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Venus Rosewater Dish: a platter to deceive

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-06-2017 Sidin Vadukut

Each year the women’s singles champion at Wimbledon is presented with one of the most iconic prizes in world sport: the Venus Rosewater Dish. This is something of a misnomer. As none of the mythical figures on the dish is Venus. But then, one cannot help but ask, what in the world is a rosewater dish?

The story of the fragrance and the vessel goes back centuries.

In 2009, the Historic Royal Palaces company, the commercial organization that markets several royal properties all over the UK to domestic and international tourists, listed a new product in its Christmas gifts catalogue: the Elizabeth I scent. The scent was based on a 400-year-old perfume recipe that had been rediscovered sometime around the early 20th century in the library of the Royal Horticultural Society. The recipe created for Queen Elizabeth I herself was as follows:

“Take eight grains of musk and put in rose-water eight spoonfuls, three spoonfuls of Damask-water, and a quarter of an ounce of sugar. Boil for five hours and strain it.”

Centuries later, the Historic Royal Palaces company asked the famous French perfumerie Jean Patou to recreate an eau de toilette based on this recipe that harked back to the days when perfumes first arrived in England from the Middle East. The bottles were sold at £25 (around Rs2,070 now) per 50ml bottle, not an inconsiderable sum of money.

Elizabeth I, by all accounts, loved her rosewater. She encouraged her courtiers and other women of high standing to grow roses, extract rosewater, and then incorporate the perfumed liquid into all kinds of fragrances, medicines and even food. Rosewater was a common flavouring agent in desserts such as Gooseberry Fool, Marchpane Tart and a 1602 recipe for a vaguely marzipan-y set dessert known as A White Jelly of Almonds. Rosewater was the flavour and fragrance of the age. Only to be surpassed by the arrival of vanilla, before entirely falling out of favour with the British public around the 1960s or so.

In its halcyon days, however, rosewater worked itself into every aspect of high-society dining—from the fragrances the guests wore, to the food they ate, to the water they washed their hands with. At the end of a meal, or between courses, guests held their hands out as servants poured rosewater over their fingers. The effluent was allowed to drip into wide, deep platters with broad rims. The platters, originally made of pewter but increasingly of silver in the late 16th century, slowly became status symbols. Their size, most of all perhaps, made them perfect canvases upon which to emblazon coats of arms, figures from antiquity, classical scenes and so on. Thus even as the practice of rinsing hands in rosewater withered away, the rosewater dish itself became a standout element of royal dinner services and private treasuries. Kings and queens owned them all over Europe and, subsequently, so did anyone else with money.

Around 1585, the French engraver and artist François Briot designed a rosewater dish that has since become famous as the Temperantia dish or basin. Named after the figure in the centre of the dish, Temperance, representing moderation and restraint, the dish became one of the great design icons of the renaissance. Almost as soon as Briot produced his first pewter basins from the Temperantia mould, other artists began to make their own versions of Temperantia in a variety of materials, from glazed clay to pewter to gilded silver.

What is it about Temperantia that made it such a best-seller? Perhaps it is Briot’s intricate, almost modular design that gave imitators great freedom to tweak the original orthography without violating the fundamental balance of the piece. Around Temperance in the centre are figures representing Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. And then along the outer rim are Minerva and allegories of the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astrology (according to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, that has a pewter version of the Briot prototype, the arrangement of figures, muses and allegories is not a traditional one. And perhaps indicates Briot’s interest in alchemy).

One of Briot’s more renowned imitators was the German Caspar Enderlein who, from his workshops in Nuremberg in the 17th century, made numerous versions of Temperantia. Examples found their way to homes all over Europe and from there to museums and collections. According to a superb blog-post by London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s curator Angus Patterson, versions of Temperantia were being manufactured in Europe as late as the 1900s.

Around 1849, Emil Braun, a German archaeologist, sold a plaster model he had taken from a copy of an Enderlein platter at the Louvre in Paris, to Elkington and Company of Birmingham. In 1852, the company used the then state-of-the-art technique of “electroforming” to manufacture a Temperantia dish of copper coated with silver, for London’s V&A Museum. It is, of course, a magnificent piece.

Twelve years later, in 1864, another electrotype copy was manufactured. This went on to become the famous Venus Rosewater Dish.

This raises an intriguing question. What happened to the platter over the intervening period of 22 years, till the trophy was first given? The records are somewhat ambiguous. One source suggests that the dish was handed over to the AELTC by Queen Victoria sometime in the late 1870s. We do know that the queen already owned a table that was based on Briot’s original platter design. It had been a birthday gift in 1850 from her husband, Prince Albert.

Could it be that the monarch handed over a platter to the club as some kind of donation? And that it was later repurposed, in 1886, as the trophy for the champion of the women’s game?

In any case, the curious history of the trophy known as the Venus Rosewater Dish, a dish that does not have Venus on it and was originally designed not to contain rosewater but waste-water from rinsed hands, is best summarized by V&A’s Patterson in his 2015 blog-post:

“Such is the nature of replication, reproduction and appropriation in art, that she (the champion) takes home a reduced reproduction of a trophy that is itself an electrotype copy formed in a mould taken from a plaster-cast of a 17th century pewter basin, which was itself a modified version of a late 16th century pewter basin.”

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