Of Books and Cooks

Gore House was a London Georgian mansion built in the 1750s on the road that is now called Kensington Gore. In its original design, the house had a centrally placed porch with a balcony, and two flanking bays to its garden front. It was decorated by Robert Adam, the Scottish-born neoclassical architect and designer whose ‘Adam style’ was extremely fashionable. In 1808 the house, then in some state of neglect, was taken by social reformer William Wilberforce and his family. During his occupancy, which lasted until 1821, Wilberforce used to receive many politicians and fellow philanthropists here. The abolition of West Indian slavery was commenced in Gore House. Some fifteen years later the house became famous for its lively literary salons. By then it was the home of the Countess of Blessington and Count D’Orsay. The couple had moved there in 1836. They built an additional wing to the house which destroyed its original symmetry. The library created by Lady Blessington extended through the full depth of the mansion. It was designed as the social focus of the house.

Marguerite, Countess of Blessington was a wealthy and beautiful woman. Whilst staying in Genoa she met Byron on a number of occasions. These encounters formed the inspiration for her most famous book Conversations with Lord Byron. She remained on the Continent until Blessington’s death in May 1829. Some time previously the couple had been joined by Paris-born artist Alfred Guillaume Gabriel, Count D’Orsay, who in 1827 had married Lady Harriet Gardiner, Lord Blessington’s only daughter by a former wife. She was only fifteen at the time and, inevitably, the marriage soon ended in a separation. D’Orsay accompanied ‘gorgeous’ Marguerite to England and lived with her until her death. Gore House became a centre of attraction to all those distinguished in literature, learning, art, science and fashion. Count d’Orsay was a Bonapartist, and Louis Napoleon (the future Emperor Napoleon III) was a regular guest. D’Orsay’s artistic faculty as a painter and sculptor endeared him to many friends. More than 125 profile sketches were published by Mitchell of Bond Street of which nearly all of the sitters were celebrities of one kind or another. Today, over sixty of his pencil and chalk portraits are held in the National Portrait Gallery. Gambling was D’Orsay’s downfall. As the debts mounted, he could no longer avoid his creditors and in 1849 he fled to France. The furniture and decorations of the house were sold in a spectacular public auction. The sale by Phillips auction house, which was held at Gore House from 7 to 22 May 1849, attracted an estimated 20,000 visitors to the mansion. The catalogue consisted of 109 pages and included 85 paintings, 100 drawings, 74 miniatures, 107 prints, over 700 books, and some 1,150 objets d’art. Lady Blessington herself had joined the D’Orsay in Paris. She died within a month after the auction of their effects.

The next tenant of Gore House was no less flamboyant. In December 1850 Alexis Soyer took a lease of the mansion. He would become the most famous chef in Victorian London. Soyer was raised in Meaux-en-Brie on the Marne (famous for its cheese), and later moved to Paris. He was working in the kitchen of the Foreign Office when the 1830 Revolution broke out. The building was attacked by angry insurgents. Trying to escape, two of Soyer’s colleagues were shot before his eyes. He escaped through his presence of mind. Loudly singing La Marseillaise and La Parisienne he was cheered by the bloodthirsty mob and subsequently made his way to England. Having worked for various British notables, Soyer became chef de cuisine at the Reform Club in 1837 where he instituted many innovations in the kitchens of this exclusive gentleman’s club. These became so famous that they were opened for conducted tours. When Queen Victoria was crowned on 28 June 1838, he prepared a breakfast for 2,000 people at the Reform Club.

Soyer considered himself as an artist. He cultivated a Byron-like appearance and throughout his life he dressed as a Romantic dandy. Even in the kitchen he eschewed the conventional chef’s outfit. He made every effort to keep himself in the public eye. He was a regular correspondent to London newspapers and wrote a number of books on food and cookery. Antonin Carême had been the first French chef of international stature. Yet, in the best-known portrait of him, the Auguste Blanchard engraving after Charles August Steuben’s painting, there are no chef’s toque or any other culinary attributes to be seen. He is portrayed as a Romantic genius. Across the nineteenth century, both at home and abroad, French chefs achieved unprecedented prestige. However, they were rarely depicted as cooks. Rather, the various portraits and frontispieces constructing their public image show them as literary men. They are presented in a reflective pose, surrounded with paraphernalia of the writer: pen, paper, and books. Under the Ancien Régime, chefs were seen as subservient figures. This image survived into the post-Revolutionary period. In order to be seen as artists in their own right, chefs like Carême and Auguste Escoffier would style themselves as men of letters. It was a matter of ‘cooking the books’ maybe.

