It’s an exciting time for Emma Slocombe. As curator of the huge conservation project at Knole, her vision is coming to life with the reopening of several of the showrooms.
A curator in the National Trust’s South East consultancy, Emma has worked exclusively on Knole for several years, delivering a blueprint for the house’s future and leading research into the history of the interiors and collections.
When she joined the project, Knole was badly in need of help. Rain seeped in through leaking window frames, the house was damp and badly lit and the collections were deteriorating by the day.
Now, three years on, the building has been secured and made watertight. New heating and lighting systems have been installed and paintings and furniture have been cleaned, with stunning results.
Every object from the Ballroom, King’s Room, Cartoon Gallery and Reynolds Room has been removed, thoroughly cleaned, conserved and carefully replaced.
Knole’s remarkable collections can finally be seen in all their magnificence – and crucially can be maintained into the future thanks to the proper environmental controls in the house.
" Our greatest achievement is that visitors can now see the collections clearly. Knole is taking its place among the great houses of England as it rightly should with its history and significance. "
The presentation of the showrooms has been gently tweaked but the curatorial team have been careful to retain Knole’s unique atmosphere, for which the house is dearly loved.
The house is presented as it would have been in its last great heyday – the late 1890s and early 1900s when Vita Sackville-West was growing up here.
After new research uncovered more of Knole’s history, some pieces of the collection have been moved to their original locations.
'We are taking an evidence based approach to change now,' Emma explains. 'That allows us to make decisions that have much more clarity than in the past. Our research shows that Knole has been cherished as a place with enormous atmosphere and depth for hundreds of years. We wanted to retain that. Everything has been cleaned and polished but visitors still sense they are walking through a place that has seen many centuries and been touched by the lives of many people.'
The amazing group of sculptures, for example, that sit in the bay window of the Cartoon Gallery have been reinstated. Originally commissioned by John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, the sculptures were displayed in the bay window from the end of the eighteenth century until they were removed at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Some were packed in boxes and rediscovered when the Orangery was renovated and have since been restored and reinstated. They were last photographed there in a 1912 issue of Country Life.
The enormous painting by John Wootton, which used to hang in the Great Hall, has also been put back in its original 1799 location in the Ballroom.
" It really looks stunning. When you get the placing of an object right it is almost as if it says thank you. "
Emma admits to shedding a tear when she saw the newly-cleaned self-portrait of Joshua Reynolds illuminated by new lighting.
'I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I realised I had never properly seen that painting despite standing in front of it numerous times over the last ten years. Embodied in that object was everything we have achieved.'
Emma is looking forward to the reopening of the rest of Knole’s showrooms in 2019, including the Brown Gallery, Lady Betty’s Rooms, the Leicester Gallery and the Venetian Dressing Room.
'What I am most excited about though is the conservation and redisplay of the Spangled Bed. It’s going to be absolutely sumptuous.'