Artificial Sunshine at the Argory

Artificial Sunshine at The Argory

The Argory was built between 1820 and 1824 for the McGeough Bond family and until the early 1900’s was lit by firelight, oil lamps and candles. In 1906 the second owner Capt. Ralph Shelton, made one of the most significant changes to the property with the installation of the acetylene gas plant in the laundry yard. Gas lighting had become a popular new technology in cities and major towns throughout the UK and Ireland. A major advantage to the acetylene gas was that it could be easily maintained by those who worked in the house.

A rare survivor

The Argory’s acetylene gas was installed for £250 by the Sunbeam acetylene gas company. Along with the range of fittings and fixtures it is now a rare survivor of a form of domestic lighting that enjoyed a short period of popularity during the last decade of the nineteenth century until the 1920s. 

While country houses continued to adopt new technologies such as electricity, The Argory continued to use the acetylene gas in the main house until the 1980’s when it became too dangerous to do so. It was lit for the last time in July 1981, the day the house opened to the public.

With rare surviving examples of acetylene fittings, such as the gasolier in the dining room and the ‘surprise’ pendants in the upstairs corridors and bedrooms, it is particularly remarkable that these fittings have many of the glass shades intact.

Restored lighting in Captain Shelton's bedroom
The Argory lighting appeal
Restored lighting in Captain Shelton's bedroom

The Argory also boasts two impressive Argand lamp chandeliers that were installed when the house was built and later converted to acetylene. These were removed for restoration as part of this conservation project.

The project begins

The conservation of the light fittings had been on a ‘wish list’ for several years and finally began back in 2013 when a small pink silk lampshade from the Drawing Room was sent to Blickling for conservation. These delicate little shades had suffered from 110 years of light damage and dirt and were no longer able to support their own weight. It was time to intervene and save what we could. With thanks to kind donations we were able to carry out condition surveys, restore one shade and purchase enough silk to restore all 14 shades, once finance was secured to complete them.

Lampshades at different stages of their conservation treatment
Argory Lampshades under treatment
Lampshades at different stages of their conservation treatment

The transformation of the first shade gave us an amazing visual aid to help raise money to complete all 14 shades. At a cost of £1750 per shade we had some work to do to raise enough funds. 

Acetylene fixture and fittings

The biggest part of the project was to clean the collection of acetylene light fittings from the ground and first floor of the mansion house. The team first welcomed Rupert Harris, National Trust Metalwork Advisor, to the property in May 2016. He removed the light fittings from the first floor. Over the following three years we worked closely with Rupert and his assistant Jackie through various phases to remove, clean and polish each the fittings in the mansion before they were lacquered and reinstated. It was a great opportunity for the house conservation team to work alongside Rupert as well as new volunteers who had come on board for the project.

Neon art

As the project progressed, we were very fortunate to receive CCP funding from the National Trust to restore the large double height chandelier in the West Hall. This was a job that required us to scaffold the inside of the main entrance hall to enable us to remove the light before it was packed up and taken to Rupert Harris’ studio in London where it is, at present, receiving  specialist treatment.

During the planning stages the idea developed that we should do something unique to celebrate the restoration of the chandelier. How great would it be if we were able to not only tell the story of the conservation work, highlighting the significance of the lighting system, but also incorporate the last owner Mr Bond’s love for contemporary art ? The planning began……

Looking forward to the 2019 season

Various aspects of programming have been introduced to enhance our visitor experience this year incorporating this acetylene lighting restoration project. In addition to the guided house tours which will reveal the Articial Sunshine in all its splendor, we also have talks planned for those of our supporters who wish to meet the people behind the concept. For our younger visitors a 'Follow the Flow' trail will take our explorer families on an expedition around the estate, learning exactly how the house systems worked, with a little help from the River Blackwater. During the summer there will be another exciting addition to the programme, keep your eye on our website and facebook page.

Latest updates


Supporters welcome - A series of 3 talks outlining the project

Our supporters are invited to join us for a series of 3 talks which will explain the foundations and reality of the introduction of artificial sunshine to The Argory. The first talk is on Thursday 7th March at 7pm Our guests will find out what makes the acetylene light fittings at The Argory so unique. Our Curator will explore the history of domestic lighting. The second in the series takes place on Thursday 4th April 7pm An opportunity to meet the conservation team and discover how they care for our unique collection of light fittings The final talk takes place on Thursday 2nd May 7pm Visitors will meet Northern Irish artist Kevin Killen creator of ‘Artificial Sunshine’ at The Argory. Kevin will discuss the inspiration behind his design and the process of working with neon. Complementary refreshments will be offered each evening Booking is essential. Please call 02887 784753 to reserve your place. Normal Admission Members Free

Artificial Sunshine at The Argory


Artificial Sunshine at The Argory is in place

Mid-April, the chandelier is away being restored and Kevin arrives to begin to hang the neon installation. The frame is suspended from where the chandelier once hung and then the glass is attached. It is a very delicate job as the glass is so fragile. The scaffold team worked very closely with Kevin during the installation and with everyone’s breath held they dismantled the scaffold around the glass. Once everything is complete the installation is wired and we wait for it to be turned on for the first time. The Argory staff and volunteers marvel at the structure. The house team have a long night removing the protection and reinstating the collection before the doors are opened for the public the following day.

Neon light installation - The Argory


West Hall chandelier is removed

It's April and time to get ready. The week before the scaffold arrive the house team begin the protection of the West Hall, stairs and landing, to prevent any damage to the collection or historic surfaces. To ensure this we have to remove 33 etchings, 4 marble busts, cover the floor and build a box around the banister and the stove. With only a few days to get everything ready it is all hands on deck and the Argory team gladly accept help from the conservation team at Springhill House. The scaffolding arrives and is carefully assembled. Rupert and Jackie are back and they begin to take down the Chandelier in 3 sections. It’s very heavy and takes a few people to support the weight whilst they work. It’s a busy week for Rupert and Jackie, as soon as the chandelier is safely down and packed ready for transport they begin to lacquer and reinstate the ground floor fittings.

Protection complete in West Hall