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

07 Mar 20

The Light Box

New for this season, this interactive space 'The Light Box' will allow families to follow the story of light at The Argory. Kids can create their own neon art masterpiece; discover the journey of light at The Argory over the years, and enjoy interactive light and sensory games. Opening on 7 March as official start of the new season, this area is bound to be a very popular addition to the courtyard at The Argory.

13 Nov 19

West Hall Chandelier returned to its rightful place

After a long time away being expertly and carefully restored to her former glory, the West Hall Chandelier is back in her rightful place. As promised, the neon sculpture designed by Kevin Millen has been restructured and is on display in the servants stairway. No spoilers on this design! Visit The Argory soon and view both pieces in their permanent positions on a guided tour. Will not disappoint!

West Chandelier returned

01 Jun 19

'Follow the Flow' family trail

Go with the Flow at The Argory this autumn and find yourself on a fun family adventure. Nestled on the banks of the River Blackwater, the new ‘Follow The Flow Water Trail' reveals the weird and wonderful ways in which water powered the life of the estate. See the washboard and mangle that kept clothes clean and discover how the bowstring design of Bond’s bridge, built in 1890, was an important connection for easy access to the estate. Children are sure to be impressed when they learn that a donkey helped operate the pump which piped water from the river to the big house. Older visitors can enjoy the chance to see the 'Artificial Sunshine' a neon light installation by Northern Irish artist, Kevin Killen. When this stunning piece of contemporary art was commissioned, it not only celebrated the tradition of welcoming modern art into the house, but also acknowledged the technology which had powered the house. In 1906 The Argory was converted to run on acetylene gas. The second owner, Captain Shelton, commissioned the Sunbeam Acetylene Gas Company to install a manufacturing plant in the laundry yard and to lay a network of pipes that would carry the gas into the house. At the same time, the house was furnished with a plethora of new light fittings and some original fittings were converted. In the archive we have found receipts for the entire lighting project, including the list of ‘new’ fittings installed in 1906. We also have receipts for subsequent routine maintenance and for the regular deliveries of calcium carbide which was required for the production of acetylene. Acetylene gas enjoyed only a brief period of popularity as a country house technology before being superseded by electricity. However, the McGeough Bond family never installed electricity in the main part of the house and so the system at The Argory was still in full working order when the house came to the Trust in 1979.

Follow the Flow Water Trail