Restoring the Whistler Room curtains at Mottisfont

Painted trompe l'oeil murals and decorative curtains in the Whistler Room at Mottisfont, Hampshire

The curtains in our celebrated Whistler Room, marked with artist Rex Whistler’s own brush strokes, are original features from the design scheme commissioned by Maud Russell.

They’re of great historical significance, as Whistler was painting the mock ermine lining when the Second World War broke out. High up on the wall, out of sight, the artist painted this message:

" I was painting this Ermine curtain when Britain declared war on the Nazi tyrants. Sunday September 3rd. R.W."
- Rex Whistler

But the curtains need critical conservation work, as they’re deteriorating rapidly. They will need to be taken down for an intensive programme of repair and restoration, which will take up to five years to complete.

The velvet is too degraded to repair, and needs to be completely replaced; the curtains are also harbouring an active carpet beetle infestation, which can only be treated by freezing. 

The velvet has completely degraded and needs to be replaced
A close-up shot of Rex Whistler's handpainted curtains at Mottisfont, showing wear and tear
The velvet has completely degraded and needs to be replaced

What needs to be done?

Each 4m x 2.5m curtain will have to be taken apart for the mock ermine lining to be conserved and, later, hand-stitched to new velvet. During this process, the textile conservators will be able to document the curtains’ condition and construction, which has never been done before.

The initial removal and unstitching of the curtains will start on 22 May and take about two weeks. This work will done in public view, so you'll be given a unique chance to see the conservators in action.

Once unstitched, the curtain linings will be sent away to be frozen, to eradicate the pest infection. Meanwhile, the room will be thoroughly cleaned and monitored, to ensure it’s free of insect pests.

As the room will look quite different with the curtains removed, we're using the opportunity to tell more of the room’s story. Rex Whistler’s original design sketches will be shown in here for the first time, placed beside the final artwork on the walls. 

First, one pair of curtains will be sent to a textile studio for conservation work while the others remain at Mottisfont. This first pair will help inform the costs and timescales for the rest of the work.

Once these have returned, the curtains will then be sent, in two phases, to the original studio and a second studio to speed up the process. As each pair returns, the curtains will not immediately be rehung, but will be placed inside polycarbonate boxes for public view.

The work is estimated to take four – five years, with the hope that the curtains will be reinstated simultaneously in the spring of 2022.

The restoration is a vast undertaking, which can only be carried out by a handful of highly-specialised textile conservators. The work is estimated to cost around £175,000, although this will not be finalised until the curtains have been taken down and fully documented. 

How you can help

We need help to raise the funds for this vital, specialist work. If you'd like to donate, simply buy a raffle ticket on your next visit, purchase something from the second-hand bookshop - or just pop some of your spare change into one of our donation boxes.

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22 May 18

The first curtains are removed

In preparation for the work ahead, the first set of curtains are taken down by specialist textile conservators using a scaffold. The curtains are then laid out on the floor, enabling us to document their condition. This work is carried out in public view.