A Golden Opportunity: Gilding at Knole

Volunteers learn the ancient art of gilding in a pop-up conservation studio at Knole, Kent.

With the removal of the Spangled Bed, we were left with an empty room at Knole – not a usual occurrence! We decided to make use of this opportune space by setting up a temporary conservation studio right in the middle of the house.

We know from our other conservation activities and feedback from the wonderful film in the Spangled Bedroom that conservation is of great interest and is really enjoyed by our visitors. We also have a huge amount of conservation work to complete over the next three years!

Therefore, running into the foreseeable future we will be undertaking various conservation projects in the Spangled Bedroom, where visitors will be able to come and see us working on conservation activities and learn more about the ‘Inspired by Knole’ project.

A pop up conservation studio

The temporary studio will allow us to start getting on with some important conservation work, ahead of the opening of our brand new conservation studio in summer 2016. The programme of conservation is still being developed but we’re confident there will be something of interest for everyone.

We have already had an upholstery conservator working in the Spangled Bedroom, making presentation case covers to protect the Spangled Dressing Room suite of furniture. And now, our first pop-up conservation workshop has taken place!

A special workshop was held recently in the Spangled Bedroom, where some of our staff and volunteers learnt about the ancient craft of gilding and discovered how some of the furniture and frames at Knole were gilded.

Gilding workshops in the Spangled Bedroom
Volunteers learn the ancient art of gilding in a pop-up conservation studio at Knole, Kent.

The secret art of gilding

Gilding was once considered a secret art because gilders often worked behind curtains or screens. The reason for this was to prevent breezes from blowing away the fine hammered gold sheets.

We used gilder’s pads that have soft surfaces to support the gold and parchment cards to still the surrounding air. The group practiced cutting the fine gold sheets with a gilder’s knife and using a special brush to lift the gold onto wooden surfaces prepared with gesso and bol (traditionally layers of fine gypsum/chalk and clay plus animal glue).

By experimenting with how gilded surfaces were made, we can gain a better understanding of the frames and furniture at Knole and understand how best to conserve the gilded items in our collections. We can search for clues that reveal how individual pieces were made and how they looked when new. We can also uncover the stories about how they may have been used or altered through time.

When the Conservation Studio and the Hayloft Learning Centre open next year, we will continue to experiment with and study gilding technologies. We will also be able to offer workshops so that visitors can learn this ancient skill, as well as methods of heritage science research and analysis.