Evolving from a simple plate or bowl on which to stand candlesticks and condiments, a surtout de table often took the form of a long galleried tray made of precious or gilded metals, often made in sections allowing its length to be determined by the leaves added to the table. During the later half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, no formal table was considered compete without one. Today, they are still seen and used in the most formal dining rooms.
When a surtout de table were commissioned for a specific house it was not uncommon for an indigenous theme to be used in the design and style. For example, a hunting lodge may have a surtout de table with figurines of dogs and their quarry while a grander town palace would feature the most fashionable Rococo or Baroque styles of the day. Royal Families of Europe often commissioned the best goldsmiths of the day to create magnificent sets of themes utilising the specific architecture, objects d’art and even moving train sets to transport the condiments around the table!
Notable examples of surtouts de table include those made the Italian goldsmith Luigi Valadier ( 26 February 1726 - 15 September 1785 ) Born in Rome, Valadier was a goldsmith to many popes and Italian designer for European Dukes, Cardinals and Kings.
These monumental surtouts de table often represent Roman cities in miniature, complete with temples, colonnades and triumphal arches of coloured marbles and alabaster mounted on gold and mosaic pediments.
Above is a spectacular and highly important Museum quality Italian First Empire period, circa 1810, ormolu, marble, alabaster and semi precious stone surtout de table, in the manner of Luigi Valadier (Rome 1726 -1785). The elongated oval ormolu pierced gallery has a richly chased design of scrolled foliage and central reserves of two lions flanking a family crest. The gallery is joined by four rectangular pediments with lion heads and swaging fruit garlands. Above are richly carved alabaster figures on pedestals holding lyres and folios. The plateau has an inlay of specimen marbles and semi-precious stones including Lapis Lazuli and Blue John.
Below is the masterpiece by Valadier with Pietra Dura stones of Lapis Lazuli and Malachite as seen in the Palace de Fontenbleau.
This table decoration, or plat-de-menage, was made in 1724-25 by the famous Parisian silversmith Claude Ballin II. On the tray stands a fruit basket with four female half-figures. At the corners are candlesticks on twisted supports, silver cruet vessels and openwork stands for glass vessels (now lost), intended to hold oil, pepper, vinegar and the other spices which became popular in France in the early 18th century at the time of great developments in colonial trade. Along with another identical plat-de-menage in the Hermitage, this piece would seem to have been intended for the daughters of Peter the Great, Anna and Elizabeth.
Today the masterpieces of the Surtout De Table can be seen in the Royal Palaces and all major museums of the world.
Surtout de Table
At a supper given in March 1692 at the Palais Royal in Paris to celebrate the wedding of a prince, a new sort of table centrepiece appeared for the first time, “ a large contraption in silver-gilt, of recent invention, and called a surtout de table ”. Over the course of the following years, silversmith Nicolas Delaunay provided Louis XIV with several of these objects for his personal service. They were originally both decorative and functional, being a practical way to group saltcellars, spice boxes, oil and vinegar bottles, and sugar bowls all together in one place, whilst at the same time acting as a girandole providing lighting during suppers. The surtout was the epitome of luxury, made of precious metal, porcelain, and hardstones decorated with bronze, and over the course of the 18th century it developed into a grand decorative set of pieces used as a central ornament for the tables of people of high social rank. It provided guests with a fantastic spectacle, a miniature world generally inspired by architecture, the garden arts, or the recently rediscovered world of Antiquity.