Curators’ pick of 125 Treasures

Published: 21 April 2021

Last update: 21 April 2021

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This blog post is written by National Trust curators, Curatorial and conservation experts National Trust curators Curatorial and conservation experts
Stack of books with 125 Treasures

Over the last year, many of us have sorely missed visiting historic houses, museums and galleries. Our new book of the month, 125 Treasures from the Collections of the National Trust, provides a glimpse inside these places, showing some of the great art and astonishing historic collections that can be found at National Trust places across the country. In this blog, which includes an introduction from author Dr Tarnya Cooper, seven curators tell us more about their favourite treasure from the book.

Introduction from Dr Tarnya Cooper, Curatorial and Conservation Director

Unlike a museum, National Trust houses present us with art and objects in their historic contexts. With so many curious and wondrous objects it can be hard to know where to look first, what to focus on or how to understand what you might be looking at. And yet, as 125 Treasures reveals, each object has its own story to tell.

The selection chosen for this book was designed to provide a representative introduction to some of our most internationally significant collections across time and cultures. The original research has been undertaken by our curatorial team across the National Trust and includes beautiful, newly commissioned photography. This book provides a window into the vast collections held by the National Trust, reflecting the passions and enthusiasms of former owners. In it you'll discover objects ranging from rare Roman sculpture to cutting-edge Renaissance furniture, from 18th-century court dress to iconic paintings, and from change-making books to an African shield.

A cat playing with a snake, c. AD 1–200, at Powis Castle, Powys

Chosen by Liz Green, Senior National Curator, Wales

Held at Powis Castle in Wales, this Roman cat and snake sculpture dates back to the 1st century BC
A Roman cat and snake sculpture
Held at Powis Castle in Wales, this Roman cat and snake sculpture dates back to the 1st century BC

On a side table in the Long Gallery of Powis Castle sits a glistening white marble sculpture of a cat locked in combat with a snake. It’s Roman, dating from the 1st or 2nd century, and was bought by Robert Clive whilst on the Grand Tour in 1774 as a gift for his wife Margaret. The life-sized cat snarls over its right shoulder at the viewer, protecting its prized capture, a small snake squirming under its claws.

The object has been compared to two mosaics – one from Pompeii, where a cat grapples with a quail, and another in the Vatican Museum, portraying a cat and a chicken. Unlike these flat images, the Powis cat is bristling with tension, contrasting with the stiffness of the twelve Caesar sculptures it faces across the Long Gallery.

To me, the real charm of the Powis cat is that such a life-like moment was captured in stone 2,000 years ago.

Monkey music box automaton, c. 1812, at Attingham Park, Shropshire

Chosen by Sarah Kay, Cultural Heritage Curator, Midlands and East of England

This monkey music box automaton, held at Attingham Park, Shropshire, was a gift from Lord Berwick to his 17-year-old wife
Music box automation of a monkey playing a harp
This monkey music box automaton, held at Attingham Park, Shropshire, was a gift from Lord Berwick to his 17-year-old wife

At first glance this music box is a beautiful, decorative object. Delicately gilded and set with precious stones, it has survived for about 200 years. What’s more, when you turn the key, it starts to play the most delightful tinkling tune. The perfect wedding gift from a husband to his wife.

But look more closely and it gets a bit sinister. The conductor of the harp music is a monkey sitting on a stool, chained to his position by a collar around his neck. Moving his head and baton from side to side to the music, he is forced to perform for our entertainment and cannot escape.

Lord Berwick was 41 when he gave this to his 17-year-old wife, a former courtesan (or professional mistress). Was it a loving gift, or a reminder that she was like the monkey, controlled and trapped in a gilded cage?

Ethiopian ceremonial shield, 20th century, at Dunham Massey, Greater Manchester

Chosen by Christo Kefalas, World Cultures Curator

This Ethiopian ceremonial shield came to Dunham Massey, Greater Manchester, as a gift from Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen in 1944
Highly decorative Ethiopian ceremonial shield
This Ethiopian ceremonial shield came to Dunham Massey, Greater Manchester, as a gift from Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen in 1944

Historically, ceremonial decorated shields were carried by royalty or government officials in Ethiopia and were also gifted to people of importance around the world. When I started working at the Trust, I was told the shield came to Dunham Massey sometime after Emperor Haile Selassie I and his family visited Roger Grey, the 10th Earl of Stamford, in 1938 during Selassie’s exile in England.

Going through the archives to pinpoint how the shield came into the collection presented a deeper story of friendship between Selassie and Lord Stamford. The two men exchanged birthday letters and Christmas cards, and Lord Stamford continuously wrote about Ethiopia’s global affairs in his diary. In 1942, Selassie sent Lord Stamford a ‘small souvenir’ of a cigarette box and, in 1944, his son Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen sent the shield. Gaining insight into the relationships and experiences behind an object is a rare and exciting privilege.

