Restoring the Whistler Room curtains at Mottisfont


The curtains in our celebrated Whistler Room 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 have been 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 were also harbouring an active carpet beetle infestation, which could only be treated by freezing.

What have we done so far?

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

With the curtains removed, we can more easily document their condition
A close-up look at the fabric of the Whistler curtains at Mottisfont, Hampshire
With the curtains removed, we can more easily document their condition

The initial removal and unstitching of the curtains began on 22 May and took about two weeks. The work was carried out in public view, giving visitors a unique chance to see the conservators in action.

The removal of each curtain had to be carried out with great care to avoid damage to the painted pelmets
A pair of conservators stand on a scaffold to remove one of the curtains from the Whistler Room at Mottisfont, Hampshire
The removal of each curtain had to be carried out with great care to avoid damage to the painted pelmets

The curtain linings went through a freezing treatment off site, to eradicate the pest infection. Meanwhile, the room was been thoroughly cleaned and monitored, to ensure it was free of insect pests.

As the room looks 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 are being shown in here for the first time, placed beside the final artwork on the walls. 

What happens next?

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.

Latest updates

27 Jun 18

We carry out a thorough condition check following freezing treatment

The curtains return to Mottisfont. The conservators carry out a thorough condition check following the freezing treatment, to get a better understanding of the conservation required. This involved holding the delicate fabric up to the light, to reveal all wear and tear.

08 Jun 18

The curtains are sent away for freezing treatment

Now unstitched, the curtain linings are sent away to be frozen, to eradicate the pest infestation. The room itself is thoroughly cleaned and monitored, to ensure it’s free of insect pests.

22 May 18

The curtains are taken down for initial work on site

In preparation for the work ahead, the curtains are taken down one by one, using a scaffold. Each curtain is then laid out on the floor, enabling our specialist textile conservators to document their condition. This work is carried out in public view and takes about two weeks.

Conservators carefully fold a curtain, hand-painted by Rex Whistler, after removal