Back in the 18th century, when tourists visited country houses, it was often the task of the housekeeper to steer them.
At Kedleston Hall, near Quarndon, Derby, this fell to Mary Garnett, who accompanied guests - including Samuel Johnson and James Boswell - round the showpiece palace and its collections until her death in 1809, aged 85.
Warm and obliging, the devoted housekeeper had worked there for more than four decades and was highly regarded, with a reputation as an especially welcoming and informative guide.
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So while it was unusual for a housekeeper to have been painted by an artist, it is not surprising that her portrait may have been commissioned by Mary’s master, Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale.
The portrait by Thomas Barber the elder has been chosen to feature in a new book, highlighting thestories behind some of the rich quarry of objects in the National Trust’s historic houses across the country.
Titled ‘125 Treasures from the Collections of the National Trust’ the book includes 11 items from Kedleston Hall; Hardwick Hall, Doe Lea, Chesterfield; Calke Abbey, Ticknall, Derby; and Sudbury Hall, Sudbury, Ashbourne.
“The National Trust’s collections are nothing short of remarkable, and it has been a huge challenge to choose just 125 objects to represent the extraordinary variety of spectacular pieces in our care,” said Dr Tarnya Cooper, the trust’s curation and conservation director and the book’s author.
“Over 60 curators and other specialists have helped select some of the most outstanding and internationally important museum-quality works, covering the ancient world through to the 20th century.
“Unsurprisingly, historic-house owners throughout history proved to be passionate and energetic collectors. This book therefore includes works by world-famous artists such as Hans Holbein, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Auguste Rodin, and renowned designers including Thomas Chippendale, Robert Adam and William Morris.
“The variety of objects chosen highlights thehistory not only of individual taste and the expansion of private wealth, but of the evolving art market, theexpanding trade in materials, the passion for global products, the cross fertilisation of cultures and the patronage of émigré craftspeople across a 600-year period.
“These works often started out as personal and private treasures. Over time, key details about who created them or who commissioned them have sometimes been lost, but these objects still have their own stories to tell.”
Among the treasures is a rare, exquisite state bed at Calke Abbey, rumoured to have been made for George I.
Cloaked in embroidered Chinese silk hangings, and described as “in near-perfect condition” it’s hard to believe that this enticing centrepiece may never have been used.
The bed, which may have been made for George I around 1715, is thought to have been a wedding gift to Lady Caroline Manners on her marriage to Sir Henry Harpur in 1734.
By the time it was given to the family at Calke Abbey, it would have been considered ‘old-fashioned’ and when the house and its contents were gifted to the National Trust in 1985, it had never been installed.
From Hardwick, the book features captivating portraits of Elizabeth I and Bess of Hardwick and one of the best surviving examples of Elizabethan furniture in the National Trust collections - a distinctive table.
The eye-catching design features four carved ‘sea dogs’ – mythical creatures with a dog’s head, scaly breasts, wings and dolphin tails.
It is thought to have been originally bought for display at Chatsworth House, the home of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife Elizabeth (known as Bess of Hardwick) in the 1570s.
After the marriage ended, Bess took the table and it later furnished her new home, Hardwick Hall.
One of the most significant pieces of 16th century furniture to survive in England, it is the only piece of furniture currently at Hardwick which can be unequivocally identified in the 1601 inventory.
From the collection at Sudbury Hall, which is not expected to reopen to the public until early next year, a 17th century embroidered box, sewed by a young woman named Hannah Trapman, is included in 125 Treasures.
Originally intended for publication in 2020 to mark the trust’s 125th anniversary, completion of the book was delayed by the pandemic.
Now it will be one of the centrepieces of a Year of Treasures, with highlights throughout 2021.
Some of the items can be seen when their houses open this month; Hardwick and Calke Abbey, May 17; Kedleston Hall, May 21.
To discover the spotlighted treasures of the Midlands, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/discover-125-treasures-in-the-midlands.
For more information about the National Trust Collections and to search the collections as a whole visit: www.nationatrustcollections.org.uk