A Winter's Tale: behind-the-scenes in Cotehele House in winter

With the exception of the Great Hall with the Christmas garland and the Breakfast Room with the First World War exhibition, the house closes for conservation from 30 October until 10 March. Winter is our time for in-depth cleaning of the Cotehele House show rooms. Although from the outside it looks like the house might be asleep, inside is a hive of activity as the conservation team dust, vacuum, polish and asses the place from top to bottom.

In addition to being able to give the house an in-depth clean, winter gives us an opportunity to closely examine every item for signs of wear and pest activity, and to update our records. Of course we’re constantly monitoring the collection and we keep the house clean throughout the year, but during the open season this is more routine. During the winter we have the chance to thoroughly apply preventative conservation practices. 

" The phrase 'putting the house to bed' can be misleading. The collection doesn’t simply get covered up and left until we open again in the spring. There’s a lot going on and it's actually the house team’s busiest time of year."
- Lisa Newis, House Steward at Cotehele

To polish or not to polish?

The first task is to prepare the Great Hall for the annual dried flower Christmas garland. The team remove certain items to make room for the gardeners to build the garland. We take guns and other weaponry down from the walls to store in drier, more stable conditions. The Great Hall is so large that we can’t adequately heat or dehumidify it and the winter weather would otherwise take its toll on these artefacts.

Every metal item from the Great Hall will be given a protective coat of Renaissance Wax and any rust is removed with metal polish. We assess each item individually as to whether to polish it or not - we no longer polish whole items routinely because this cleaning can act as a form of wear and tear, ultimately wearing away layers of metal. Removing dust helps limit this corrosion. It’s a simple thing to do but effective, so we dust regularly throughout the year and top up on the protective wax in winter. 

The winter clean in Cotehele House
A conservator vacuums several drawers on the floor in Cotehele House, Cornwall
The winter clean in Cotehele House

Messy jackdaws

After the Great Hall is cleared and ready for the garland, the house team move to the King Charles room at the top of the house and work our way down, tackling each room in turn. We refer to previous years’ notes and clean furniture, textiles and any tapestries, in situ. 

The cleaning begins in each room with the chimneys, removing the debris that jackdaws have thrown down, which can often amount to full bin bags of twigs. This is an important task since birds’ nests can harbour carpet beetle and case-bearing clothes moth that may later gain access to the collection below.

Every item accounted for

Windows and surrounds, black-out curtains and rails, coving, doors, panelling and skirtings are all of course included in the clean, before focusing more in-depth attention on the room’s contents. Photographic records can be taken at this time, woodworm treatments applied, worn inventory numbers replaced. The last job is to wax and polish the floor and then the room is re-assembled, with the artefacts protected from dust by acid-free paper or with their own purpose-made white cotton covers.

Pest traps are renewed to help us monitor the occurrence of potentially damaging insects, as are ‘dosimeters’ – rectangles of blue wool that are analysed each year, and tell us how much light certain objects have been exposed to.

Preparing the House for spring at Cotehele
Conservator removes white case covers from furniture in the House at Cotehele, Cornwall
Preparing the House for spring at Cotehele

Almost done

In March, during the week before opening, the surprisingly lengthy process of uncovering can begin: we remove reams of protective paper to reveal gleaming weapons and armour in the Hall; we collect up the white case covers throughout, bringing colour again to the show rooms; we unfurl rugs, wind and set clocks, and finally, we fill vases with spring flowers ready to greet the new season's first visitors.

We look forward to seeing you in 2018 from Saturday 10 March.