Restoring Bloomsbury Group furniture

Emma Schmuecker, Conservation Studio Manager Emma Schmuecker Conservation Studio Manager
sitting room at Monk's House, East Sussex

The conservation studio received furniture from Monks House the home of Virginia Woolf, with many items designed by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were members of the Bloomsbury Group. Working with researchers and our national specialists much thought went into how we approached the preservation of them. This was an important collaboration between the conservators specialising in paintings, decorative arts and upholstery.

The furniture presented several conservation challenges. There were sensitive distemper surfaces (a traditional paint which is easily damaged) on many pieces, which were flaky and difficult to clean. This was obviously a problem even during Virginia Woolf’s time as it was discovered that items had been retouched and, in some cases, repainted with oil-based paints. Discussion around the protection of these surfaces involved looking at the existing environmental conditions of the house to prevent further deterioration in future. As a result, the surfaces were coated to prevent further flaking.

A conservator carefully consolidates flaking paint on a chair from Monks House, Kent
A conservator works on a chair from Monks House, Kent
A conservator carefully consolidates flaking paint on a chair from Monks House, Kent

These items were used by Virginia Woolf and her friends and there is wonderful evidence of wear. Selective retouching of paint losses made the furniture look cared for, whilst still retaining the context of the furniture and evidence of use. We suspect there may even be evidence of damage to needlework panels caused by a previous resident – a cat!