Faded magnificence: Rescuing Knole and its collections from decay

Conservators Judy Wetherall and Pete Jenkins retouching one of eight gilded sconces in the new Conservation Studio

A £20m project to secure the future of Knole in Kent reaches a major milestone this year as its state-of-the-art Conservation Studio opens to the public. Curator Emma Slocombe reflects on the ongoing project to rescue Knole and its collections from centuries of damp and decay.

Faded magnificence

Knole in Kent is one of Britain’s most important and complete historic houses with a colourful past as an archbishop’s palace, the home of the Sackville family for 400 years and the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s ground-breaking novel ‘Orlando’. 

However, ever since we acquired the property in 1946, it has faced a running and expensive battle with leaking roofs and windows, damp, moths and woodworm which have all put Knole’s collection of furniture, paintings and textiles at risk. 

Today, the historic seat of the Sackville family is the focus of ‘Inspired by Knole’, a £20m Heritage Lottery Fund-supported conservation project to secure the future of the house and its collections. The project is now in its fifth year.

The Cartoon Gallery at Knole in Kent. The set of six 17th-century copies of Raphael’s Cartoons have been rehung following conservation.
The Cartoon Gallery at Knole

As Project Curator, I have had the chance of a lifetime being part of a conservation team working to rescue the house from centuries of damp and decay, to transform it into a place where its history can be celebrated and enjoyed. This spring we opened the first restored show rooms and the new Conservation Studio to repair and restore precious items from Knole's collection.

Our challenge has been enormous. When the project began we had over 6 acres of leaking roof, mouldering collections, an electrical supply that could barely power the conservation team’s vacuum cleaners and lighting so dim our visitors couldn’t see our paintings. It was clear we had a lot of work to do.

After repairing and weatherproofing the building’s exterior, we turned our attention indoors, to the care and conservation of Knole’s extraordinary interiors and collections. Knole is particularly famous for its elaborately decorated rooms created by royal master craftsmen, a rare and fragile collection of Stuart furnishings and works by 18th-century portraitists Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

Inevitably, as the years have passed the collection has become worn and faded. Robert Sackville-West, the current occupant of Knole, describes the atmosphere as one of ‘faded magnificence…that, like the gilding on its paintings, smoulders rather than sparkles’.

We cherish the antique atmosphere at Knole, but gentle ageing was being overtaken by accelerated deterioration. The lack of environmental control in the historic show rooms was creating the perfect climate for moulds and pests to thrive, while dust was becoming a cement-like layer on the textiles.

To tackle the problem we have installed an environmentally controlled heating system in the show rooms, opened up floors and wall panelling for new wiring and upgraded fire protection, and added insulation.

Historic picture lights illuminate the collection of nine paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the Reynolds Room
The Reynolds Room at Knole

Conservation in action

This year, ‘Inspired by Knole’ has reached a major milestone. We have unveiled our £2m
Conservation Studio in the 15th-century barn. Here you can witness up-close the treatment work undertaken on Knole’s collections by specialist conservators through a live stream to a screen in the visitor area, and get involved with hands-on displays exploring the challenges and techniques of conservation. We’re running a programme of conservator and volunteer-led talks and themed workshops in the adjoining Hayloft Learning Centre.

Conservator Carmen Vida cleaning a decorative set of Flight, Barr & Barr porcelain from the Ballroom
Conservator Carmen Vida cleaning a decorative set of Flight, Barr & Barr porcelain from the Ballroom

The studio is the first of its kind in the Trust, and when the project is completed it will be the first port of call for a range of objects requiring specialist treatment, both from the Trust and external museums and historic houses. On any given day visitors to the studio can see conservators working on paintings, picture frames, gilded furniture, light fittings or upholstery. Items already conserved by our team have been returned to refurbished show rooms in the house, and conservation on the next and final round of objects from the remaining rooms is getting under way.

Conservator Mark Searle touching up an 18th-century frame with watercolours
Conservator Mark Searle touching up an 18th-century frame with watercolours.

As a curator, one of the most rewarding aspects of the project has been the opportunity for me to devise a new presentation plan for the rooms and collections. I’ve spent weeks analysing inventories and guidebooks, and we have used accounts of Knole’s visitors in letters, journals and memoirs to understand the many layers of Knole’s story and the legacy of the people who shaped it over the centuries.

We want to restore the spirit of Knole as the Sackville family seat at the turn of the 20th century, so we’ve returned some of the picture and sculpture collections to spaces from which they have been absent for many years. We’ve installed new lighting, and new interpretation is helping visitors understand more of Knole’s stories.

A collaboration

Projects like ‘Inspired by Knole’ are built on collaboration. The 7th Baron and Baroness Sackville, Robert and Jane Sackville-West, still live in private apartments at Knole. They have supported the opening of new spaces returned from the family’s lease to the public, provided new collections on loan and lived with the daily disruption of a major building project for years. Support for our fundraising campaign has been overwhelming, and included $1m raised by Royal Oak Foundation, the Trust’s US sister organisation, for the restoration of the Ballroom, and numerous other grants and donations. Knole’s volunteer community has swelled from 300 to 400 people, who have given their time through storytelling, archaeological surveys, collating oral histories and collections conservation. We extend heartfelt thanks to them all.

Our members are part of this story too, walking in the footsteps of visitors who have experienced the beauty of Knole since the early 18th century. In the past, visitors recorded their experiences here in letters and diary entries – just as they do today with photos and comments on social media. ‘Inspired by Knole’ will ensure that future generations can do the same.

This article has been adapted from an original article in the Summer 2017 issue of the National Trust Magazine.

The Gatehouse Tower dominates Knole’s west front

Find out more about Knole

Discover 400 years of history at Knole - its parkland, house and gardens have a rich past from its beginnings as an Archbishop's palace to its time in the hands of royalty and later a family home.