Sunday, 13 April 2014

Done and dusted?

Dust is somewhat of a buzzword at National Trust places. Talking to visitors during our Conservation in Action events, surprise is often expressed when we tell them that visitors account for the majority of dust generated within rooms which consists largely of clothing fibres. Skin particles and inorganic matter such as soot and silica also contribute to the make up of dust.
It is important for us to vacuum through the visitor route each day. Any dust that is left in the rooms will be kicked up by visitors during the day and risks settling on the collection, which, given the right conditions (temperature, relative humidity, etc) has the potential to bond to the surface of the item. Dust is hydroscopic, which means that it holds on to moisture. This makes it an ideal playground for bugs and mould, both of which can 'feed' on the dust and greatly enjoy its damp conditions!
It is very important to distinguish between surface dust and what we call ‘historic’ dust. Surface dust is the loose stuff that we aim to remove from the rooms on a regular basis by vacuuming the floors and dusting flat surfaces. ‘Historic’ dust, on the other hand, has undergone a chemical reaction and has bonded to the surface of the item. This makes it impossible to remove without damaging the surface layer of the item. A common example can be seen on gilt-wood furniture and painting frames, where the gilding has taken on a kind of grey-ish hue. If we were to try and remove this dust, we’d end up taken off the top layer of gilding and be left with bare wood! Furthermore, this dust is part of the item and contributes to the atmosphere of the historic interior - shining picture frames and furniture wouldn't fit in with the atmosphere at Petworth!
The carvings of the east side of the State Bed. You can see the tops of the carvings have the slight grey hue which is a result of the historic dust having adhered to the surface.

It is for this reason that the gentle removal of dust is such an important step in caring for our collection. We need to limit the risk of dust having the opportunity to get comfortable on the collection! Every Thursday, when the House is closed except for our special Snapshot tours, we have a bit more time to conservation clean the collection and remove the pesky dust!

During our cleaning of Mrs Wyndham’s Bedroom last week, I took a dust sample from the State Bed. I cleaned the carvings on the top of the bed by using a very soft pony-hair brush to remove the surface dust, and had a thin layer of gauze over the end of my vacuum. This meant that the majority of the dust would be collected on the gauze, enabling me to transfer it over to a sticky pad and produce the dust sample.

The dust sample was then transferred to a sticky pad.
The dust that was captured on the gauze - it was a good few millimetres thick!

Due to the delicate nature of the bed in general and the carvings, the bed isn’t cleaned very often – once every two years at most – so this was the accumulated dust over quite a long period of time!
This accumulation is why it is so important for us to remove the dust from the room on a regular basis – to prevent it being kicked up and settling on the collection and providing a haven for bugs and mould!
Next time you visit us, spare a thought for the dust and so on being brought into the house!
Conservation Assistant

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Conservation in Action - The State (of the) Bed

For the next couple of Wednesday afternoons for our Conservation in Action event, the house team are focusing on Mrs Wyndham's Bedroom, upstairs in the bedroom corridor.

Visitors to Petworth House on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon are able to see the guest bedrooms in the house, and perhaps the most often commented on piece of furniture is the State Bed in Mrs Wyndham's Bedroom.

The State Bed

Dating from the 1750s, the Rococo bed is attributed to James Whittle and Samuel Norman. It features crimson damask hangings and is painted and parcel-gilt (partially gilded). The carvings on top include ostrich plumes and great pierced shells; the dome topping the bed features a Chinese dragon and a very cute squirrel eating a nut!

The dome topping to the bed - spot the squirrel, and all sorts of other creatures!

It was created for the Second Earl of Egremont (1710-1763) and it was originally displayed in the State Bedroom downstairs (now the White Library, open on most Monday afternoons) before fashions for downstairs bedrooms changed in the 1770s.

When the Dowager Lady Egremont lived at Petworth, she would always sleep in the State Bed. In the 1980's when the bed was treated by the V&A Conservation team, they were flummoxed by a strange staining which was covering the top dome of the bed. Experts were called in - was it some kind of mould? In the end, they asked the family - it turned out that the Dowager kept a pet owl who liked to roost in the carvings at the top of the bed - and so would naturally leave droppings which had covered the top of the bed!
The bed underwent conservation treatment for the V&A's Rococo exhibition and the bed was subsequently moved from the State Bedroom into its current position in Mrs Wyndham's Bedroom.

When it comes to us cleaning the bed now, we use a soft ponyhair brush with a vacuum cleaner to remove the dust in the carvings. The damask is cleaned using a textile brush attachment on the vacuum, along with a piece of netting to limit the stress on the fabric, and a very low suction on the vacuum.
The fragile nature of the bed means that it is cleaned as little as possible - meaning there are quite large dust deposits being found on the top hangings!
Photography isn't allowed in the bedrooms, as they are still a private part of the house belonging to the family. So to see just how we clean the bed and the rest of the furniture, you'll just have to visit us! (We will be cleaning Mrs Wyndham's bedroom on the 26th March and the 2nd April).

