Conservation in action at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Helen, House Steward Helen House Steward

It has been a particularly busy few weeks for the House Team. In preparation for the 39 tonnes of scaffold encasing the tower, we completely emptied Vita’s Writing Room on the 1st floor of the Elizabethan Tower. You'll now be able to see some of Vita's items in the gatehouse, a new section of the house open for visitors until the tower re-opens.

Emptying the tower was no small undertaking, the 2700 books range in size and weight and it was slow and steady work to move them down the spiral staircase of the tower. In addition to the books, there are 850 other items ranging from large paintings and heavy pieces of oak furniture right through to individual pieces of writing paper, elastic bands and stamps.
It might seem a bit strange that we look after such mundane, day to day stationary which isn't historically important.
When the National Trust took over the running and preservation of Sissinghurst, the charity took on the collection in perpetuity. Objects that were left in situ on Vita’s death in 1962 provide an exact record of how she used this space and so do have historical significance. The books are also left in the places which Vita used them, collected in themes such as gardening (on the shelves in the roundel), modern poets, psychology and the books she used most often such as plant catalogues and dictionaries, next to her desk.

Vita Sackville-West's desk at Sissinghurst
Vita Sackville-West's desk at Sissinghurst
Vita Sackville-West's desk at Sissinghurst

It took the house team nearly three weeks to pack up the small objects around the writing room for storage. Each item was housed in the correct conditions; supported by acid free tissue paper, in bubblewrap lined crates and plasterzote cut-out boxes. Some of these rarely seen objects will soon be on display in the gatehouse which will form part of a new exhibition.  

The library has been used for the storage of most of the books and furniture from the tower, which has meant we needed to prepare the space to have enough room. This involved moving furniture, rolling carpets, protecting the floor and covering the moved furniture in their winter dust sheets.

With so many objects being moved, including some off site for studio conservation work, the less exciting work behind the scenes includes updating the inventory with correct locations. The whole collection at Sissinghurst can be searched online at

One of the most interesting parts of the work has been getting up close to the objects. For example, moving out Vita’s day bed from under the bookcase on the right of the room allows us to see the original colour of the upholstery, a dark green rather than the light damaged brown.
We have also sent off the rent table from the library to the furniture conservation company Tankerdale. Whilst moving it, we took off the lapis lazuli top (which was added by Vita’s mother, Lady Sackville) which lay on top of the mahogany, this allowed us to see for the first time, a well in the middle of the tabletop.

The emptying of the writing room will protect the collection from dust that might be caused from work to the stairs, brickwork or masonry and to the windows, it also means we can have access to the fabric of the room. The wallpaper will be looked at to allow it to remain in place. We will investigate the flue of the fireplace, windows will be re-leaded and masonry repaired- which will ensure they are well fitting to provide stable conditions for the collection.

The room, without its layers of textiles, ceramics, souvenirs and books has a very stark, echoy atmosphere, unlike the rich well-used and well-loved sanctuary Vita created.

As the largest conservation charity in Europe, the vital work that the National Trust carries out ensure the special places we look after continue to be accessible. We have nearly 200,000 visitors a year, all those feet do take their toll on the stairs of the tower and by doing the extensive work this winter, it will ensure that 200,000 people every year can continue to walk up and down the tower and look down on the garden which Vita and Harold created together after being so inspired by the romantic peace and beauty surrounding them.

Take a look in the gatehouse when you visit this winter to find out more about our tower project.