Why are some rooms closed?

A deep clean of the ceramics in the Little Dining Room

Petworth House contains the most important art collection in the care of the National Trust, and with that comes great responsibility. Until the early 1900s it was common practice for wealthy English families to travel to town houses in cities such as London when the temperature dropped over autumn and winter. The servants that remained behind would close up all the curtains and shutters of the windows, thoroughly clean the house and contents from top to bottom then cover the furniture in dust sheets, to be unveiled once more on the return of the owners in late spring. This tradition is still carried out today to allow the extraordinary collection to survive.

When Petworth first opened to the public in 1953, Petworth House was only open on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoons and that was only from April to December.

Petworth House is now open 363 days of the year and since 1953 we have also added access to the Servants' Quarters and tours of the Estate Office, bedrooms and the Ice House.

As you can imagine that means there are far more areas to be monitored with more risks to the collection including dust, dirt, light and humidity.

Winter conservation cleaning in the Red Room

The National Trust is first and foremost a conservation charity dedicated to the preservation of our heritage. Today the house team carry out conservation work year-round to look after the house and its collection of over 9,000 items. 

It takes a team of six conservation assistants five months to methodically clean, treat, record, cover, store then return everything in the collection in time for reopening in March the following year.

Each of the items in the house and gardens has a corresponding document called a condition report, which details the history, appearance and damage that may have occurred to it over the years. During the winter clean, each object is compared against its condition report before being cleaned to ensure it has not suffered further deteriortion over the last year and to check for any loose or particularly vulnerable areas to avoid.

Putting the Chapel to rest

By closing off rooms during the winter we allow them to 'rest'. Light is just one of the conservation factors the team have to consider. By resting areas, we can reduce the irreversible deterioration to the collection – particularly textiles and other organic materials. Even the floors have to be left to rest, so as not to cause lasting damage to the floorboards. 

Moving pictures in the North Gallery

Other essential conservation work is also carried out, such as moving and cleaning large pieces of furniture, high level cleaning from scaffolding, and polishing floors that would be too dangerous to carry out while the rooms are open to the public.

The smallest room in the house is the Little Dining Room, which takes the team of six conservation assistants approximately 10 days to complete from floor to ceiling. A room the size of the North Gallery, requires a minimum of four weeks due to the sheer size, number of collection items and scaffold movements. On average a painting can take two conservation assistants up to three quarters of an hour to complete while more complex objects such as a fireplace can take one person over three hours.