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.
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.
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.
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 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.