Last weekend I delivered a very special commission, a birthday cake, favours and cupcakes all designed with a Jane Austen theme.
As some of you know, I have loved Jane Austen's works since I was a teenager, and have written a Jane Austen blog ( www.austenonly.com) for years, so when I received this comission I was absolutely delighted.
My client was holding a party to celebrate her 80th birthday and wanted to do it in style. She wanted the theme to represent one of her greatest interests, as she too, like me, has been a Jane Austen fan for most of her very long life. Before she met me she didn't know that I too was a fellow Janeite, but once we began to talk about the project, she knew I was the woman for the job!
My client had some very clear instructions and restrictions regarding the design of the cake. It was not to be too obviously "Jane Austen". By that she meant that no quotes from the books and, indeed, no "sugar books" were to be on the cake at all. And it had to have some references to her favourite book, Mansfield Park. So....after a lot of thinking, researching and sourcing this is the cake that I made for her:
The main design influence was Jane Austen's family's liking for Josiah Wedgwood's wares. Her brother, Edward, famously comissioned a dinner service from the firm decorated with his crest. Jane Austen used Wedgwood china at her last home, Chawton Cottage (now the Jane Austen House Museum) in Hampshire. I decided to use a blue and white theme based on Wedgwood's famous Jasperware, and to use some neo-classical devices, as he would have done: laurel leaf borders and swags of roses. Interestingly, the technique I used to make most of the decorations- making sugarpaste shapes by setting them in moulds- is very similar to the technique used on Wedgwood Jasperware.
I also wanted to use the famous silhouette thought to be of Jane Austen: L'aimable Jane. This was found pasted in the back of the second volume of a first edition of Mansfield Park, and is, therefore, very fitting for this project. I decided to use the silhouette as the main focus of the cake's largest tier:
The silhouette was surrounded by a frame of sugarpaste oak leaves, terminating in a Regency style bow. I decided to use oak leaves for not only are they quintessenially Engish, as was Jane Austen, but they also represent the navy, of which she was very fond.
Jane Austen had six brothers and two of them, Frank and Charles, served in the navy. In her novels Persuasion and Mansfield Park she depicted naval men (Captain Frederick Wentworth and his circle and Midshipman William Price) as some of the very best men to be found in early nineteenth English society.
During Jane Austen's lifetime the British navy truly ruled the waves, and this culminated in the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, when the navy, commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson, comprehensively defeated the French. The patriotic Georgian song, Heart of Oak, written circa 1760, is still the official march of the Royal Navy. It was written by Dr.Wiliam Boyce with original lyrics by David Garrick, the famous actor. It was wildly popular song in the early 19th century and the Heart of Oak of the title refers to the wooden warships then in use.
In addition, Jane Austen is thought to have owned a pelisse made of silk, and it was decorated with a pattern of stylised oak leaves. This garment is now owned by Hampshire Museum Service. So using oak leaves to frame her silhouette was therfore highly appropriate becasue it very definately references her very strong interest in and admiration of the navy of the early 19th century.
To further reinforce references on the cake to Jane Austen's affection for the navy, I added a gilded sugarpaste anchor on the botom tier of the cake:
The anchor is susupended by a rope from a tiny sugar quill pen- the tool of Jane Austen's trade as a writer. It is surrounded by a frame of sugar paste rope: again this is another naval reference to the ropes used in the rigging on the warships of the time.
The third tier of the cake was decorated with larger sugarpaste quill pens and the separator tier of the cake was filled with lots of white roses- RosaAlba maxima blossoms- all made of sugar paste.
This rose is thought by some to be the White Rose of York and also the Jacobin Rose. Either will serve as a tribute to Jane Austen's interests as she was fond of both the royal houses of York and Stuart. In her History of England By a Partial Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian, (her burlesque on the standard history books of the time which she wrote when she was only 15) she voiced her support for the House of York when writing of Richard III:
The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man...
And she simply adored the Stuarts, especially Mary Queen of Scots, declaring at the end of her History that defending her reputation was the sole reason for writing her book!
However tongue-in-cheek these sentiments may have been, the white rose that may be associated with both of these royal houses seemed a very appropriate choice of flower to adorn this cake.
The top tier of the cake was decorated with a plaque surrounded by pearls and a regency bow.
And in the centre of the plaque is a golden pug. This is a reference to the famous pug owned by the indolent Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park.
The finial on top of the cake was made of lots of sugarpaste oak leaves:
and it was topped with an acorn. The whole cake was set off with a bow and trailing ribbon of black and white striped silk.
The cake was wonderfully recieved by my client, who immediately understood all the Jane Austen references.
She also ordered lots of favours for her quests to take home after her party had ended. I made these biscuits in various fancy shapes and they were covered in the same blue fondant as the cake.
Each one was decorated with a smaller version of Jane Austen's silhouette but there were three types of frames: oak leaves
Ropes, oak leaves and acorns:
and finally, pearls and a quill:
My client also ordered some cupcakes to be distributed among her book club friends at a later celebration: each one was decorated with a topper which again made a reference to Jane Austen:
Black pugs ( for a change!) anchors, quill pens and the L'aimable Jane silhouette.
As you can probably tell, I had a ball making all these cakes and biscuits. It has been a dream comission, and I hope you have all enjoyed looking at the end result of all my labours!