Rodin and the Rosewood: how iconic sculptures became an afternoon tea

Commemorating the British Museum’s latest Rodin exhibition, the Rosewood London has created a brand new afternoon tea inspired by the famous French sculptor. We visit the exhibition, try the tea, and speak to the man behind the patisseries.

As I step through the doors that lead to the British Museum’s Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece exhibition, I glance down at the pamphlet I have been offered. “In 1881, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin visited London for the first time,” it reads. “On a trip to the British Museum, he saw the Parthenon sculptures and was instantly captivated by the beauty of these ancient Greek masterpieces”.

It’s easy to understand why Rodin was so enthralled; within the Museum’s open, stripped-back gallery, the Rodin exhibition spreads out before me. An array of sculptures dominates the space, almost all the way to the full-length windows at the other end of the hall. But there is one big difference between my view of the Parthenon masterpieces, and Rodin’s trip to the British Museum; the French sculptor’s work now sits alongside the British Museum’s collection of ancient Greek antiquities.

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), The Kiss, large version, after 1898. Plaster, cast from first marble version, of 1888–98.
© Musée Rodin

The juxtaposition of the Parthenon sculptures and Rodin’s pieces highlights how extensively the French artist was inspired by ancient Greece. Rodin became attached to the British Museum after seeing its collection of ancient antiquities, and made several visits to the Museum before his death in 1917. I wonder how he would feel to know that his artwork is now displayed side by side with the works of his quasi-mentor, Pheidias.

But there is one building – only as stone’s throw away from the temple-like British Museum – that Rodin wouldn’t have been able to visit during his time in London. Compromised of four blocks, the headquarters for the Pearl Assurance Company were built – and extended several times – between 1912 and 1960. Once also known as the Chancery Court Hotel, the grand building on High Holborn now proudly houses the luxury hotel, Rosewood London.

It’s a shame that Rodin never had the chance to visit the Rosewood. As the official hotel partner of the British Museum, the sculptor might have admired the grand hotel and their focus on promoting the arts throughout their public spaces. But the Rosewood certainly knows Rodin; in conjunction with the British Museum’s Rodin exhibition, the hotel has recently launched an afternoon tea inspired by the renowned French sculptor.

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin.

Creating edible art

Three of Rodin’s masterpieces have become the inspiration for the Rosewood’s ‘Rodin afternoon tea’; The Thinker, The Kiss and The Age of Bronze. These three sculptures are also the pieces that are most noticeable when I first enter the British Museum’s exhibition. Is this a coincidence? The Rosewood’s executive pastry chef, Mark Perkins, assures me it isn’t. “I conducted a lot of research into Rodin’s life, his history, mouldings, drawings and artworks,” Mark explains. “During this exploration, it was these three masterpieces which were always the most prominent, and are the most well-recognised and iconic of Rodin’s entire collection”.

Exploring the artworks in more detail at the Rodin exhibition, it’s easy to see why these masterpieces would become the Rosewood’s inspiration. The Kiss - standing alongside the Parthenon’s Goddesses in diaphanous drapery - is cast in light that shows the intricate subtleties of Rodin’s work, evoking creating warm flesh out of the cold marble. The Age of Bronze depicts a young man with one arm raised above his head; he stands alone on a plinth, but behind him viewers can see a block from the Parthenon, where a youth is standing in a remarkably similar pose.

Rising goddess, figure K from the east pediment of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC. Marble.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Meanwhile, a plaque below The Thinker explains that it was designed to sit above Rodin’s intricate The Gates of Hell; it mentions that the athletic nudity of the figure could allude to ancient Greece’s belief that “a healthy mind should reside in a healthy body”. The universally well-known pose of The Thinker - a man, sitting with his right elbow on his left thigh, rests his chin on a closed fist – both asks the viewer questions and suggests the sculpture is looking for answers.

So how has Mark managed to transform these astounding works of art into delicate pastries? Unsurprisingly, there was some creative license involved. “For The Age of Bronze pastry, I really looked into the wording of the work by Rodin, and instead of recreating the sculpture, decided to focus on the exterior ageing process of the metal,” he explains. “Many of Rodin’s works were displayed outside; their colour changed over time, which is represented within our pastry. Our Rosewood seal represents the original brown shade of bronze, and the emerald finish on the pastry illustrates the aged and weathered colour of the metal.”

Mirror Room, Rodin Afternoon Tea, The Kiss ® Ido Garinic

While The Age of Bronze pastry is the most abstract of the three deserts, the concept for The Kiss and The Thinker both take inspiration from the physicality of Rodin’s artworks. The Kiss “was inspired by Rodin’s famous piece portraying two Italian lovers in an intimate embrace,” says Mark. “Notes of rose and raspberry highlight the theme of love, while the two chocolate shards representing the intertwined lovers are created with a marble effect to demonstrate the material from which the sculpture was made”.

“Regarding The Thinker,” Mark continues, “I initially considered sculpturing the pastry into a 3D form, but later decided to develop a silhouette of the artwork out of chocolate, resting on a sculptured chocolate sponge sable pillar”. It means that every one of The Thinker pastries features a silhouette of the statue’s iconic pose – and each one was hand brushed onto a piece of white chocolate, as intricately as if it were being chipped out of a slab of marble. 

Immersing guests in Rodin’s world

Displaying over 80 works in marble, bronze and plaster alongside ancient Greek art, the British Museum’s Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece exhibition juxtaposes old and new; but after visiting the exhibition and experiencing the Rosewood’s Rodin afternoon tea, the similarities between the two experiences are striking. It shows that Mark and his team have managed to cleverly represent Rodin’s work in an unconventional way.