The actions, doctrine and other passages touching our lord & saviour Jesus Christ as they are related by the four evangelists, 1640, at Ickworth, Suffolk

Chosen by Tim Pye, National Curator, Libraries

The Actions, Doctrine and Other Passages Touching Our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ as They Are Related by the Four Evangelists, Virginia Ferrar and John Ferrar, 1640
The Actions, Doctrine and Other Passages Touching Our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ as They Are Related by the Four Evangelists, 1640
The Actions, Doctrine and Other Passages Touching Our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ as They Are Related by the Four Evangelists, Virginia Ferrar and John Ferrar, 1640

This fascinating book is known as a gospel harmony – a compilation of the Four Gospels into a single account – and was produced by a religious community in Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, in 1640. It’s largely the work of a 12-year-old, Virginia Ferrar, who created it by cutting thousands of words and images from other books and prints, and then pasting them all into a new order.

The book is an example of devotional craft at its finest. I love the fun inherent in Virginia’s overlapping placement of some of the images. What’s more, it’s almost literally seamless – to the eye and to the touch it is virtually impossible to determine where one print begins and another ends. It brings to mind T S Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding (1942): ‘where every word is at home, / Taking its place to support the others.’ Eliot wasn’t writing about this curious volume from the library at Ickworth, but his lines describe it perfectly.

Court mantua dress, late 1740s, at Springhill, County Londonderry

Chosen by Shannon Fraser, Cultural Heritage Curator, Northern Ireland

This court mantua dress, held at Springhill in Northern Ireland, was originally made for Lady Ann Bligh in the late 1740s, to be worn at the royal court
Court Mantua Dress from the late 1740s
This court mantua dress, held at Springhill in Northern Ireland, was originally made for Lady Ann Bligh in the late 1740s, to be worn at the royal court

I love the tangle of fashion through the ages caught up in this dress. It was made for Lady Ann Bligh of Castle Ward in the late 1740s, to be worn at the royal court. The conservatism of court ritual dictated an old-fashioned form of bodice and train, harking back to the late 1600s. But the petticoat, worn over panniers stretching out nearly three feet on either side, was a wildly exaggerated version of the most up-to-date styles. Ann’s natural shape was almost entirely hidden within this severe, architectural framework.

When the piece was altered for fancy dress in 1845, the torso took on a softer, sinuous profile with an emphatically narrow waist, while the sleeves became more figure-hugging. With the petticoat probably gathered up into graceful swags over a flounced, frilled and beribboned underskirt, the overall effect was of froufrou femininity, far removed from its original remote grandeur.

As a final twist, the bodice is now back in its original form, while the petticoat retains a vaguely Victorian air.

A centre table, c. 1542–53, at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

Chosen by Megan Wheeler, Assistant National Curator, Furniture

This sculptured stone table in the octagonal tower at Lacock, Wiltshire, has a base of four crouching, leering satyrs and dates from the 1540s
Sculptured stone table with a base of four crouching, leering satyrs.
This sculptured stone table in the octagonal tower at Lacock, Wiltshire, has a base of four crouching, leering satyrs and dates from the 1540s

This sculptured stone table is the centrepiece of the middle storey of the octagonal tower at Lacock Abbey, the dissolved Augustinian nunnery that Sir William Sharington, c. 1495–1553, purchased in 1540 and substantially rebuilt. The table is carved with the initials W, G (for William’s wife) and S, and William’s personal badge, the scorpion. Its base of four crouching, leering satyrs, derives from Italian sources that were probably transmitted to England via French engravings.

I like it because it’s a rare survivor of the enlightened building programme undertaken by leading politicians and reformers in the mid-16th century, which saw the transition from Gothic to Renaissance styles really take hold in England. This period has been called ‘a momentary High Renaissance’, since much of what was built would be subsumed by the more enduring artistic and architectural advances of the later 16th century.

Pont de Londres (Charing Cross Bridge, London) by Claude Monet, 1902, at Chartwell, Kent

Chosen by Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski, Cultural Heritage Curator, London and the South East

Pont de Londres (Charing Cross Bridge, London) by Claude Monet, 1902, is one of the greatest paintings at Chartwell, Kent
Oil painting, Pont de Londres (Charing Cross Bridge, London) by Claude Monet, 1902
Pont de Londres (Charing Cross Bridge, London) by Claude Monet, 1902, is one of the greatest paintings at Chartwell, Kent

One of the greatest treasures at Chartwell is a painting by the French Impressionist Claude Monet – Pont de Londres (Charing Cross Bridge, London), 1902, painted while the artist was in London. It came to Chartwell as a rather extravagant gift, given to Churchill by his American literary agent, Emery Reeves, as a ‘very small token of my gratitude for your friendship’.

What I find fascinating about this ‘small token’ is how Monet made even urban pollution look beautiful though his impressionist technique. Westminster and Charing Cross Bridge are obscured by yellow smog and appear as bluish shadows without detail. You can just make out a billowing cloud of smoke rising from a train as it crosses the river.

Petworth painting conservation

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