BMA dishes up a delicious collection of decorative tureens

March 19, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Visually delicious. How else to describe as happy a show of food-oriented art as "Selections From the Campbell Museum Collection," which opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art yesterday.

You guessed it: The Campbell of the title is the Campbell Soup Co., which for the past quarter of a century has been collecting soup tureens and related objects (bowls, plates, spoons). The museum is in Camden, N.J., and its traveling show of selections has been to about 80 places including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian in Washington and, yes, the BMA about 20 years ago. But most of the objects were different, and when objects are as good to look at as these, a visit every 20 years is not too often.

The 18th century was a magnificent age of decorative arts, and the collection is drawn almost entirely from that period. The pieces are mainly rococo and neoclassical in style. They come from about 20 countries and are made of silver and various ceramics including faience and porcelain. A number of them have important provenances, and many are quite spectacular.

There is, for instance, the silver tureen made in 1766 in St. Petersburg for Catherine the Great. Fashioned more or less in the form of a ship, it has dolphin feet, the lower part of the body simulates planking, there are portholes with guns in them along the sides, the handles are anchors, and the cover (or in this case the "deck") is topped by a capstan handle with ropes of silver -- of course -- extending to the deck.

It may be the most unusual of all the tureens on display, but is neither the most beautiful nor the most fun. The fun award has to go to the figural tureens as a group -- tureens in the shape of a crouching rabbit (England, 1755); a huge, fat turkey cock with spreading tail (France, about 1755); a proud rooster (France, about 1760); and a barrel full of fish (Portugal, about 1770), among others. The rabbit, by the way, is one of only seven such rabbit tureens made in Chelsea and known to survive; Aristotle Onassis gave his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis one of the others as a wedding present. They're that rare.

One can make an entrancing study of the tureens' finials (or handles on the lids) alone. Among them are a lobster (on an English silver tureen of 1746-1747), an artichoke (England 1754-1755), a piece of cauliflower (Germany, about 1770), a sheep (Spain, about 1730), a stag (United States, about 1840). Sometimes the finials and other decoration indicated what kind of soup (or stew) the tureen was intended to contain, but not always, or else we would not have a seated figure of Hercules atop an Italian tureen (about 1788).

And the most beautiful of all? It is far from the fanciest, but to these eyes it is a neoclassical tureen with elegantly simple lines, made in London in 1795-1796 by Robert Makepiece. Fortunately, the BMA owns a tureen very much like it, made in Maryland in the same period.

The only problem with this show is that there isn't more of it; the Campbell museum sent a larger selection, including 10 more tureens, but the BMA didn't have room for them. Pity.

The show runs through May 10 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets. Call (410) 396-7100.

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