Winter conservation at Knole 2019-20

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 left the showrooms in the fading afternoon light on Sunday 3 November, the entrance to Screen’s Passage in Stone Court officially closed 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 on Saturday 7 March 2020.

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 Alex Buck. “We look forward to having the house to ourselves and spending time together.” For the last couple of years, thanks to the newly-installed conservation heating as part of the ‘Inspired by Knole’ conservation project, fewer thermal layers are 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.
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 Laurel Joseph. “We clean and condition check before Christmas then start on the walls, paintings and floors in January.”

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 Senior House Stewart Alex Paton. “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.
It takes the conservation team four months to clean Knole's showrooms

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 Laurel.

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 Alex. “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.
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.

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 Laurel. “Nobody likes that job.”