Knole's Showrooms Revealed

Henry Weeds, Conservation Assistant, Knole Henry Weeds Conservation Assistant, Knole
Elaborate grey pannelled walls and a huge detailed marble fireplace line the walls alongside portraits of the Sackville family. In the middle of the room are piece of gilded furniture

In this second article in our series of conservation posts, Conservation Assistant Henry Weeds takes a look at the final stages of our enormous ‘Inspired by Knole’ conservation project, in the build-up to the opening of the showrooms in March 2019.

While work was being carried out in the Great Hall, the other showrooms also had serious work undertaken. One entire wall in the Ballroom needed to be raised while much the sixteenth century panelling was removed so essential maintenance could be undertaken.

Knole's Ballroom was one of the 15 rooms undergoing conservation during the enormous Inspired by Knole project
Two men carefully handle a large portrait of a 17th century member of the Sackville family. A ladder is propped up against an elaborately pannelled wall
Knole's Ballroom was one of the 15 rooms undergoing conservation during the enormous Inspired by Knole project

Meanwhile in the Cartoon Gallery, the showpiece cartoons needed to be conserved urgently and went away for painstaking work to bring them back to their best. Raphael’s original cartoons were designs for tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515-16 to hang in the Sistine Chapel. Knole’s copies are attributed to Flemish artist Franz Cleyn, who was brought in to give expert guidance to the weavers in 1624.

The conservation of the 'cartoons', copies of Raphael's original tapestry designs commissioned by Pope Leo X, was an enormous project
Three men oversee the removing of an enormous colourful painting with an elaborate gilt frame, a copy of Raphael's cartoon
The conservation of the 'cartoons', copies of Raphael's original tapestry designs commissioned by Pope Leo X, was an enormous project

In addition to the work on the cartoons, there was a much need lighting overhaul across most of these rooms. Light damage is just one of what we call the “Ten Agents of Deterioration”, probably our most common problem, and the easiest for the public to see. In years gone by, before the invention of the halogen bulb, large windows were the only effective way to bring in light that didn’t involve candles. Now though, the conservation team are regularly dealing with the impact of light damage.

In the Ballroom particularly, you can see the toll it has taken over the years, especially on the day bed. Whilst our mesh blinds keep out most of the harmful light and UV it is still something that must be monitored and as soon as the house closes we try to get the blinds down as quickly as possible to reduce the amount of light coming in. Even in the King’s Room where there is no natural light we still want the lights off as quickly as possible. Regardless of how carefully we monitor, there is always going to be residual light coming through somewhere and as such you may see our little dosimeters placed on some of our most vulnerable furniture. The central strip of blue you can see is the test area and when they are checked, the plastic covering is removed. If light damage were to be bad, this blue strip should have faded whilst the border that would have been behind plastic should be as it was when it was put in. It is a cheap and effective way to assess the extent of the damage.

The Royal State Bed in the King's Room, almost certainly made for James II, was wrapped carefully before dismantling
Elaborate golden bed hangings are half wrapped in tissue paper during the conservation process
The Royal State Bed in the King's Room, almost certainly made for James II, was wrapped carefully before dismantling

When I and many of the new members joined at the end of 2017, the first half (i.e. from the Brown Gallery onwards) was closed for the public and we have only ever seen it as a building site. For us, it was really exciting to see these rooms in their barebones state and it has been fascinating watching them develop into their current state. By the end of 2019, there is still a lot to be done before the grand re-opening in March 2019. As we began reinstating many of the portraits that resided in the Brown Gallery and the Leicester Gallery, we undertook regular measurements of the relative humidity, light levels and Ultra-Violet light in these areas for our records, so we could understand what state these rooms were in.

The Lady Betty suite was very susceptible to the light and during our very warm spell in July was probably only a degree or two cooler than hell itself! We take these measurements by holding up a small monitor for a minute or two in these areas and simply making a note of these recordings. The National Trust standard for RH is between 40-65% and ideally for light no more than 250 lumen but this is sometimes not always achievable.

The Lady Betty suite was very susceptible to the light, so extra care is taken to monitor light and temperature
A beautifully elaborate four poster bed sits in the corner of a room rich with tapestries, carpets and upholstered 17th century furniture
The Lady Betty suite was very susceptible to the light, so extra care is taken to monitor light and temperature

Many areas in the first half were covered up for so long during the work, to see it all starting to take shape was actually quite a moving experience. It felt like it had life in it again. The installation of the beds in the Spangle and Venetian bedrooms were monumental undertakings which required at least eight members of staff and contractors to put back in and took the best part of two hours to fully put up! However, they look wonderful now they are back. The silk looks rich and vibrant and you can see the care and attention the conservators put into it. In these rooms, a glass screen now protects it from the worst of the damage so a regular clean will not always be needed.

During November we started “putting the house to bed” so to speak and to give our collection the once over before it was packed away for winter. We do annually this by gently dusting our objects and more importantly assessing it for damage and it’s amazing what can be found. It appeared some of our porcelain in the Ballroom was covered in tiny water drops though one of our conservators suggested it could be the result of a badly aimed sneeze (which I really hope is not the case). Thanks to the smooth nature of porcelain, some of larger stains were easily wiped off with a cotton bud dabbed in cold water. Most of these objects are wrapped in acid free tissue paper to help protect the surface before getting another wrapping in Tyvek, a heavy duty conservation material that prevents seepage from the outside but allows for water vapour to escape, so reducing the chances of mould developing. Once the collection is packed away, we will probably have to break out our scaffold tower to get into the highest nooks and crannies while we clean. We leave no stone unturned and no panelling undusted while we clean!

That’s all from me for now, watch out for more conservation updates.