Conserving Knole's Great Hall

Henry Weeds, Conservation Assistant, Knole Henry Weeds Conservation Assistant, Knole
Knole's enormous Great Hall with checkered black and white tiled floor, red walls, wooden carved panels and moulded plaster ceiling

2018 saw exciting developments for the conservation team at Knole - we were coming to the end of our enormous ‘Inspired by Knole’ conservation project and The Great Hall was in the final stages of a complete makeover along with the majority of the showrooms. Read part 1 of our end of project conservation blog.

The Great Hall

The goal of the project was to bring the house back to its turn of the century look, long before the National Trust took over. The scheme for the Great Hall was based on the dinner hosted for the East Kent Yeomanry (see image below), an infantry division in the British Army and as you can see from the image at the top it looks fabulous! The new (old) deep orange look for the walls in combination with the blue ceiling really brings life to the hall and feels so much cosier. The elaborate moulded plasterwork on the ceiling is attributed to Richard Dungan, Royal Master Plasterer to King Henry VIII from 1597-1609. Incidentally, the girl in the foreground of the picture below is none other than a young Vita Sackville-West.

Knole's Great Hall painted at the beginning of the 20th century, with a young Vita Sackville-West in the foreground
A painting of Knole's Great Hall c1905 by an unknown painter, showing well dressed guests seated around a long dinner table in a grand wood pannelled hall with red walls. Vita Sackville West as a girl sits at the head of the table in the foreground
Knole's Great Hall painted at the beginning of the 20th century, with a young Vita Sackville-West in the foreground

As you can see, the antlers have now been put back in their rightful place with some slightly newer faces. The largest has been dubbed “Big Geoff” by the team and has been part of Knole’s collection since the dinner took place. An expert taxidermist was called in to give Geoff a fresh haircut and a bit of colour to his coat. He’s now back and looking fabulous! The other new face is Sandy who is not a historic part of our collection but looks right at home. The antlers were probably the hardest objects to reinstate in the great hall, the sheer weight meant a cherry picker needed to be called in (no mean feat in itself).

A conservator works on Big Geoff, one of the stag heads mounted on the wall of Knole's Great Hall
A conservator works on Big Geoff, one of the stag heads mounted on the wall of Knole's Great Hall
A conservator works on Big Geoff, one of the stag heads mounted on the wall of Knole's Great Hall

The ambassadorial suite of portraits at the far end above the dais (George III, George IV Prince of Wales and Queen Charlotte) went away for remedial conservation treatment - the frames have been heavily consolidated as all of them were suffering serious flaking to the gilding edges, but the conservators did an excellent condition of looking after them. Our goal as it generally is within the Trust is preservation and not necessarily restoration. We don’t want these to look brand new, a gentle ageing is a good look! A common saying here at Knole is that the house smoulders rather than sparkles and the results speak for themselves.  

Knole's Great Hall looking down from the Minstrel's Gallery - Thomas Sackville (1st Earl of Dorset) and George IV dominate
Knole's Great Hall, looking down from the Minstrel's Gallery onto a black and white checkered floor, dark wooden pannelled walls lined, including portraits of George IV and Thomas Sackville and stag heads
Knole's Great Hall looking down from the Minstrel's Gallery - Thomas Sackville (1st Earl of Dorset) and George IV dominate

The winter clean is a little sad at times as the house is empty, but it was really exciting being able to clean these masterpieces. We used a soft pony hair brush to gently lift the cobwebs from the frame, which as you can imagine was quite dusty as these areas can’t be reached on the daily clean. We used a soft squirrel hair painting brush to dust the canvas. This requires an extremely steady hand as we don’t want to press too hard on the actual canvas as any loose flaking can be peeled off. I am happy to report that they are all in excellent condition! During our morning clean in open season, this is probably my favourite room to clean. I love the Victorian shellacking it was given, and you get a real sense of age and weight whilst dusting.