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Our work at Smallhythe Place

The exterior of the house at Smallhythe Place with the pond in the foreground
Summer at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/Sam Milling

While Smallhythe Place closes for the winter, the conservation team undertake important work to clean and protect the unique collection. It comprises over 9,500 theatrical artefacts, from costumes and props, to scripts, paintings and jewellery.

Conserving and cleaning indoors

Throughout the colder months the delicate artefacts from Ellen Terry’s personal and professional collection are carefully polished, condition checked and cleaned by the specially trained team. They use a variety of cleaning methods from washing with a gentle solution of water and soap, to deep freezing.

The National Trust housekeeping manual outlines all the methods to use for each category of item, such as wood, metal or ceramics, and recommends what cleaning materials to use. Each item is then recorded as having been looked at, cleaned and then covered with tissue paper or dust sheets for protection while the house is closed. This is a huge task, helped along by invaluable volunteers who have been trained to assess, handle and clean appropriately.

Costume collection care

One collection of particular importance is the costume collection. It is the largest portfolio of Ellen Terry’s costumes and garments that she gathered over a 60-year career as one of England’s most reputable actresses.

House Steward Susannah Mayor says: ‘Preventing the infestation of carpet beetles and "woolly bears" among the costumes is arduous but important work. In 2014 we had to freeze over 200 costumes after a breakout occurred, which is a long and tricky process, so we do everything we can to prevent this happening again.’

The collection is kept in carefully regulated conditions that control light, temperature and humidity, but textiles are notoriously susceptible to pests. Faced with the prospect of an attack on these precious items, area conservator, Gill Nason, and textile consultant, Zenzie Tinker, were consulted. Zenzie is also responsible for the conservation of the famous Beetle wing dress worn in 1888 by Ellen as Lady Macbeth.

How the costumes were saved

To kill the infestation the costumes were treated in a large freezer at -30 degrees for 72 hours, and for 14 days in a small freezer at -24 degrees. The costumes were carefully wrapped in tissue paper, with particular attention paid to metal and glass attachments, and vacuum-packed in polythene.

On removal the costumes were left to defrost at room temperature for 48 hours before being cleaned. Some costumes had conservation work carried out during the 1980s using adhesive and could not be frozen without compromising the repair. Eight costumes were instead treated in a hydrogen chamber for a week at Hampshire Museum service.

Challenges along the way included avoiding cross-contamination, identifying materials that would suffer in the freezing process and carrying the boxes down icy steps, through small doorways and over a busy road to the freezer all in very cold temperatures.

By the end of the process the professional conservationists and invaluable volunteers learned a great deal about the construction and design of the costumes, and the distinctions in technique between different designers and needlewomen.

The hands of a conservator working on the green beetle wing dress in the Costume Gallery at Smallhythe Place
Conservation on the green beetle dress at Smallhythe Place | © National Trust Images/David Levenson

Conservation time is also dedicated to the artefacts that are not seen. These included original letters, photos and memorabilia from Ellen Terry's daughter, Edith Craig.

Maintaining the aesthetic

The fragile structure and unusual exterior of Smallhythe Place means constant upkeep throughout the year. The most recent work in the house includes re-plastering the ceiling in Ellen’s bedroom and fitting new brace bars throughout the building. New features also provide museum-grade lighting in the display cabinets and a humidity monitoring system to protect the artefacts and many costumes on display, both in the house and costume store.

While it is important to ensure the building is structurally sound, it is also very important to us to preserve the aesthetic of Ellen Terry's home. So even when the house is closed the work to further our cause continues, helping to keep her characterful country retreat open for everyone, for ever.

Work in The Barn Theatre

In 2014, major work was undertaken to rebuild the stage in The Barn Theatre in the winter months during closure. To achieve an authentic likeness to how it had been in its infancy, the aim was to recycle as many of the original wooden boards to build the new stage.

Renovation of the dressing room and green room was also carried out, which later led to backstage tours. Funding helped the venue to install new stage curtains in 2016 and restring the original chairs in a rich green fabric that was colour-matched to a painting of the theatre created by Clare Atwood in 1939.

Updating the garden

Over the last few years, the garden has also been the subject of conservation and restoration. One project was the extensive pruning of the nuttery to restore it to resemble a traditional nut plat. This was a big undertaking, as the nuttery had reached 30ft high so the cobnuts were being pinched by squirrels before they could be properly harvested. Now they are at the perfect height for picking. It will take a number of years to achieve the right shape and structure, but with better exposure to sunlight they now have greater opportunity to grow.

The rose garden has also been transformed. The under-planting throughout the garden was renewed with a mix of herbaceous perennials and bulbs, and a native mix hedge was added running down the right side edged with dianthus.

The Lyceum at Smallhythe Place showing historic clothing displayed in a wooden cabinet

Discover more at Smallhythe Place

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Smallhythe Place on the National Trust Collections website.

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