"Using a tablecloth adds character to the table and enhances the aura of the dining area." Quora commenter
What do you know about tablecloths? Probably not a lot, like me. Well you don't think about them do you? Indeed you probably don't even use them these days. So when this painting by Pierre Bonnard popped up on my desk calendar today, and still thinking about 'just things' from yesterday I thought I would explore tablecloths, which has taken me on a meandering path with a thought here and a thought there.
Before leave my inspirational painting, which I do quite like, though not enough to put on my wall I think, I did a brief scan to see who else painted check tablecloths - obviously thousands have done tablecloths, so I thought I would restrict myself to check ones. Well mostly Pierre Bonnard it seems - and probably the same tablecloth over and over again - well why not? Vermeer kept using the same clothes for his women, and the same props in the same room. We probably don't look at things enough really. I mean really look at them. So below is Pierre Bonnard's tablecloth in a number of different guises. Although it looks as if he bought a new blue one in the end. Even though the tablecloth is always mentioned as the main thing in the title of all of these paintings, it's obviously not always the important thing in the painting.
I actually only found three more paintings by artists I knew that featured a check cloth - Matisse on the left and Juan Gris in the middle and Edouard Vuillard on the right.
Maybe check tablecloths did not exist before the 19th century and only the more brightly coloured expressionistic painters of the 19th and early 20th centuries were interested. The impressionist were more into more formal and decorous ones. But enough of the artists.
I will just say though that when it comes to restaurants the check tablecloth is more usually identified with the cheap and cheerful, and the rustic - as shown here. They are common in pizzerias, and sometimes a white tablecloth - or paper tablecloth is placed diagonally on top. I don't think you would find a check tablecloth in a posh restaurant.
No in a posh restaurant you would either have a beautiful, expensive bare table individually designed for the restaurant, or one draped extensively with white linen - as in the two poshest restaurants I have been in I think - Vue de Monde in Melbourne - stone tables I think, and Paul Bocuse in Collonges just outside Lyon.
The white linen has something to do with history. The very first tablecloths seem to have appeared in the 1st century AD. But by Medieval times, almost everyone used one, except for the very poorest in the line who probably didn't even have a table. The richer you were, the finer the material from which the tablecloth was made. They were white because, not only was it expensive to grow and treat the flax for the linen but also to bleach the material and then it was even more expensive to keep them white. They didn't have automatic washing machines back then. It took a lot of people to keep them clean. Thus the richer you were the whiter the cloth - a trend which continues to this day. It demonstrated that you could afford the material and you also had a lot of staff. The poor would have used sackcloth, and the in betweeners tablecloths of varying degrees of quality and design.
"Table linens have always communicated class." Coast Linen Services
People study this kind of thing. I even found an academic paper in a journal called Food Quality and Preference whose title was The impact of tablecloth on consumers’ food perception in real-life eating situation and whose abstract included these words:
"This study aimed to investigate the influence of table linen on food perception. A total of 247 participants were provided meals with different table linens, either fabric or paper linen, in a real restaurant setting. The results demonstrated a fabric table linen contributed to a significant higher preference of the appetiser, first course consumed upon arrival, and of the meal quality in general."
I'm not sure whether to laugh at this or to be somewhat appalled that someone should waste time on this. But then I guess it's probably a market research exercise although you would have thought that after all of those centuries it was perfectly obvious that a white linen tablecloth denoted luxury.
Mind you these days it is becoming fashionable in an environmental way to do away with tablecloths, even napkins altogether because of the environmental impact of all that bleaching and washing. Laundries are going out of business.
It's also fashionable to go completely rustic not just with the lack of a tablecloth but also with a table that is very carefully crafted to look as if it's just been knocked together. Or don't even bother to put your tablecloth on properly just chuck it on any old how and don't worry if it looks raggedy at the edges. Well my Australian Women's Weekly Christmas Cookbook seems to think so anyway. As do a whole lot of other such tomes. And very pretty they look too. And sort of romantic.
Another random thought - picnics. I have always loved the idea of the perfect picnic - the perfect day, the perfect setting, the perfect companions and the perfect food of course - no wasps or ants or flies - but you must have a beautiful tablecloth to spread on the grass. The impressionists seem to have done it a fair bit - Monet's is one of the more famous depictions of Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, but these days you can hire a mini table and cushions to sit on as shown below - and there's that white tablecloth - posh.
Last thought. I couldn't let tablecloths go by without a brief mention of those gorgeous Provençale ones. I have one - lightly plasticised and round - that I always forget I have. In fact I think I have another one somewhere which is more plasticised and has a hole in the middle for the umbrella. You can find them in every market in France or you can buy the material and make your own. Sunflowers, lavender, olives, poppies, cigars and other colourful and natural things, like the golden wheat on mine. The sentimental memories attached to my tablecloth are not specific for I cannot actually remember where I bought it. No it's more a general remembrance of summer in France.
The problem with these and any other brightly coloured or patterned tablecloth is that you have to match your plates, your napkins, your flowers and everything else to the tablecloth - which takes a bit of skill. I actually chose the blue and yellow colouring because I do have a set of cheap crockery which is also Provençale in design and is blue and yellow. Plain yellow or blue would probably be better though.
These designs, or rather brightly coloured textiles first appeared in 17th century France from India and so they came to be known as Les Indiennes. They became so popular that the local textile industry of Lyon was hit hard and so their importation was banned in 1686. But the French just moved the industry to Avignon which was, at the time, a Papal city and therefore under the jurisdiction of Rome, not France. So in 1750 the ban was lifted and now they are everywhere - probably made in China but very French looking. I love them. So very, very summery.
I do have a few tablecloths - in plain blue - bought for a big party for David's 60th I think, to cover the trestle tables I borrowed for the occasion. And a green one with a blue border that I bought for some reason I cannot now remember. I also have, tucked deep down in a drawer in the laundry a white damask tablecloth, maybe even two, faintly yellow with age, which come from a P&O ship courtesy of my father. Maybe they were being thrown out. I hope they weren't stolen. They are one of those things that I really should throw out, and which you find in gorgeous plenty in the brocantes of France. Those wonderfully shambolic warehouses full of treasure from old houses.
Today we never use tablecloths. We think our wooden table is beautiful in itself. And it's easier to match everything to a plain wooden table.