Understanding Attingham's Collection
Attingham’s collection is a bittersweet story of loss, survival and re-discovery. Curator Sarah Kay and House and Collections Manager Helen Rowse describe the significance of the collection at Attingham.
A magificent collection
The sheer scale and quality of what survives at Attingham is magnificent, conjuring up the impression of a great house of the past, like ghosts inhabiting the mansion’s grand interiors, tinged with a sense of lost life and faded grandeur.
" Conservation and restoration over the last decade has gone a long way to reviving this house’s grandeur."
A family's collection
The awe-inspiring neo-classical architecture of Attingham was created more than 200 years ago for the 1st Lord Berwick. His son Thomas created lavish Regency interiors and amassed jaw-dropping collections, only to see them unceremoniously sold off as a result of his inability to stop spending. His younger and more astute brother, the diplomat William, built them back up again with his own fabulous continental collections of silver, ormolu and porcelain of staggering, ducal quality.
The last generation, Thomas and Teresa, 8th Lord & Lady Berwick, struggled in the post-war uncertainty and lived at Attingham in the utmost simplicity out of necessity. They nurtured and supplemented the furnishings and collections with sympathetic taste and judgement.
" Attingham’s collection holds an endless fascination for me - there’s always something new to discover as we work through the archives and papers that were left."
Nevertheless there is a sense that parts of the story are always going to be incomplete, like a book with missing chapters.
At the mansion’s physical heart lies the site of the original house, Tern Hall, demolished 160 years ago. Once full of opulently furnished rooms, it now echoes as an empty courtyard. Attingham’s basement contains rows of servants’ bells, now hanging silent, testifying to the vast numbers of rooms that had to be attended.
The first floor suites of bedrooms and bathrooms have long since been stripped of their fabulous contents and converted to other uses, necessary in the house’s 20th century search for new purpose.
Highlights of the collection on display at Attingham
Walking through the house’s interiors is like venturing into a series of elaborate stages for the Berwick family’s formal life. Some of the clocks are still ticking and chiming, others have fallen silent.
Made for the Queen of Sardinia, the largest collection of royal Italian furniture in England, some of which is on display in the Drawing Room, still has regal presence despite its gilding and silk being time-worn.
Nash’s elaborately contrived Grand Staircase sparkles with a sense of Regency theatre, the domed skylight like a giant golden spider’s web hovering above.
His spectacular Picture Gallery, with its gilded glazed coving, is still fashionably lined with old master paintings, and below these stand Grand Tour marble-topped tables from Italy with bases carved as mythical beasts by a highly-skilled Shrewsbury cabinet-maker.
In the rich Regency décor of the Dining Room, the banqueting table is set with an opulent display that gleams in the warm gloom of candlelight and Argand oil lamps.
Reviving the lost grandeur of Attingham
Conservation work continues but can never entirely conjure up what is lost. The team carries forward the devoted care of Teresa, Lady Berwick, who was curator and conservator rolled into one.
Throughout her 25-year widowhood she strove to preserve the legacy of her husband’s gift of Attingham to the nation against a backdrop of great uncertainty. With devotion and self-sacrifice, she nurtured, recorded and mended the Regency furnishings, carefully selecting and editing for posterity. Her letters and photograph albums chart her life and her and her husband’s decisions about what was kept and what was sold.