Edible Sculptures of Power: Sugar Subtleties in Britain

The first known introduction of sugar to England was in the 1600s and was utilized in five main ways over time: as medicine, a spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener and preservative. (Mintz 78)

Sugar as a decorative material had to be mixed with ingredients such as gum Arabic and then mixed into a claylike substance that could be formed into various sculptures of any size, baked, and once hardened, decorated, displayed, then eaten. This tradition most likely trickled into Europe from marzipan-heavy North Africa via Italy, then to France in the 13th century, then to England. (Mintz 87).

Such displays were called “subtleties” and in many cases marked intervals between banquet courses at royal feasts. The subtleties were in the form of animals, buildings, etc. and were admired and consumed. Subtleties were confined to the kingship, noble classes, the knighthood and the clergy due to the high price of sugar and the vast quantity needed. Originally the sugar sculptures were simply meant to be a marriage of craftsmanship and confectionary skill, but over time could also very well serve as political or satirical symbols conveying messages to guests consuming it. Many of the sugar sculptures served at the coronation of Henry VI did just that; they confirmed the king’s rights, privileges and inherent authority, highlighting the unique phenomenon of a food that could be artistically formed, admired as a work, interpreted for meaning, and then eaten. (Mintz 89). Writings from Robert May (a royal cook in Britain) in the later 1600s describe elaborate works of art—a sugar stag that bleeds claret wine when an arrow is removed from its flank, a sugar castle that fires its artillery at a man of war, and gilded sugar pies filled with live birds. (Mintz 93).

Over time, the aspiring upper and middle classes began to combine “course-paste” sugar creations of their own. These new concoctions were much simpler during the mid 1700s, as evidenced by some recipes in Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s cookbooks—i.e. fruit and vegetable molds, and even a hedgehog. (Mintz 93). The lack of extravagance in these newer designs is understandable due to the fact that sugar by this time had become much cheaper and more accessible to lower class in British society. As sugar continued to become more plentiful in England, its strength as an icon of power and social status deteriorated while it simultaneously became an overwhelming source of profit. (Solow 112).

Sugar became a different substance for the wealthy to enjoy. In many ways, it still remained a symbol of power for the upper classes who profited from the Caribbean sugar trade, but not in the ways it had been in the past. (Solow 103-134). As a result, the practice of sugar as elaborate decorations died out.

In all, the relationship between trade and social stratification is evident when studying the tradition of sugar subtleties. Today, chefs and artists around the world continue to create sugar sculptures, but the market for them is small and usually used for events such as historical reenactments. Artist Kara Walker in New York City recently installed a 35 foot tall “sugar sphinx” as commentary on the history of blackness, sugar, and European commerce, an echo of the days of Henry VI using sugar sculptures to make political statements. (Smith). In conclusion, the effects of the democratization of sugar consumption in Britain still continue today; sugary foods such as candies are now consumed and enjoyed by people of all classes and ages in the Western world, proof that changes in trade can transform the social and political meanings behind a food product among classes in a society.


Artist Kara Walker’s installation at the former Domino sugar factory in Williambsurg, Brooklyn. (2014–The New York Times)

HELP1  (illustrations of elaborate nineteenth century desserts–Mintz 78)

help4  (a royal tradition: 1977 sugar sculptures at Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee–Mintz 187)

HELP3 (architecture in sugar–Notre Dame–Mintz 188)

HELP2.1 (sailing ship, castle–recreations of past sculptures–Mintz 189)

HELP1 (female sexuality in relation to sugar: a drastically different image than the creation of Kara Walker. Whereas Walker’s hyper-sexualized, exploited Negro slave is portrayed in relation to sugar as one in bondage and labor, this sculpture of a white woman in sugar is drastically different. Rather, although also very sexual, she is spoiled, a princess, appearing to be lavishly relaxing upon a bed of sugar roses.) (Mintz 190)

A modern day sugar baker at work creating surrealist sculptures utilizing modern technologies.

Works Cited:

Mints, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. New York: Viking Penguin Inc. 1985. Print.

Smith, Roberta. “Sugar? Sure, but Salted with Meaning-A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby’ at the Domino Plant.” The New York Times 11 May 2014: Web.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/12/arts/design/a-subtlety-or-the-marvelous-sugar-baby-at-the-domino-plant.html

Solow, Barbara L., British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1987. Print.

Victoria and Albert Museum. “Power of Making: Sugar Sculpture by Jacquy Pfeiffer at the Victoria and Albert Museum.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube. 9 September 2011. Web. 10 March 2015.


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