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Into the basin
put the plums,
Next the good
white flour comes,
Sugar and peel
and eggs and spice,
Mix them and fix them
and cook them twice,
By Rebecca Massie Lane
Special to The Herald-Mail
The artist, Frederick Stuart Church — often known in art as "the other Church" so as to separate his identity from the more well-known Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church — painted the holiday subject of this month's article, "Cold Sauce with Christmas Pudding."
Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., Church was directed by his parents toward a business career, and worked from age 13 to 17 for the American Express Co. in Chicago. His interest in drawing was not encouraged by formal training at this time. When the Civil War broke out, he served for three years in the Union artillery, and then returned to Chicago where he studied at the Chicago Art Academy with artist Walter Shirlaw.
In 1870, he moved to New York and studied at the National Academy of Design with Lemuel Wilmarth and at the Art Students League. Early on, he earned his living as a commercial artist including producing illustrations for Harper's Weekly and later for Frank Leslie's Weekly, Century Magazine and Ladies' Home Journal.
A successful New York illustrator at the height of the 19th century, Church's work embodied the Victorian taste for the whimsical, for images of animals and fashionable young ladies and for sentimental subjects.
Fanciful images of animals populated this work, and his interest in bears was particularly pronounced in his winter subjects such as the painting now on view at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Titled "Cold Sauce with Christmas Pudding," the painting captures the qualities of Victorian sentimentality.
Church often visited Barnum and Bailey's premises in New York City, as well as the Central Park Zoo, to study and make sketches of the animals held there. He also made painting expeditions to the countryside. In one period, he lived on a farm and taught the owner's two young daughters to draw. His patron, the banker Grant B. Schley eventually provided Church with a specially built studio at Schley's estate Froh Helm at Far Hills, N.J.
The museum's painting shows a fashionably dressed young woman, complete with elaborate bonnet, in conspiracy with a benign, jolly bear, making (and tasting) snow-icing for a Christmas pudding. The bear holds a bowl of sugary icing sauce, licking his paw, while the lady holds a spreading knife that also drips the sweet sauce. The pudding is the round bomb-shaped ball on the platter. A family of rabbits helps to support the great weight of the pudding on platter, the taller ones peeking over the edge in anticipation of the coming feast. In the left corner, two adolescent rabbits have snitched pieces of curled sugar cane, and two sparrows pick up the tasty nibbles that have dropped on the snow.
Though we get the general idea of this painting today, perhaps we can't fully understand the Victorian enthusiasm for the subject because Christmas pudding has virtually disappeared from the menus of modern life.
What is a Christmas pudding? In Victorian England and America, it is a boiled dessert comprised of flour, sweet dried fruits, sometimes called "plum pudding," which was cooked for hours. It dates back to medieval times, and until the 19th century, was cooked in a pudding cloth immersed in water. The Victorians developed a new pudding cooking technique, placing it in a basin and steaming it. It was reheated before serving, and iced with warm brandy, which was ignited as part of the dramatic presentation of the pudding. After the brandy fire ebbed, the pudding would be served with a variety of possible sauces, including lemon cream, rum butter, custard or sweetened béchamel.
To the Victorians, Church's "cold sauce" enjoyed by the animals would have been the height of hilarity. The very idea of a bear assisting in its preparation and a lady dressed in finery icing the finished delicacy was a wonderful joke.
As an illustrator, Church was often called upon to create appropriate holiday images for publication, including Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. He illustrated the 1878 New World publication entitled "Out of this World," portraying the human and animal protagonists of each of Aesop's fables plus an elaborate cover. He also illustrated the 1881 edition of "Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation," by Joel Chandler Harris, published in New York by D. Appleton and Co. He was a member of the National Academy of Design.
In the same year that he painted "Cold Sauce," Church also created an etching for the Harper's Weekly Children's edition, referencing Christmas pudding. This illustration was accompanied by John Kendrick Bangs's poem, "The Christmas Pudding."
Far, far away in a distant clime,
A Fairy small told me,
Over the frosty snow and rime
Is a rich plum-pudding tree;
A pudding-tree so large and fine,
That never a day doth pass
That dozens of puddings and pies divine
Don't fall on the soft green grass.
The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts will be open through the holidays, except Monday, Dec. 24, Tuesday, Dec. 25, and Tuesday, Jan. 1. Admission is free. For more information, call the museum at 301-739-5727 or visit the website: www.wcmfa.org.
Rebecca Massie Lane is director of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.