 “We always strive to offer a full experience to all of our guests from the moment they enter our hotel until they leave,” Mark mentions - and a full experience is exactly what guests can expect. Welcomed into the Rosewood’s Mirror Room, diners are immediately immersed in the artistic atmosphere by the periodic French soundtrack being gently played in the background. A large ‘chocolate stone’ on a pedestal draws the eye, and is occasionally chiselled by a member of Mark’s team – reminding guests of the marble Rodin worked so closely with.

Rosewood London, The Mirror Room

“It is important to fully immerse visitors in the ritual so that they are able to thoroughly understand the concept and escape their everyday lives throughout,” says Mark when asked about this addition. Once seated, guests are offered a palate cleanser and choose three Mariage Frères teas – one per course - to compliment the art-themed pastries. For those who aren’t such tea connoisseurs, a tea expert is on hand to help find out which tea might suit the palette; the teas are also a nod to Rodin’s French heritage.

Starting with a course of finger sandwiches, each of the tea’s courses are presented inside vitrines. Food design company Studio Appetit helped design the small black boxes, which create a frame around the course that is being served, displaying the delicacies as if they were pieces of artwork. This delightful touch mirrors the pedestals and viewing boxes that Rodin’s works are displayed in at the British Museum’s exhibition – except that the Rosewood’s vitrines lack glass, allowing diners to reach inside the display case to retrieve their desired pastry.

Mirror Room, Rodin Afternoon Tea, The Thinker ® Ido Garini

These other elements all add to the “full experience” Mark and his team are creating for the Rodin-inspired tea, but it is as the second course slides gently into the vitrine in the middle of our table that I realise there’s more to this plate than meets the eye. Thinking back, the clue to this course resides at the Museum’s exhibition. There, a small plaque mentions that there was another artist who was a source of inspiration for Rodin – Charles Baudelaire.

Rodin had a particular attraction to the French poet’s work, especially Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal (The Flowers of Evil); the poems inspired several pieces of Rodin’s art, including two sculptures displayed at the British Museum that are ‘fragments’ from The Gates of Hell. “It was essential for us to encompass Baudelaire’s poetic works into our offering,” Mark says when I ask him about this other influence. “His literature contributed such strong inspiration towards Rodin’s own style and artworks”.

“Rodin’s sculptures are all very technical, and the additional element of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal allowed us to explore other pastry ideas - leading to our slightly more traditional French pastry set,” Mark says. “Within these three patisserie pieces, a collection of different floral flavours are present to evoke the theme of the poet’s writing”. These three patisseries make up the second course of the Rodin afternoon tea.

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC. Marble.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Served alongside light, fluffy scones – a staple of the British afternoon tea – each of the three Les Fleurs Du Mal inspired pastries are infused with floral flavours. The vibrant purple berry and violet macaron is sharp and sweet; the light, citrusy lemon and lavender meringue sits in the middle of the ‘display’. Finally, the jasmine and vanilla choux might seem the most traditional of the three pastries, but the subtle flavour of the jasmine sings through the cream, making this choux delectably unique.

Telling artists’ stories through intricate pastries

On first glance at the Rodin afternoon tea menu, it’s slightly worrying to see that the Rodin-inspired pastries were the third, and final, course. However, that is another example of Mark’s genius; his cleverly balanced plates ensure that both the first two courses evoke a sense of the artwork to come, but are light enough to make sure there is still room to enjoy his three Rodin-inspired masterpieces. Perhaps Mark feels at ease with creating artist-inspired teas because this is not the first one he has created for the Rosewood.

Previously, Mark and his team have worked on an afternoon tea that took its inspiration from contemporary artists including Banksy and Hubert Le Gall. Even with this past experience, I wonder how different it was, taking inspiration from a renowned French sculptor. “Our Rodin Afternoon Tea has definitely been the most challenging,” Mark admits. “Many of Rodin’s pieces are sculptured forms, which are extremely difficult to recreate as an intricate pastry, particularly for high volume production. For this reason, we really had to think unconventionally and contemplate more abstract ideas for the presentation of the cakes”.

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), The Age of Bronze, 1877. Bronze. Sand cast before 1916.
© Musée Rodin

Breaking into the emerald shell of The Age of Bronze pastry, vanilla brûlée and chocolate mousse are revealed within; though the dessert is an abstract take on Rodin’s sculpture, it’s easy to see the inspiration behind the delicacy. But, after working with various artists as inspiration, why does Mark continue to tell these artists’ stories through food? “They have played such a significant role in the history of human culture, and their works are now an integral part of our heritage,” he says, after pausing for thought.

“The artists whose works we showcase are iconic; their pieces depict stories of peoples’ lives, and they have all had a lasting impression on people throughout the world,” continues Mark. “Creating our art-inspired pastries is a really interesting and entertaining way to educate our pastry team members – and, of course, our guests. Adopting the medium of pastry craftsmanship provides an opportunity for everyone to experience art in a truly novel way, from an entirely different perspective”.

From ancient Rome in fifth-century BC to Rodin’s artworks, created at the turn of the 20th Century, each bite of Mark’s Rodin-inspired pastries are full of art, culture and history. With that in mind, the pressure lies with the pastry chef who is chosen to create such delicate masterpieces – but Mark seems to have done it with incredible ease. Each pastry is delightful and unique, the flavours perfectly balanced and light. They may be inspired by Rodin’s sculptures, but there is one major difference between Mark’s desserts and the French sculptor’s artworks: it doesn’t take long for the pastries to disappear from their display.

Mirror Room, Rodin Afternoon Tea, The Age of Bronze ® Ido Garini


The Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece exhibition is proudly sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and is open from the 26th April - 29th July 2018. Get tickets here. The Rosewood London's Rodin Afternoon Tea is available for the duration of the exhibition, and more information on the Tea can be found here.  


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