Key people: The curator

Curator Sarah Kay carrying cutlery to the dining room at Attingham. ©NTPL/David Levenson

Curators are central to any decisions about acquisitions for National Trust historic houses. They provide the art-historical expertise to assess the importance and relevance of the objects being considered. The regional curators of the National Trust each advise on a portfolio of properties in a particular area of the country.

Sarah Kay and Peter Brears putting the finishing touches to the table setting. ©NTPL/David Levenson

Apart from acquisitions, curators also advise on the redisplay of the interiors. Every so often new discoveries are made about how these houses were used or arranged. At Attingham Park, near Shrewsbury, curator Sarah Kay recently organised the redisplay of the dining room. She worked with food historian Peter Brears to accurately recreate the look of a lavish Regency-period dinner. 

©NTPL/David Levenson

Rooms like these came into their own at night, seen by candle- and lamplight. At Attingham the matt Pompeian red walls, the red Turkey carpet and the mahogany doors create an enveloping sense of comfort. This provides the backdrop for the white chimneypiece, doorframes and tablecloth, and the gilded picture frames and ceiling.

©NTPL/David Levenson

But of course it is the table setting that is meant to be the centre of attention. The table was laid in accordance with service à la russe, which meant that the dessert course was in place in the centre of the table during the entire meal. This allowed the diners to admire the display of ornate centrepieces, hothouse fruits and intricate sugarwork.

Peter Brears with one of his recreations. ©NTPL/David Levenson

Peter Brears used a popular handbook of the period, G.A. Jarrin’s The Italian Confectioner, as a source for the various sugarwork shapes and the artifical meats and fruits. He also studied the contemporary French dessert moulds recently acquired by the Bowes Museum. A detailed account of the project was published in the 2008 National Trust Historic Houses and Collections Annual.

5 Responses to “Key people: The curator”

  1. beeskep Says:

    So glad that you talk about the process of being a curator. Always at least as interesting as the result. Thank you.

  2. littleaugury Says:

    Thank you for the peek. I would be happy sorting through this sort of stuff all day. I like the idea of dining with the desserts before me-I would certainly slow down my appetite for the other courses. pgt

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Barbara, Yes a tremendous amount of project management goes into these displays – the artifice of making it look real.

    Gaye, Indeed, and presumably it also meant that you could only talk to those on either side of you, as the guests across the table would have been obscured by piles of fruit and ormolu!

  4. Janet Says:

    Hurrah for curators! And Peter Brears! He is such an amazing fund of knowledge.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, we are very lucky to benefit from the knowledge of specialists such as Peter. He looks suitably proud in the last photograph, I think :)

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