Fine dining on the way back but food isn’t the whole story

Sandra Chapman
Sandra Chapman

Imagine having £358m worth of fine china in your home. That’s the overall estimate of one private collection coming up for auction at Christie’s in New York in May.

Imagine having £358m worth of fine china in your home. That’s the overall estimate of one private collection coming up for auction at Christie’s in New York in May.

A gallery assistant looks at a piece from the Marly Rouge service, made for Napoleon I, during a photo call for highlights from the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller at Christie's in London.

A gallery assistant looks at a piece from the Marly Rouge service, made for Napoleon I, during a photo call for highlights from the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller at Christie's in London.

It belongs to Peggy and David Rockefeller who will donate the money from the 1,500 items to charity.

The collection includes a red and gold 28-piece service made for Napoleon and is expected to raise £180,000 alone. Newspapers carried pictures of the amazing collection this week, not the sort of thing, I stress, one would put in the dishwasher after use.

In fact I adore good china and started off married life collecting from the annual sales held by Hoggs china shop in Belfast. I couldn’t afford the actual prices of perfect pieces but the sales usually had stuff the imperfections of which would scarcely have been noticed. And I still have all of it today, in its own cupboard, brought out occasionally when the event is important enough. Sadly, over the years, fine china such as Minton, Royal Worcester and Royal Albert went out of fashion. A younger generation behind me settled for the plain stuff by people I would regard as clothes fashion designers, not china designers.

Today dinner party china in minimalist homes will be plain white, mostly, with a subtle line somewhere to indicate the designer. It will be dishwasher proof because the hostess will not want to be slaving over a sink after the guests have gone. Even that doyen of cooking Mary Berry has gone one step further and suggests we should do away with our actual dining rooms, those places we used for the big celebrations such as Christmas, birthdays or birthdays, where the best all-matching china is brought out to be matched with your finest crystal, usually Waterford. Alas, such a display shows our age and I’m no exception. I turn a deaf ear to the moans of Himself that he will have to do the washing up when we hold the occasional celebratory dinner because plain white doesn’t do it for me. Yes, even when he broke two Waterford glasses one night by accidentally putting them in the dishwasher, I did not relent. The Waterford would go on the table, not some pretend stuff from the supermarket.

Yet nothing is forever and there does appear to be a move back to the exotic dinnerware of the past say Christie’s. Even where bits of a set are missing hostesses are quite happy to mix and match. The Rockfeller collection comprises 67 dinner sets. I have one complete set of Minton, the rest are bits of sets gathered up when the mood took me. Mixing the lots together for a dinner party as Christie’s suggest might make for some interesting after-dinner conversation I’m certain.

All this `stuff’ as Himself calls it had to be moved recently so I spent days on my hands and knees lovingly wrapping every bit up to put in boxes. And then it had all to be unpacked and put in its new home which also took hours. So what is it all for? My children certainly won’t want any of it when I’m gone and I suspect the grandchildren neither. I’m a product of 1960s dining, like most of my friends and we all have a similar problem – what to do with this fine stuff when we’re dead and gone. Christie’s, bless them, suggests that the ‘dinner service is back’. Well they would say that since they’ve the Rockefeller mountain of it to shift. Christie’s deputy chairman says clients are flocking to register interest and he believes that interest reflects the ‘end of minimalism’ as younger buyer’s seek out ‘grand, slightly eccentric’ tableware to reflect their personality.

Who would have believed it, the Royal Albert, Willow pattern, Clarendon and Mason, maybe even Old Country Rose making a valiant return to our dinner tables? Some proper china is even edged in gold which does survive hand washing. It’s the picture after all which tells the story, not the food. Who knows, it may also provide a new lease of life for the many English potteries which struggled to survive when the minimalist young scorned old familiar patterns for plain, uninteresting white even when it came with a famous fashion designer name attached. A return to 60s style food such as prawn cocktail, beef stroganoff and sherry trifle can’t be that far behind surely.