Conservation Assistant

Sunday, 23 March 2014

And we're off!

Paintings have been dusted; sculptures and ceramics have had their dust sheets removed; floors have been polished and buffed; copper has been cleaned and polished… even the spaniels have hidden themselves in ever-more tricky places to find! The 30 paintings that had been rehung for the ‘Constable at Petworth’ exhibition in the Square Dining Room, Somerset Room and Oak Hall were returned to their usual hanging places late on Friday night, once the last visitors to the exhibition had left. Witherington's 'Fete in the Park' has also had new lighting fitted to it, on a trial basis, joining the other paintings in the North Gallery which are being trialled for this lighting.
Following a successful winter clean, Petworth House opened its doors again on Saturday to welcome visitors back into the house. And what a beautiful weekend to welcome them with!
Daffodils in the Pleasure Grounds

Now that the winter clean has finished, the house team are busy preparing for the open season – replacing bug traps to monitor the pests and sorting out what we will be cleaning in front of the public this year for our Conservation in Action events,which will be happening every Wednesday afternoon (commencing from the 19th of March). This week will see us cleaning the state bed in Mrs Wyndham’s Bedroom.

The State Bed in Mrs Wyndham's Bedroom

We do hope to welcome you to Petworth soon!
Conservation Assistant

Monday, 17 March 2014

Faustina’s Return and the Luck of a Rabbit’s Foot

Last year, Cliveden Conservation took away one of our sculptures, a bust of Faustina, to provide her with some much-needed treatment. She was returned to us on Tuesday, in time for the House reopening fully on Saturday.
Faustina coming out of her box. Cliveden used a pump truck to get her to the right height before putting her back in place - she's an incredibly heavy lady!
Cliveden treated and reconditioned the previous damage she has suffered, such as around her neck. She has also been repatinated to return her appearance to have it might have looked in the 18th Century.

This bust of the Roman Empress Faustina is from the 2nd century AD and was collected for Petworth by the 2nd Earl of Egremont.
 Julia also spent time on Tuesday repairing a rabbit’s feet from a sculpture in the Marble Hall. When they came to assess the sculpture last year, the rabbit was only missing one foot, but the other was incredibly loose and structurally unsound. The condition of the marble has deteriorated over time, leaving the marble with a sugary texture, making it weaker and therefore more susceptible to damage.
The decision was made to remove both feet so that they could be taken away and consolidated before being refitted. 

The feet are reattached by placing a length of metal dowel into the foot along with a special adhesive before being connected to the main body of the sculpture. It takes around 10-15 minutes for the adhesive to set (and longer for it to be fully sound), so tape is used to support the sculpture while it dries.

Sculpture and, importantly, rabbit complete with feet!
We are very pleased to have the rabbit back in one piece – a legless rabbit did look somewhat odd, and hopefully the feet will bring us luck for the season!

Conservation Assistant

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Making the Kitchens Shine

In the Historic Kitchens we have over 1000 pieces of copper in a collection which forms our batterie de cuisine, the copper pieces range from large stove-top stock pots right down to patisserie and ice cream moulds. So when it comes around to cleaning them as part of the winter clean, we are incredibly grateful to our dedicated team of volunteers. By the time we are finished it will have taken 15 volunteers four days to dust, polish and wax their way through the collection!

Some of the pieces were cleaned in the middle of last year as part of Conservation in Action, but the majority of the larger pieces wait until this time of year before being cleaned.

Volunteers hard at work
You can see the pieces on the shelves at the back are nice and shiny having already been cleaned, whilst the volunteers make their way through the piles on the table.
Shiny copper!
Michelle and Jacky moving a large stove-top pot, ready to be cleaned.

Rows of copper being put back on the shelves once they have been cleaned - now all we need is a bit of sunshine for them to sparkle in!

Come and visit the Historic Kitchens when we reopen on March 15th to see our clean copper for yourselves, you can also discover more about the lives of the servants who worked here through our new exhibition in the Servant's Corridor.

Conservation Assistant

Monday, 3 February 2014

Petworth's beauties - off with their legs!

No, I’m not referring to Petworth’s staff and volunteers! I’m talking about the Beauty Room, named so since the early 18th century when the 6th Duke of Somerset dedicated the room to Queen Anne and the ladies of her court.

Completed some time between 1714 and 1720, the beauties were painted by Michael Dahl – with the exception of the Queen herself and the Duchess of Marlborough, who were painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. It is believed the paintings were inspired by the ‘Hampton Court Beauties’ (c.1690) – a set of full-length portraits commissioned by Queen Mary from Kneller.

