30 November 2022 -

As part of the 'Folk' Cultures in Everyday Objects seminar series, Francisca Antunes Guimarães (an independent researcher from Porto, Portugal) has written a blog post about Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro's (Lisbon, 1846-1905) utensils set and its design links to Portuguese folk culture. Her research intends to deepen the study and meaning of the tablewares in the 19th century using a specific set from Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro as a case study:

Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro (Lisbon, 1846-1905) was born into a family predestinated to art, as Julieta Ferrão [1] - the first woman museum director in Portugal - puts it. Being a multifaceted artist, he was an actor, ceramist, journalist, chronicler, cartoonist, costume designer and more.

One of the least known aspects of his artwork comes in the last years of his career, when Rafael produced an unusual tableware set. It is not surprising that he was the chosen author to design it, as he was a striking figure in the Portuguese culture whose work reflects his dreamy and picturesque spirit, and all the knowledge he acquired throughout his lifetime was always embedded in his work.

Dining room of the 3rd Viscounts of S. João da Pesqueira’s palace. Bishop’s Palace (archive), Porto

The circumstances that led to the commissioning of such an impressive tableware and the motivation behind this request, came from the cosmopolitan couple 3rd
Viscounts of S. João da Pesqueira. This decision was motivated for several reasons, particularly due to the exuberant 19th century tendencies - a rising need to preserve the old traditions, beliefs, tales and customs evident in the eclecticism and revivalism - and the fact that the Viscounts were also patrons and art collectors, which made them fascinated with the new aesthetics and trends. As a general rule, the mentioned elite used to order personalized tableware and not one resulting from a series production, thus resulting as a reflection of their own exclusivity and uniqueness. Also, the democratization of the use of cutlery and increase typologies was influenced by the new 19th
century individualistic values and, naturally, by the affirmation of the dining space itself as an independent place (which was also a “recent” phenomenon, more common and accessible to most families after the Industrial Revolution and with the rise of a middle class).

It was during the refurbishment of their house in Porto that, in 1899, Rafael was made responsible for the creation and design process, and the goldsmiths Casa Reis & Filhos (Oporto), for the manufacture of the silver tableware, which took 5 years to complete. Rafael’s design even dictated the decoration of their entire dining room, which would become the family’s place of choice, the room that brings together people, moments and stories around the table.

Influenced by the 19th century Europe who was experiencing an intense rise of nationalism - which soon led to renewed views on the need for valorization and revivalism of the arts, propagating romantic ideals based on nature and nostalgia - Rafael, along with his passion for theatre and bold style, took advantage of those elements “creating a chapter in the Portuguese folklore” [1]. The more than 300 utensils that make up this collection testify the flow of his imagination in adapting the trendy revivalist art language in the collection. There we can see some remarkable theatrical influences as well as the burlesque humor found in brief details such as the small shrimp that finish off the fish knives, reminding the users of how to properly eat with these amounts and diversity of cutlery.

Fish knife (silver) Bishop’s Palace, Porto

This cutlery set is by far the most creative part of the tableware, varying according to the function: nautical instruments and maritime themes are mostly found in the fish cutlery, as the shells on the spoons, fishing nets around the cables of the flatware, eel tails that meander around the fish cutting knife or the pitchforks and tridents in the forks, an allusion to the sea-god as mentioned in the 16th century epic poem written by Luís Vaz de Camões “Os Lusíadas”. In this epic, that narrates Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India, several allusions to the sea’s folklore, legends and mythology are portrayed. The maritime theme is also found in other utensils, e.g. the gravy boat shaped as a vessel.

Gravy boat (silver) Bishop’s Palace, Porto

On the other hand, in the meat items the inspiration is medieval, displaying the items as fanciful weapons, showing more robust and aggressive lines in a reference to hunting.

Study for meat cutlery Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, 1899 Bishop’s Palace, Porto

Thus, it is not possible to dissociate the profane and sacred influences in the elements that constitute the collection, like the similarities with the south portal of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Lisbon) and the influence of the baptistry of Leça do Balio [2, 3].

The 19th century taste goes back to a distant and often idealized past, and absorbs various influences in order to reinterpret and preserve them. In a dining room we can have a clear notion of an identity expression through decoration, and considering the enhance of folklore representations in art during that century, it is effortless to see how Rafael interpreted and materialized stories, traditions and legends while fostering a historicist and nostalgic atmosphere.

This table silverware collection captures this same dreamy attachment to old tales and costumes, invoking images linked to Portuguese legends and stories, myths and tradition, architecture and poetry, and which certainly encouraged interesting conversations around the dinner table.

Fish cutting fork (silver) Bishop’s Palace, Porto)

Francisca Antunes Guimarães is an independent researcher from Porto, Portugal. She was previously a curator in the Episcopal Palace. She specializes in art history, museology and more recently is interested in matters related to material culture and therapy in museums through the usage of their objects.


[1] Ferrão, J. (1946). Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro 1846-1945; Colecção Hífen. Lisboa: Editora Litoral.
[2] Silva, V. N. (2002). Exposição de Pratas Portuenses. Palácio Real de Amalienborg Copenhaga – Dinamarca. 27 de junho - 25 de agosto 2002. Lisboa: Instituto Camões.
[3] Anonymous (1904). Uma Baixella Manoelina. Porto: Reis & Filhos.


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