VICTORIAN MEAT PLATES
Among the largest pieces of a Victorian dinner service were the platters used to bring large pieces of roast, boiled
or baked meat to the table for serving.
The average family was much larger in Victorian times than it is today, and
when there were guests it was not unusual for more than a dozen people to be
seated for dinner. Menus were generally larger too, and on formal occasions, diners in
middle and upper-class households would typically be served with four courses - each of
them consisting of a choice of three or four dishes before the dessert.
As a result, Victorian dinner services were equally large, with several serving dishes,
sauce boats and tureens as well as the various plates and bowls. A typical service would
include two or more meat plates or platters, used to bring joints of meat or whole roast or
boiled fowl to the dining room for carving. These platters were never circular; some were
perfect ellipses, while the more usual shape was oblong with rounded corners.
Meat and poultry formed a much larger part of the menu in the 19th century than they
do now, and the job of carving was reserved for the head of household, or for the butler if
there was one. Meat platters were often heavily potted both to reflect the importance
of the task and for practical reasons.
Animals and birds were bred to have a much higher fat content than they are today, and the better platters had to be thickly potted to accommodate a well at one end. The juices drained from the meat, along an arrangement of sunken channels shaped like the skeleton of a leaf, into this well, and were spooned over the meat when serving it. The underside of the plate had a low curved stand at one end to tilt it and so encourage the juices to run.
As well as oriental motifs such as pheasants and the
Willow Pattern, plates were sold bearing romantic landscapes and scenes of town and country life, especially hunting. Floral scenes were the popular choice for the finest hand-painted porcelain services. Different sizes of plate, platter and dish might have variations on a single theme.
Services also varied greatly in price. The best
porcelain Worcester service cost three times the annual average wage, while a simple earthenware service was well within the price range of an average middle-class family.
At family gatherings, Victorian dining tables groaned under the weight of food and crockery. Dinner services were made from a wide range of materials, including porcelain, bone china and stoneware, though most were in earthenware. The vast majority of earthenware plates were not
hand painted, but decorated with transfer prints, usually blue on white, although shades of pink, brown, grey and green were also used.
Meat platters were not made to be sold individually; they were always part of a service. Full Victorian dinner services are a very rare find today. Most have been reduced by breakages or split by inheritances.
Meat plates, though, tend to have survived intact better than most pieces. They weren't used as often as normal plates; unlike tureens, they had no lids to lose or handles and rims to
be chipped and broken, while their large size meant they were accorded a safe haven on a dresser or in a cupboard, and were rarely discarded when a new service was bought.
Today they offer the collector the chance to assemble a handsome representative selection of Victorian hand-painted or transfer-printed useful wares at a relatively low cost. You can find them in specialist and general antiques shops, fairs and markets, at boot sales and in small auctions and house sales.
Always look for plates in good condition. A small chip on the underside of the rim doesn't make a plate valueless, though it should reduce the price, but visible cracks and chips on the top of a plate are much more serious. This is because meat platters, originally intended as useful wares, are more often bought today for decorative purposes.
The best way to display a selection of meat plates is in a dresser or on custom-built shelves, standing on their long sides and held in place by a strip of moulding that will prevent them sliding off. You may have a narrow plate shelf running around the room at the height normally occupied by a picture rail. This is ideal. It's not a good idea to hang them on a wall, as all the various clips available tend to chip or otherwise distress the rims.
Read articles and references: Good standards are Warman's
English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).