Cleaning the Turnbull collection

Drinking glasses ready to be cleaned

The Turnbull Collection is our amazing 18th-century English glass collection which is the finest in the care of the National Trust. Cleaning it as part of the winter clean is a delicate and intricate labour of love.

This winter I have had the privilege to start cleaning the Turnbull collection. With 376 glasses this is something that takes a while to complete. While we have been open for Christmas, Clare and I have been cleaning it in the green room so that members of the public can see how it’s done.

The process of cleaning is not to put it in the dishwasher as many people have suggested but a much more delicate and intricate process that a collection of national importance deserves.

Cleaning a glass
Cleaning a glass

Captain Oswald Graham Noel Turnbull was born in 1890 in Highgate, London. In the early 1920s Captain Turnbull became obsessed with acquiring the finest examples of 18th-century English drinking glasses. He collected at the beginning of a worldwide craze for buying glass and managed to collect some of the best examples of 18th-century glass there were.

The main tools for cleaning the glasses are cotton buds, a lot of cotton buds. In fact over the last couple of sessions we have cleaned 86 glasses and used about 400 cotton buds! We wet clean the glasses using 3 different types of water. The first is tap water with the smallest drop of sensitive washing up liquid. This is a conservation grade cleaner. Next we rinse with tap water and the final rinse is with de-ionised water. At no point do we immerse the glasses in water; everything is done in painstaking detail with cotton buds. The glasses are then left to air-dry ready to be put back into the cabinet.

The tools required to clean a glass
The tools required to clean a glass

The collection ranges from mammoth goblets to delicate air twist cordials and includes rare examples of glasses commemorating the Jacobite cause.

Most of the glasses were cleaned in about 20 minutes but some, such as the mammoth goblet, took over an hour to clean. It seemed to depend where the glasses sit in the cabinet as to how dusty they were. The top shelves were much cleaner and anything that sat near the door opening was much dirtier. Getting so close to these exquisite glasses has been a real joy and seeing them in the glorious winter sun shows the detail in which many of them have been engraved.  

To keep the glasses safe while cleaning we have cushions to put them on. These cushions are made out of Tyvek and filled with polystyrene beads. I even padded the table before we started. It’s all about taking it slowly and taking every precaution to keep this collection safe at all times.

Keeping the glasses safe
Keeping the glasses safe

We only clean the collection every 3-5 years. This is because it is kept in a cabinet and therefore most of the dust is kept off it. I will not get through all of it this winter but I have a few more years before I have to start again!