Margaret and the completed Barnstaple in Bloom sugarcraft © Margaret Curtis
In the North Devon in the 20th Century gallery of the museum you can find the Barnstaple in Bloom sugarcraft. Handmade by Margaret Curtis in 1995, the sugarcraft is a replica of one of the town square flower beds in Barnstaple’s prize-winning Britain in Bloom entry of the same year. As well as celebrating the town’s success, the sugarcraft tells the story of a group of friends who were inspired to set up the North Devon Branch of the Sugarcraft Guild.
So what is sugarcraft? Sugarcraft is the art of creating confectionary or decorative items for cakes from sugarpaste. We don’t know exactly when the tradition of sugarcrafting emerged in the UK. We know that the availability and use of sugar became more widespread in the 15th century. Sugarcraft was reportedly popular with the Tudors, with figures such as Henry VIII & Cardinal Wolsey ordering exotic arrays of sugar sculptures for celebratory banquets: castles, chess sets, fighting and dancing men and even a replica of St Paul’s Cathedral!
Selection of Margaret’s icing decorations © Margaret Curtis
The first recorded recipe for sugarpaste in Britain was in Sir Hugh Plat’s ‘Delightes for ladies: to adorn their persons, tables, closets, and distillatories with beauties, banquets, perfumes and waters’, published in 1609. Cake decorating as we know it now is thought to have gained popularity in the 1800s, with the introduction of temperature-controlled ovens. This made the actual cake-making process easier and led to an increased focus on presentation for example iced cakes for special occasions.
Sugarcraft as we know it today emerged in the flamboyant 1980s. Two women, Tombi Peck and Elaine MacGregor, began lobbying for superior sugarcrafting supplies, including metal flower cutters and alternative food colours. These two ladies went on to found the British Sugarcraft Guild in 1981 – recently celebrating its 40th anniversary!
Sugarcraft Guild competition display 1996 © Margaret Curtis
Sugarcraft Guild workshop 1988 © Margaret Curtis
Six years later, on a Saturday afternoon in September 1987, friends Margaret and Lorna went to Exeter to watch a sugarcraft demonstration. Margaret loved the idea and brought it back with her to North Devon, where she and her friend Sylvia began making flowers out of sugarpaste. Soon others were clamouring to join them, including Douglas Sutherland, the then Head of Catering at North Devon College, and thus the North Devon Branch of the British Sugarcraft Guild was born!
Margaret and Sylvia arranged demonstrations and practise workshops, which were enjoyed by all who attended. By the time of the first A.G.M. on 8th October 1987, there was a waitlist to join the North Devon Sugarcraft Guild. During its active years, the guild made an amazing array of sugarcraft sculptures: for competitions, in support of local charities – and just for fun.
Sugarcraft Guild display featuring a replica of Queen Anne’s statue 1995 © Margaret Curtis
Creating the 6000 sugar paste flowers and leaves. © Margaret Curtis
The group chose a theme every year and so in 1995 they decided to support Barnstaple in Bloom with depictions of the town. Margaret Curtis set to work on her flowerbed and 6 months later it was complete. Containing over 6000 flowers and leaves, each individual leaf & flower is handmade, using sugarpaste dried on a piece of wire and brushed with colour – a real labour of love!
If you were part of the North Devon Guild of Sugarcrafters and have any stories and images to share please get in touch!
Margaret Curtis’ sugarcraft is displayed in the museum’s North Devon in the 20th Century gallery.
The Sugarcraft Guild enjoying a tea break. © Margaret Curtis
Written by Sarah Warren Editor Adam Murray