As the holidays loom, almost everyone is thinking of food and family…and sweetmeats? Well, yes, if everyone only knew “sweetmeat” is just another, albeit strange, word for candy. Not necessarily what we think of as a very popular candy – candied fruits, flowers and nuts are examples of formerly popular sweetmeats. Not to be confused with sweetbreads, which are the dainty edible thymus glands of certain barnyard animals.
Two of the most magnificent objects in Villa Finale’s collection are twin sweetmeat dishes made by Pierre-Philippe Thomire of Paris, France. They are ormolu – literally or moulu(ground gold) in French- and lapis lazuli two-tiered serving pieces from about 1820. Each piece has a circular ring above the first tray, which is supported by three ladies holding fruit baskets, who in turn are kneeling on the second tray. To the right is a picture, as I don’t think I can accurately describe them. Mr. Mathis purchased these dishes in November, 1984, from a gallery called Rare Art, Inc. in New York City.
The pair is signed by the artist, who had an amazing and successful career. Pierre-Philippe Thomire was born in Paris in 1751 and was trained as a sculptor. He decided to follow his father into the more lucrative profession of bronze caster and set up his own establishment at the age of 24. He began to assist the artistic director of the Sevres Porcelain Factory in making mounts for porcelain pieces. Thomire eventually secured the Artistic Director’s position and supplied the factory with allof its bronze mounts. He just kept climbing from there, surviving through the French Revolution, launching himself into furniture making (many of Walter’s Empire-style furnishings have gilt bronze mounts) creating more porcelain and other decorative objects. In 1809, Emperor Napoleon bestowed the title of Engraver to the Emperor upon him. As a result, Thomire had a booming business supplying all of the palaces with furniture and his enterprise became the Furniture Suppliers to Their Majesties (i.e.: all of Napoleon’s relatives who had been placed on thrones all over Europe) in 1811.
Even after Napoeon’s downfall, Thomire was able to continue to produce pieces for the wealthy of France. According to the date of Villa Finale’s sweetmeat dishes (1820), Thomire would’ve been almost 70 years old, just before his retirement at the age of 72. After retiring, he went full circle and began sculpting again, exhibiting his works at the Salon de Paris well into his eighties.
But I have to get back to sweetmeats. Even though they seem old fashioned, I think we can safely say that sweetmeats live on as petitfours and, well, just plain chocolates. Old style sweetmeats, however, were quite jewel-like in appearance. They don’t really require an over-the-top serving dish, but in Napoleon’s day, more was more. Leave it to the First French Empire to gild the lily!
We don’t have any record of Mr. Mathis using these dishes, but we’re not finished asking around. I’ll report back in another post, perhaps in the one I will write on Victorian sweetbread servers.