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Our conservation work at Stourhead

The Pantheon at Stourhead, Wiltshire
The Pantheon was designed in the 18th century | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

The National Trust team at Stourhead have been very busy in recent years, restoring and conserving some of the estate's most important buildings and fixtures. From repairing the roof of the iconic Pantheon to giving the Grotto’s famous inscription a new lease of life, the work we’ve carried out will ensure that these extraordinary artefacts can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Restoring the Pantheon’s portico roof

In 2014, with the help of funding from SITA Trust, the National Trust began the process of restoring the Pantheon’s portico roof. Designed in the 1750s by the renowned architect Henry Flitcroft, the Pantheon has become synonymous with Stourhead, its iconic structure – modelled on its Roman namesake – providing a focal point for many of the garden’s spectacular vistas.

The last time work was carried out on the Pantheon was in the 1980s, when we conserved the building’s dome and interior. On that occasion, the portico remained untouched – but three decades on, it was felt that the restoration could wait no longer.

The work involved building a temporary roof above the portico to keep the weather out, which allowed us to remove, replace or repair any damaged timber and roofing materials. Having completed the job, we can now ensure that the iconic Pantheon will be around for at least the next 200 years.

Inscription in the Grotto at Stourhead, Wiltshire
The National Trust took inspiration from the inscription's typeface | © National Trust Images/Nick Meers

Re-carving the inscription in the Grotto

Visitors have been enjoying Stourhead’s Grotto for many years, but inevitably this level of attention eventually led to the inscription in the Italian marble wearing down, with some parts becoming illegible.

Dating back to the 18th century, the inscription comes from Alexander Pope’s translation of a pseudo-classical poem, and reads: ‘Nymph of the grot these sacred springs I keep; And to the murmur of these water sleep; Ah spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave; And drink in silence or in silence lave.’

Traditional methods and tools

In 2016, thanks to funds donated by the Salisbury and South Wilts National Trust Association, we were able to commission Cliveden Conservation in Buckinghamshire to restore the worn lettering.

A specialist from Cliveden spent a week in the Grotto, re-carving the letters using traditional methods and tools. He said: ‘A high degree of hand-to-eye coordination is required to re-cut each letter using small, sharp chisels and lightweight hammers. Interestingly, the chisels used differ only marginally from those that have been used for generations.’

Once he had re-carved the letters, he applied a light, painted wash that would enable visitors to read the quote more easily.

Sleeping nymph

The inscription’s carved lettering is among the earliest-known examples of the revival of a sans-serif typeface, and was also the inspiration behind the National Trust’s first ever bespoke typeface, created in 2009.

The Grotto itself is a well-loved brick structure covered in tufa, lit from above by an opening in its dome. It features a sleeping nymph, Ariadne, who lies behind the inscription and overlooks the lake.

Axminster carpet at Stourhead, Wiltshire
The carpet cost £36,000 to repair | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Conserving the Saloon’s Axminster carpet

In the spring of 2015, our team of gardeners and garden volunteers turned their green fingers to a very different task, helping to move the rare, original Axminster carpet from the Saloon for a nine-month-long conservation project.

Made by the world-famous Axminster carpet company in the 19th century, it is the oldest original carpet in Stourhead House. In 1902, servants rescued it from a fire that destroyed the central part of the building. The carpet was then cut to fit the room’s new layout (the cut pieces have since been found folded neatly underneath).

Heavy lifting

It was no mean feat getting the carpet out of the house, as it measures 9.7 x 8.6 metres and stretches from wall to wall. ‘It’s huge and quite a weight,’ said Stourhead’s House Steward Alison Lee, ‘so we got a real idea of what the servants at Stourhead must’ve felt when they had to take the carpet out during the fire.’

Before removing the carpet, the National Trust team moved all of the heavy furniture out of the room, including a Steinway grand piano. The carpet was then surveyed by specialists in preparation for the work that would be carried out at the Tetley Workshop in Devon.

Splits and holes

Conservators cleaned the carpet, adding support to the damaged areas and restoring some of the losses, such as splits and holes. Now, it’s back home in the Saloon for visitors to enjoy once again.

The £36,000 cost of conserving the carpet was paid for out of the £100,000 funding donated to the Trust by the People’s Postcode Lottery.

The lunette window at Stourhead in Wiltshire
The damaged panels were removed and repaired remotely | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Preserving the Library’s lunette window

In 2016, conservators from Holy Well Glass in Somerset removed the damaged panels from the Library’s lunette window and transported them to their studios to clean them and stabilise any historic damage. The work couldn’t be done in situ due to the solvents needed for the conservation process and the unique, multi-layered construction method used to create the lunette.

Designed by Francis Eginton in 1803 and based on Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’, the lunette window is made of enamelled and painted glass. It was crafted by painting two panes of very thin crown glass on both sides using glass paint and transparent enamel. The panes would’ve then been fired at least twice to fix the paint to the surface, before being held together by putty in the surrounding frame.

Shattered glass

In the past, some repairs have been made by smearing putty into cracks in the glass. All this old putty and glue was removed by Holy Well Glass before the conservators built the panes up vertically using conservation-grade adhesive to ensure that they’ll remain stable for the next 200 years. This process was then repeated for each of the seven panels conserved.

Some of the window panels had also undergone historic repairs in the days before the National Trust cared for Stourhead, with puddles of glue being used to fix the shattered glass onto newer glass. These are part of the lunette’s history and are still in a very stable condition, so were left as they are.

The enamel and glass were generally in good condition. However, in some panels there are areas where the pigment has lifted and disturbed the glass surface. At some point, cold colour has been crudely added as an attempt to fill the blank patch. Again, as this is part of the object’s history, this area was not restored to its original condition.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

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