Behind closed doors at Knole

The conservation team are cleaning paintings in the Cartoon Gallery

Every winter we put Knole’s showrooms to bed, to protect the fragile collection from the harsh weather and so that the conservation team can undertake a thorough clean.

When the last visitor leaves the showrooms in the fading afternoon light on Sunday 5 November, the entrance to Screen’s Passage in Stone Court will officially close its doors for winter.

Within hours the showrooms will hum with a new kind of activity – preparation for the annual winter clean. Scaffolding is erected, trestle tables are put up and hundreds of white dust cloths are brought out of hibernation to protect Knole’s treasures, until the showrooms reopen in March 2018.

It takes our conservation team four months to clean every item in the collection, record its condition and make sure the rooms are immaculate for the spring reopening. Despite the chilly temperatures inside the house, the winter clean is the highlight of the year for the team and a chance to really get close to the objects they care for.

“People always ask us if it’s spooky in the house over winter with nobody around, but we love it,” says conservation assistant Melinda Hampton. “We look forward to having the house to ourselves and spending time together.” This year, thanks to the newly-installed conservation heating, the team is hoping fewer thermal layers will be needed.

Knole's showrooms are closed over the winter to protect the fragile collection
Knole's showrooms are closed over the winter to protect the fragile collection.

The seven-strong team works methodically through the showrooms. Every item from ceramics to textiles, glassware and silver is cleaned and its condition checked and recorded. Objects are then placed in the middle of the room to create space for cleaning the floors, walls and ceilings. “We usually follow a pattern,” says conservation assistant Sarah Thompson. “We clean and condition check before Christmas then start on the walls, paintings and floors in January.”

Knole’s ongoing building and conservation project has added extra tasks to the winter clean over the past few years and this year has its own challenges. Access will be restricted when the Great Hall is redecorated over the winter and the caffoy wall covering in the Reynolds Room will be cleaned, requiring all the paintings to be taken down.

The conservation team’s cleaning kit is surprisingly simple: a museum vac (a small sensitive vacuum cleaner with adjustable suction levels for cleaning historic textiles), Harrell's Wax, a hog’s hair brush for robust surfaces and a soft pony hair brush for more delicate objects. Washing of items is carried out with a sensitive washing up liquid and cotton buds and paintings are very gently stroked with an ultra-soft gilders’ tipping brush.

“It’s all about minimal intervention,” says team member Alice Trickey. “If it doesn’t need it, we don’t do it. Everything should be reversible and minimal.”

It takes the conservation team four months to clean Knole's showrooms
The conservation team will be cleaning Knole's showrooms all winter.

Silverware gets a polish with silver cloth, china is gently surface washed every two years using cotton buds and a weak solution of sensitive washing up liquid and the floors are nourished with Harrell's Wax. Wooden chairs, chests and tables need nothing more than a gentle dust with a hog's hair brush – applying furniture polish was prohibited several years ago as the objects simply did not need it. “The furniture has generations of polish on it, enough to last a lifetime,” says Melinda.

Knole’s beautiful collection of textiles and upholstery can be time-consuming to clean.  Every chair and sofa has been assessed by specialist textile conservators who suggest how often they should be cleaned. “Some are robust and can be cleaned every year, others are more fragile,” says Alice. “Cleaning involves going over the surface of the textile very gently with a museum vac and brushing the frame with a hog’s hair brush. If the fabric is very delicate a special mesh is applied to the textile to prevent snagging or pulling.” Some items, including the fragile chairs from the Brown Gallery, have custom made frames which fit over them for extra protection.

Cleaning the magnificent seventeenth century carpet in the Ballroom is a major task – it takes three of the team at least one day on their hands and knees gently vacuuming tiny sections to coax out the dirt and dust. Once clean the carpet is covered with acid free tissue and dust sheets are laid over. The beautiful oak floors in the showrooms are all waxed by hand using Harrell's Wax.

The conservation team have an opportunity to get up close to the objects they care for during the winter clean
The conservation team have an opportunity to get up close to the objects they care for during the winter clean.

Checking the condition of each and every item in the collection is one of the most important and time-consuming jobs during the winter clean. Each object has its own regularly updated digital record, which allows the team to assess if its condition has changed. The team notice changes such as fraying or signs of woodworm and record their findings, photographing the objects when necessary.

Of course, they each have their favourite jobs – conservation assistant Alex Paton loves cleaning the intricately carved oak screen in the Great Hall and Sarah and Melinda delight in polishing the silverware from the King’s Room. “It’s our pre-Christmas treat. When you get up close to the silver pieces you really see the details – they are beautiful objects,” says Sarah.

The annual clean is not without its hairy moments though. The beautiful Blue John vase in the Cartoon Gallery was painstakingly repaired by specialists some years ago. “It’s always a heart-stopping moment when we have to move it,” says Melinda. “Nobody likes that job.”