Exhibition | Table Delights: Historical Linen Damasks

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on July 27, 2021

Press release for the exhibition, via the European Textile Network (‘Tafelfreuden’ is my new favorite word! -CH). 

Tafelfreuden: Historische Leinendamaste / The Delights of Dining: Historical Linen Damasks
Abegg-Stiftung, Riggisberg, 25 April — 7 November 2021

Linen Damask with Grapevines, United Provinces, 1660–80 (Abegg-Stiftung, inv. no. 3573; photograph by Christoph von Viràg). White-in-white patterned table linen was generally more expensive than fine glassware, exquisite porcelain, and cutlery in the seventeenth century.

Patterned table linen has adorned festive dining tables since the Late Middle Ages. These pure white tablecloths, napkins, and hand towels are patterned with discreet, artfully-drawn pictorial compositions and coats of arms. Used in conjunction with fine silverware, linen damasks served as a status symbol in both princely and bourgeois households. The textiles that have survived are valuable testimony to historical dining culture. Among the many pleasures of dining, besides indulging the palate, is the spectacle of fine glassware, exquisite porcelain, and silver. And since the early sixteenth century, table linen made of white linen damasks has also been a common part of festive banquets. Often it was the most expensive item on the table.

White-in-white patterned table linen? Is there anything to see at all? Most definitely. For concealed within these seemingly plain white cloths are hitherto unimagined visual worlds and experiences. Their subtlety prompts us to ponder our sense of sight and optical phenomena generally, since depending on the fall of light—and unlike on perfectly illuminated photographs—the woven designs are not always clearly visible. But anyone ready to engage with them will soon discover motifs drawn from seafaring or everyday life, mythological and Biblical scenes, portraits of rulers, historical events, and the patrons’ coats of arms. The Abegg-Stiftung in Riggisberg possesses one of the world’s most important collections of historical linen damasks. These monumental tablecloths, napkins, and hand towels are normally kept in storage. This year’s special exhibition, however, will feature a selection of exceptionally fine examples dating from the sixteenth to eighteenth century. These will be flanked by texts and short films explaining their manufacture, place of origin, and use.

Related publication from the museum:

Cornelis A. Burgers, White Linen Damasks: Heraldic Motifs from the Sixteenth Century to circa 1830 (Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 2014), 2 vols, 564 pages, ISBN: 978-3905014563, CHF 280.

The Abegg-Stiftung’s collection of white linen damasks ranks amongst the foremost in the world. With tablecloths, banquet napkins, handtowels, and napkins, it covers a wide range of patterns, including heraldic and historical motifs, biblical and mythological stories, flowers, hunting scenes, views of towns, etc. With emphasis on heraldic motifs all such patterns feature in this catalogue. Occasionally clients also had their names and a date woven in. Most of this napery originates from weaving centres in the Southern and Northern Netherlands, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and Russia.

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