A Clarity of Claret by Ian Dickens
In the Museum’s quest to share the delights of its collection, I’d like to draw your attention to a rather fine glass claret jug, replete with a flourish of silver grapes, swirling vines and curling leaves. The finesse of the silversmith continues around the cork based stopper and the thick, lead heavy frosted glass, gives the piece some serious weight and gravitas.
Glass Claret Jug, Charles Dickens Museum Collection
This is not a receptacle for any upstart new age wine or something that will be light and easy on the tongue. This is not a decanter for an IKEA table or a room lit by neon. If it hears the sound of a twisting metal screw-top undoing, then this jug will refuse to make its acquaintance. And rightly so.
This is a claret jug for the fine dining rooms of its period, where candle-laden flickering candelabras glow bright in reflection off the beeswaxed polished sheen of an English oak table. The hefty red grape, selected for the rich, red meat main course will enhance and complement each other. It will sit on a table echoing to the sound of good, witty conversation. Of lively discourse, passionate debate, roaring laughter and poignant observation that continues until the candles burn low and the last of the jug is poured.
It’s a claret jug that would be familiar to Victorian society and is as adequate an example as any other. Except this one was selected, purchased and personalised by my great-great-grandfather, Charles Dickens.
And with the generosity of spirit that he had for his dear friends, this jug was purchased as a gift. To personalise such a gesture, he had the Jug taken to an engraver who used his fine tools to add, in perfectly formed small letters: CHARLES DICKENS – TO HIS FRIEND – JOHN FORSTER
Engraving on top of glass claret jug, Charles Dickens Museum Collection
I wonder how many bottles it has seen decanted in the 160 or so years since Dickens said to the salesman; ‘yes please, I find this one most agreeable’. How many intimate dinners has it attended, how many parties has it observed and how many glasses has it poured for the great and good of Victorian society, as Dickens and his great friend Forster celebrated together?
My earliest recollection of this precious decanter is Christmas, at some point in the late 1960’s. We are at my parents’ house in Tunbridge Wells and the stockings at the end of our beds have long been opened. The kitchen is a hive of activity with the turkey going in to the oven before breakfast. Not much later, the huge bowl with its tightly tied muslin cloth was in a steaming pan of water, as the Christmas pudding began the final leg of its journey to triumphant completion.
In the dining room, the fine table, handed down from my grandfather Admiral Sir Gerald Dickens, was being carefully laid for the great feast. Many of the cutlery items are engraved with the Dickens crest and the entire scene was one that Scrooge would recognise, had he been peeping enviously through the window.
Charles Dickens's Great Grandson David Dickens at Christmas
My brother and sisters would help add the candles to their holders. When lit, they would reflect off the pictures on the wall including one of Sir Henry Fielding Dickens and another of his Pa, Charles. Above both of them, a garland of ivy and holly, bursting with red berries, decorated the frames. And on the groaning sideboard beneath, close to the Stilton, jug of salted celery, satsumas, nuts, dates and mince pies, sits the decanter.
It had been carefully taken from its safe place of storage, gingerly washed and dried and now was ready to receive yet another bottle of room temperature claret for its only outing of the year. It was ready to observe yet another meal where those with the Dickens surname were in attendance and the richness of laughter, family, celebration and spirit of Christmas would have been reassuringly familiar.
That decanter saw the same scenes as my grandparents Gerald and Pearl celebrated their family Christmases in the 1940’s and 50’s. And the same again at Chelsea’s Mulberry Walk, where my great grandparents Henry and Marie did the same in the 1910’s and 20’s. I know it has been handed down across the generations but I have no idea why the gift from Dickens to Forster came back in to the family fold.
When our parents died, my siblings and I liked the thought that such history should be shared and enjoyed with a wider audience and that such precious items should be professionally cared for.
So if you happen to see the claret jug as you tour the museum, look beyond a piece of Victoriana tableware in a nicely lit cabinet and allow all those who have touched it to talk to you.
Collectively, we can have quite some party. And I can confirm that us Dickens’s continue to do partying really rather well!
Ian Dickens is the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens, descended from Dickens’s eighth child, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens. He shares in this blog post about a special item currently on loan to the Museum from the Dickens Family.
© Ian David Charles Dickens. 2016.
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