Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

The truth about turnips

Woman peeling turnips (c. 1740), Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Wikimedia Commons.

Chief among the lovers of turnips in the art world is Jean Siméon Chardin who included them in still lifes and also in his masterful Woman Peeling Turnips (c. 11740). While the maid herself looks surprisingly crisp and clean there is no apotheosis of the turnip here. Indeed, with the lowly servant the only person in the painting, and the accompanying pumpkin the only other vegetable, the disdain in which the humble turnip is held is clear for all to see.

Prize Sheep (1838), Henry William Davis. Photo: Universal Images Group North America LLC/Alamy Stock Photo.

Perhaps a more optimistic view is evident in Prize Sheep (1838) by William Henry Davis. Here, a farmer is cutting off slices of the bitter vegetable to give to the award-winning ewe. While it is some honour to witness the farmer at such work, it’s hard not to conclude that the physique of the animal perhaps doesn’t entirely recommend a diet of turnips.

Damant coat of arms from a stained glass window in St Andrews Church, Lammas, Norfolk. Wikimedia Commons.

For nobility we must turn to the fine art of heraldry where turnips appear with surprising regularity. Of course, these resilient vegetables that will grow almost anywhere have many implications, but there is no finer rendering than in the window of St Andrew’s Church in Lammas, Norfolk. This should not be a surprise when we consider that the opening of ‘The Norfolk Turnippe Song’ declares:  ‘Some counties boast themselves in pies,/And some for meat do well,/For turnips of enormous size fair Norfolk does excel,/Fair Norfolk does excel.’ By pursuing the turnip as suggested by the secretary of state, we will all, doubtless, excel.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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