The design of the room was altered in around 1820 by the 3rd Earl of Egremont, who wanted to commemorate the battles of Waterloo and Victoria with paintings and a bust of the Duke of Wellington. When figuring out the best arrangement for these works of art, the following conversation was had:

“the most favourable [wall] was occupied by three large whole-length portraits, fixed in panels; upon which his lordship said, ‘Well, I will put them there, and your bust of the Duke in the centre’. Chantrey then observed that the three portraits must in that case be removed. ‘No’, said the Earl, ‘I have no place for them’. ‘What then is to be done?’  was the natural question: to which the Earl answered ‘I will cut off their legs, I do not want their petticoats; their heads shall be placed in three small panels above, and the battles with the marble bust of the Duke shall be placed below them’, and this was done.”.

Such claims, however, prove to be false. When the paintings were removed for conservation treatment in 1995, it was discovered they had been rolled up rather than ‘cut off'!

Cleaning the beauties during the winter clean is a simple task once the scaffolding is in place to reach them. The canvases are inspected under a raking light (shone at an angle) which reveals any imperfections or dust on the surface of the paintings. If necessary, the canvas will be lightly brushed with a very soft badger-hair brush into a vacuum cleaner. The beauties are in very simple frames, with the exception of Queen Anne, whose ornate frame requires gentle cleaning with a soft pony-hair brush so as to not wear away the gilding. This frame was originally intended for the copy of Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII which stands in the Carved Room.
Margaret Sawyer, Countess of Pembroke (1542 - 1706)
By Michael Dahl

Lady Anne Capel, Countess of Carlisle (1674 - 1725)
By Michael Dahl
Jane Temple, Countess of Portland (1672 - 1751)
By Michael Dahl

Rachel Russell, Duchess of Devonshire (1674 - 1725)
By Michael Dahl

Lady Mary Somerset, Duchess of Ormonde (1665 - 1733)
By Michael Dahl

Juliana Alington, Viscountess Howe (1665 - 1747)
By Michael Dahl

Barbara Talbot, Viscountess Longueville (1665 - 1763)
By Michael Dahl

Sarah Jenning, Duchess of Marlborough (1660 - 1744)
By Sir Godfrey Kneller

Queen Anne (1665 - 1714)
By Sir Godfrey Kneller

When the house reopens to the public in March, do come and meet the beauties for yourself!

Sarah, Conservation Assistant 

Queen Anne was the last of the Stuart Monarchs and she ruled for 12 years and 5 months – 1702 until 1714.

Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) was born in Lubeck, Germany, and came to London in 1674 where he became a leading portrait painter. He was joint Principal Painter to the King in 1688, taking on the position solely in 1691. He was knighted in 1692 and was the first painter in England to be made a baronet in 1715.

Michael Dahl (c. 1659-1743) was born in Stockholm, arriving in London in 1682 before completing a Grand Tour in 1685 and returning permanently to London in 1689.He is said to have a softer and warmer style than Kneller, but perhaps with less character.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Face to Face with Reynolds

Last week the house team were busy moving paintings, in preparation for the 'Constable at Petworth' exhibition which starts on January 11th 2014.

The Somerset Room and Square Dining Room will be open during the exhibition, but will look very different to how visitors will have seen them in the past. Much of the artwork has been redisplayed in order to show paintings that would have inspired Constable during his stay at Petworth in 1834.

Taking down a number of paintings from the North Gallery so they can be redisplayed in the showrooms open during the exhibition.

Taking down a painting from the Square Dining Room - those on a lower level require as many hands as possible to safely lower and remove the painting. Those higher up require ropes and pulleys to get them down. 

On top of this, the lighting consultants who visited the property earlier in the year have been back to the house, to add further lighting to some of the paintings which will be on display. The pictures look fantastic!

Newly-instated painting, with new picture light
Two paintings now installed for the exhibition in the Square Dining Room - my camera does not do these paintings justice; the lighting illuminates them beautifully.
One of the biggest jobs (quite literally) in the Square Dining Room was the lighting of the Macbeth and the Witches. When I last wrote about this painting, conservators were at Petworth determining what could be done to improve the visuals of the painting. The painting will be going away in April for this conservation work, but part of the project includes having the canvas properly lit.

Here the lights have been fixed to the top of the Macbeth. You can already see the difference it makes to the detail visible on the canvas - as well as how well it lights compared to the older picture lights (for example those down the right hand side, which unfortunately inclue a lot of glare and a lit circle from the light).
Having the lighting consultants in also meant we were able to get the scaffolding right up close to the portrait of Reynolds himself – who will look fantastic when he is lit properly lit.

The photo is rather distorted (the inherent problems of dealing with scaffolding and cameras!) but it does bring out the detail in the portrait of Reynolds which it is currently very difficult to see, due to his dark location above the Macbeth! We look forward to seeing him properly with picture lights in a few months time.
Do come and see the changes that have been made for the exhibition - as well as, of course, the fantastic collection of over 40 watercolours and oil paintings by Constable which are being exhibited together for the first time in our exhibition room. Many of these paintings were produced by Constable during his visit to the house in 1834. The Old Library - usually closed to the public - will also be open to those visiting the exhibition. Booking is essential - click here for more information and to book tickets.

We hope to see you in the new year for the exhibition!

Conservation Assistant