Caring for Sudbury

A conservation assistant winding a clock at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire

The House and Collections Team work hard to care for the beautiful interiors and historic artwork that make up Sudbury Hall. It’s no small task; along with regular surveys and conservation cleaning the team has to address everything from bugs to the management of light.

A lot of what we do is based on cutting edge conservation science. We have studies of how dust falls in a room, computerised humidity monitoring, integrated pest management systems and comprehensive light planning based on the latest research.  More is being developed every day, yet so much of what we do is still based on the housekeeping tasks that have been in use for centuries.  For example, in the side hall the stone steps have become porous over years and require regular scrubbing by hand to keep them clean. 

Stone steps need plenty of care
Steps in the side hall entrance at Sudbury Hall
Stone steps need plenty of care

We now put a coat of micro-crystalline wax on the stone as extra protection; it still needs lots of elbow grease to clean off, but at least the team are only wearing away the wax rather than the original stonework!     

Where art meets science

Often our paintings are sent to specialist conservators for cleaning and conservation work. We receive reports that tell us all about the detailed work that’s been done. From dusting to selecting the right chemicals to remove and reapply varnish, it’s a precise and exact art.

We work with experts to preserve and clean our collection
Painting conservation before and after at Sudbury Hall
We work with experts to preserve and clean our collection

Breaking the mould

Put simply, mould is the growth of tiny fungi, the result of moisture in just the right conditions.  It can cause permanent damage to our collections, so each year we survey all the furniture looking for evidence of mould. 

Some areas of the Hall such as the Great Staircase are naturally prone to outbreaks, but a flood in the Talbot room some years ago has caused us ongoing problems with the book collection.  We’ve therefore set up a project team of volunteers who are working through the collection caring for each of the thousands of books individually, removing mould wherever they find it.

Conservation work is a never ending job!
Volunteers cleaning books in Sudbury's library
Conservation work is a never ending job!

We also look out for woodworm. You can spot an item that has an infestation by the characteristic holes and tunnels carved into the wood and by the appearance of frass (basically, woodworm poo), the powder-like shavings from the damaged wood. It appears in small clumps below emergence holes and is a little more substantial than any dust that might be lurking in these secret, hidden places.

Taking care of the beautiful furniture at Sudbury Hall
A table undergoing conservation at Sudbury Hall
Taking care of the beautiful furniture at Sudbury Hall

Dusting plasterwork to playwrights

Occasionally we need to get up the scaffolding and remove the dust that accumulates on our delicate plaster ceilings.  If left for too long, dust will react with the surface it has settled on and become permanently ‘cemented’ in place.  Not only is this unsightly, but high dust levels can also attract pests which might cause damage to collections.  However, every time we dust we risk damaging the very thing that we’re trying to look after.  One detached piece was recently discovered precariously balanced on an equally delicate leaf.

One spot that attracts more dust than most is the top of the doorway to the Saloon, a very detailed wooden structure carved by Edward Pierce. On top is a plaster bust of William Shakespeare. We’re not entirely sure why he’s over this door or who made him but even Britain’s greatest playwright needs his nose blowing once in a while!

Even Shakespeare's nose needs dusting!
Conservation cleaning of Shakespeare plaster bust
Even Shakespeare's nose needs dusting!

Caring for our collections

Nearly every room in the Hall and the Museum has at least one sticky trap, often called a blunder trap as the pests ‘blunder’ onto the trap but it isn’t treated with anything to attract them. Every three months we check these traps to see if there are any insects which could eat our collection, from tiny booklice (they eat paper but only if it’s damp) to deathwatch beetles (they like to eat damp structural timbers like oak) to so called woolly bears (the larvae of the varied carpet beetle).

These finds are collated and sent to the central conservation team who look for trends across properties. If we find we have a pesky pest problem they can help us to manage things.

Caring for our collections means monitoring light levels
A UV filter is prepared for the windows at Sudbury Hall
Caring for our collections means monitoring light levels

Keep it light

Just like ultra-violet light can cause sunburn to our skin, it can cause damage to our collections and interiors. As part of a three year project looking at our equipment we’ve replaced the specialist UV-blocking film attached to the Hall’s windows, which removes the most harmful part of the sun’s rays and reduces the damage light causes to our collections.  This means the historic artefacts and interiors we care for are protected while still allowing spectacular views over the Sudbury estate.