Soyer’s writings were widely distributed and offered an opportunity for self-promotion. His first book entitled Délassements culinaires (1845) features a ballet (!), ‘La Fille de l’Orage’, dedicated to his beloved Italian ballerina Fanny Cerrito. The slim volume also includes gastronomic essays – like the recipe for ‘La Crème de la Grande Bretagne’, which was probably written to flatter British society ladies. In spite of his eccentricity and his flirtation with the upper classes, there is another side to this complicated personality. During the Irish Potato famine in April 1847, Soyer invented a soup kitchen and was asked by the Government to go to Ireland to implement his idea. His ‘famine soup’ was served to thousands of the Dublin poor for free. Whilst in Ireland he wrote Soyer’s Charitable Cookery and gave the proceeds of the book to various charities. In 1847 he published a booklet entitled The Poor Man’s Regenerator (1847), a compendium of useful advice, from each copy of which he donated a penny to the poor. An extended version appeared in 1854 as Shilling Cookery for the People (1854). In contrast to his more ‘literary’, rather snobbish and stale works, his writing ‘for the people’ went down well and became a great publishing success. During the Crimean War, Soyer joined the troops to advice on army cooking. Dismayed by newspaper accounts of starving British troops, he volunteered his expertise. During a two-year stay he reformed the British Army’s kitchens as well as its inefficient ways of provisioning them. Together with Florence Nightingale Soyer reorganized the provisioning of army hospitals. When Soyer returned to London, he published an account of his adventures in the Crimea, entitled Soyer’s Culinary Campaign (1857).

Soyer resigned from the Reform Club in May 1850. The next year, he opened his Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations at Gore House to cater for visitors of the Great Exhibition. The organizers had approached Soyer as a possible contractor for the catering arrangements at the Crystal Palace. However, there were so many restrictions imposed upon the consumption of food and drink inside the Hall, that Soyer withdrew his participation. Instead, he tried to profit from the excitement of the event himself. The Symposium turned out to be the most flamboyant restaurant ever seen in London. Each room was decked to some extravaganza theme such as the ‘Grotte des Neiges Éternelles’ and the ‘Chambre Ardante d’Apollo’. An enormous outdoor table on an Italian-style veranda, the Banqueting Bridge of Doge’s Terrace, was created for those who liked dining al fresco. Soyer’s Symposium, with its diverse attractions, entertainers, hot-air balloons, fireworks, and other visual effects, was both restaurant and theme park. It turned out to be a carnival of styles from all centuries and all nations where the antique was mingled with the modern, and the medieval combined with contemporary science. Gore House was transformed into a restaurant-circus. Soyer hoped to entertain and feed 5,000 people daily, but the dream did not succeed. After three months he closed the ambitious project down having lost a substantial amount of money.

In his life, Soyer tried to out-Byron Byron. His public figure was at once endearing and ridiculous; a champion of the common people and a snob trying to cement his reputation as chef and creator in upper class circles; a dandy and performer; an elitist with an eye for mass markets. He was, in short, the godfather of the present-day chef. Apart from his culinary reputation, Soyer has left a linguistic legacy. The word recipe was introduced in the early 1580s and derived from the Latin recipere which means ‘to take’. In those early days the word was written by physicians at the head of prescriptions (and survives in the pharmacist’s abbreviation Rx). In the meaning of instructions for preparing food the word was first recorded in 1743. However, it was not until the mid nineteenth century that the term acquired the status as we now know it. The first O.E.D. citation that relates to food recipes is taken from Soyer’s The Panthopheon: or History of Food and its Preparation published in 1853.