Curated by Phillipa Glanville, the new displays explore different aspects of dining with the Dukes of Portland from food production to lavish balls and dining in the servants halls. Exhibits include the rare silver wine fountain which came from Holland in 1711 and exquisite 18th century Sevres porcelain ice cream pails and serving cups.
Alongside these gorgeous examples of decorative arts are original household bills and recipes, including Robert Harley’s chicken curry recipe from 1729 ‘How to make curry to eat with pillo’.
For the past hundred years country houses and the aristocratic way of life have been romanticized. It has been widely perceived that a house passed from father to son through the generations, and that the occupants lived and entertained in luxury, sustained by a troop of servants and surrounded by precious and often old works of art and family portraits. But the reality is rather different: great families, and the Portlands were no exception, were often short of money. Also they lived mainly in London, the centre of their political and social worlds, retreating to the country only occasionally. The City was for shopping and business, Westminster for Parliament and the cultural life of the West End.
Until the early 20th century, the glittering silver and porcelain on show in the Harley Gallery were deployed in a London dining room. But as the leading Nottinghamshire family, the Portlands had obligations to their tenantry and the county elite. They were expected to be open-handed with hospitality. As many bills from West End retailers of food, drink, ceramics, glass and silver show, this was a family that enjoyed entertaining and appreciated French menus. They savoured delicacies from fashionable Italian confectioners and drank a choice of wines imported from Germany, France, Hungary and as far afield as The Cape, plus Madeira that had matured in the long voyage out to the East Indies. Even their upper servants in the Steward’s Room enjoyed port from silver tankards and ate their dinner with silver cutlery, although the lower servants drank homebrewed ale and beer from horn-shaped cups, and ate from pewter.
Image: Two caddies and a sugar box, George Wickes, 1735