiece featuring a ceramic rabbit amidst the fronds and daisies.

Black and white images of tablesettings from Tiffany Table Settings; photo of the surtout of Wilhelm I of Hesse courtesy of Portland Art Museum.


  1. They really are enjoyable post!

  2. I must say, a gilded bronze or sterling (or plate) surtout de table with mirror is smashing. The mirror doubles candlelight, flowers and makes everything look luxe. I was fortunate enough to acquire a French 18th century one, a gilt bronze and mirror round one on paw feet, and it makes everything look great. It is out all the time. If you get porcelain or crystal, especially in pieces, think about having a mirror cut to go under it all, with beveled edges, it just elevates things to a whole new level.

  3. Inherited one made of glass tubing (to hold flowers-I think) from my mother. Love it! never knew what it was called, now I do. Thank you

  4. I'll be dreaming about the white bisque one.

  5. Quatorze- You have made me rethink this whole thing, and now I think I'm on the side of placing them on a mirror. Your surtout sounds lovely!

  6. I was VERY fortunate to have been able to work in an antique shop that had very high-end items in it. The management would let us buy occasionally at cost. As you noted , surtouts were not fashionable so this one languished in the shop (used to display vases) and so, I bought it at a great price and have been grateful ever since. The mirror makes a HUGE impact; many 18th century French ones had mirror as an integral component. We had the crystal ones for flowers as well, which could be arranged in formal shapes, such as apsoidal, and arranged then on mirror in a sort of floral parterre, the mirror acting almost as a formal sheet of "water", reflecting the crystal surtout as a sort of "balustrade" (Baccarat made lovely ones with a "rope" design) with pansy blossoms and bits of boxwood acting as the flowering "hedge". It did not block diners' views of each other, but what an effective sight to see laid out on the table!

  7. Q- I think that I wrote what I did because the examples of mirror plus surtout that I've seen have been a little over the top. What you describe, though, is anything but that. Lucky you!

  8. Jennifer so fascinating!! They are really elegant/ I have a friend who entertains like this and she uses things such as those crystal knife rests so that the table linens ate not soiled.

    Art by Karena

    Come and enter my New Giveaway from Serena & Lily! You will love it!

  9. True, some surtouts with mirror can be, well... let's just say 'exuberant", shall we?