Would you want to stare at a 17th Century painting depicting the dead carcasses of a swan, a deer, a boar, caged hens and a few game birds hanging upside down on hooks while you are having your dinner if you were a vegan? A group of Cambridge University students at Hughes Hall certainly did not. They were put right off their food and protested. The college has now agreed to take the painting down and return it to the Fitzwilliam Museum which is just down the road from where it had been on long-term loan.
The Fowl Market by Frans Snyder has now undergone conservation treatment and is now on display in new Fitzwilliam exhibition – Eat Feast Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800.
A museum spokeswoman explained: “Some diners felt unable to eat because it was on the wall. People who don’t eat meat found it slightly repulsive. They asked for it to come down.
Debates about vegetarianism and veganism date back to the 1500s
“This exhibition makes the points that the debate about vegetarianism, about veganism, is nothing new. It dates back to the 1500s.”
The decision to take the painting down from the Hughes Hall dining room was a “modern incarnation of historic concerns around food consumption and the environment” according to Victoria Avery and Melissa Calaresu, the exhibition curators.
“Many people are turning to vegetarianism and veganism as a political choice as much as a dietary one, as we rethink our relationship with animals and their treatment in an industrialised world,” said the curators.
“Food choices are not only determined by political concerns about what we eat but also compounded by the moral anxieties which resonate around diet, self-image, over-consumption and our bodies.
“As Eat Feast Fast demonstrates, many of these contemporary concerns about our relationship with food are not new.”
The exhibition covers an age when in Britain and Europe “local food cultures were transformed by global networks”.
Food is familiar and vital to all of us — as growers, preparers, and consumers — but its ubiquity and omnipresence in our lives belie the complexity of our relationship, and that of past generations, to food and eating. Food defines us as individuals, communities, and nations — we are what we eat and, equally, what we don’t eat. When, where, why, how and with whom we eat are crucial social and cultural identifiers.Fitzwilliam Museum description of Eat Feast Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800
The Fitzwilliam exhibition has a wide range of food-related exhibits including Sir Isaac Newton’s undergraduate notebook in which he confesses to a love of marmalade and cake. It even recreates a 17th-century Baroque feasting table featuring a swan and peacock.
Offensive to modern eyes
“While perhaps incredible – and indeed, offensive – to modern eyes, all of these birds and beasts were available for consumption by wealthy diners across early modern Europe, as made evident in Frans Snyders’ gigantic workshop copy of The Fowl Market,” said the Fitzwilliam Museum.
PETA was unsurprised. In a statement PETA stated:
“Today’s young people are going vegan in droves, so PETA is not surprised that Cambridge University, one of PETA U.K.’s “Top Vegan-Friendly Universities,” has students who care about animal welfare and don’t want to see carcasses on their plates — or their walls”.
Cambridge University was the first university to ban red meat and “unsustainable fish” at its university-wide cafes and hospitality events some three years ago. The move did not apply to individual university colleges.
The start of this academic year has also seen a huge rise in the number of vegan choices at UK campuses. Conscientious consuming by students has been described as a “mega-trend”.
Eat Feast Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800 runs from 26th November 2019 until 19 April 2020 at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Frans Snyders (or Frans Snijders) (1579 – 1657) was a Flemish painter who specialised in painting animals, hunting scenes, market scenes and still lifes in Antwerp. The offending canvas is actually a mid-17th century copy by an unknown artist in Snyders’ Antwerp studio. The original is in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.