The Art of the Table: A Critique on Modern Tablescapes
and a Nod to Timeless Elegance
By Paul Ishwood
Charlie implored me to pen an article on the subject of table settings, a task I find particularly distasteful, almost to the point of being gauche. I am perpetually astonished that such a topic has eluded Nicky Haslam's notorious list, not once but presumably multiple times. Nevertheless, one must keep the proverbial wolf at bay and thus undertake what is necessary. However, it's undeniable that the art of table setting has descended into sheer lunacy.
I vividly recall, back in 2017, laying eyes upon Ivanka Trump's Thanksgiving table, adorned with a caption suggesting a solution for those perplexed by table decoration. The consensus, seemingly transcending party lines, deemed it an abomination to aesthetic sensibility. Alas, fast forward six years and that very tableau may well have been the harbinger of the current stylistic chaos we witness. Today's tablescape trends veer towards the absurd, whimsical, and at times, downright repulsive. It's evident that I harbour no affection for these overzealous displays. My preference lies in the simplicity of a pristine white tablecloth, tastefully accented with silver, candles, floral arrangements, a fruit platter, and, naturally, an assortment of glasses. For a more detailed exposition on this, one might consult Jasper Conran's works.
Yet, if everyone embraced such classic elegance, whom would I find to critique? And who would serve as our muses, echoing the sentiments of the late Albert Einstein, who famously remarked, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." Admittedly, I am guilty of not venturing into these new, albeit questionable, terrains of table decor, a concession that, in itself, might be considered rather naff.
What exactly you aim to create – be it a whimsical Mad Hatter's tea party, a pastoral Bo Peep-themed buffet, or an avant-garde chrome culinary experience – remains a mystery. I commend your adventurous spirit, but I cast a disdainful eye towards those who merely regurgitate Instagram's uninspired, algorithm-driven fancies. This novel approach to table dressing raises numerous questions: When did bread sculptures gain such prominence? Can fruit double as a candleholder? Where does one store those seasonal figurines – reindeer, nutcrackers, bunny rabbits – used but once annually? And why this sudden influx of bows on every conceivable surface?
In truth, these queries are of little consequence to me. The fate of your festive reindeer in the off-season or the ubiquity of bows holds minimal interest. Nevertheless, it might be beneficial to offer some inspiration from the annals of history for those seeking a more timeless approach to table aesthetics.
A Handful of Suggestions For Hosting: please feel free to ignore them, I would.
Firstly, do provide some sort of sustenance for your guests when they arrive. It is somewhat depressing when you are sitting round chatting to the other arrivals and every time the host walks in each head turns around with a hungry anticipation.
So whether it's a carrot stick or caviar, do have them ready at the arrival of your first guest.
Utilise seasonal ingredients for freshness and relevance. A summer soiree calls for lighter fares, like gazpacho shots, whereas winter welcomes richer bites more hearty bites.
Consider your drink offerings and pair canapés accordingly. A dry martini begs for something briny or tart, while champagne pairs beautifully with something a bit decadent.
It is a widely acknowledged truth, albeit a rather unfortunate one, that English cuisine is often the subject of global ridicule. Yet, I must assert, when prepared with skill and finesse, it can be a most exhilarating culinary adventure. Consider the classic Shepherd's Pie or the illustrious Beef Wellington - both have the capacity to instill immediate joy in your dinner guests. It is, however, prudent to always accompany these traditional dishes with a generous selection of side dishes. One must be mindful of the current trend towards vegetarianism.
The Pie - An exquisite culinary delight that not only nourishes the needs of your guests but also acts as an admirable adornment to your table.
In the noble pursuit of entertaining, one must always adhere to thee principle of quality superseding quantity, your guests will thank you for it.
Flowers: Opt for flowers that are in season. Not only does this exhibit a certain savoir-faire, but it also avoids the gauche appearance of desperate out-of-season blooms flown in from far-off lands.
Avoid overly dramatic flourishes. We're arranging flowers, not staging a Greek tradagey. These sculptural flower arrangements, although alluring, are sometimes best left to the professionals.
Don't bankrupt yourself when decorating your home. As Constance Spry notes, "To some people, it is still a matter for comment and surprise to find what really dramatic effects are to be achieved by the good use of the simplest flowers. As I have written in Favourite Flowers, for one of the most exciting parties before the war in a big London hotel, we used cow parsley from the hedgerows and simple marguerites. The delicate lace-like effect, thrown into relief by effective spotlights, was considered beautiful."
Pudding: When it comes to the art of pudding, I beseech you, do prioritise the edible over the purely ornamental. While a visually striking dessert is commendable, the current trend of excessively theatrical confections is, frankly, a bit much to digest, particularly when one considers the lamentable waste involved. Should you feel an irrepressible urge to indulge in the dramatic, I would steer you towards the likes of jelly or a baked Alaska. Both possess a delightful flexibility in their form, and more importantly, they are utterly delectable. If you, like me, are exhausted by the mere thought of a pudding, a pyramid of peeled clementines will do very well.