Comber's hat

Comber in the garden

The new exhibition 'A well designed garden? opened on 21st January. It explores the contributions and additions to the design of garden by the Messel family and their gardeners. We’ve taken this opportunity to display some previously overlooked treasures from our collection.

Comber with his team
Comber with his team

James Comber

James Comber was Head Gardener to both Ludwig and Leonard Messel. He was appointed in 1895 and spent 58 years here until his death in 1953. His son Harold became a plant collector and travelled all over the world bringing back exotic specimens for his father to incorporate into Nymans.

James’s influence on the garden design and his hard work to implement the plans are highlighted in the exhibition, and we have his gardening hat on display. A black bowler hat with an old leather hatband was found many years ago in the rafters of the potting shed, tied up amongst long lengths of cable.

The hat was identified as belonging to James and kept. It sat in a trug up high in our statue store until recently when we unearthed it for display.

Comber's hat before it was cleaned
Comber's hat before it was cleaned

Conserving the hat 

In a rather dismal condition, the hat had not only become caked in dirt and dust, but a few holes had been punctured into the sides and a thin layer of vine-like plant matter had grown over the entire hat. The leather hatband had broken down and was starting to shed, and what remained of the interior patterned lining was unidentifiable. We couldn’t display the hat like this. It needed cleaning up if we wanted to show it off, and if it was going to survive as a hat for much longer.

Comber's hat after being cleaned
Comber's hat after being cleaned

As much dust and dirt as possible was brushed away with a hogs-hair brush (the strongest of the conservation brushes we use), carefully avoiding the hatband which could have got caught in the bristles and been ripped away. Once it was easier and clearer to see the plant matter, this was cautiously picked off millimetre by millimetre with a cocktail stick. We were careful to move the stick in the direction of the textile pile, which is the direction in which the fibres of the textile lay flat. If we moved against the pile we would create dark streaks on the hat where the fibres would bend backwards and possibly be detached. Once a large area of plant matter had been removed, we used a pony hair brush (a softer conservation brush) to clear away any loose pieces that lingered, still being careful to avoid the leather hatband. 

There isn’t much more we can do for the hat without having it treated, the textile has stiffened into the position of the punctures and the lining is irretrievable. But we’ve done the best we can for this forgotten treasure.