What goes on behind the scenes at Standen House, an Arts & Crafts family home

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Why Standen? A room guide’s tale.

This week we have a guest post from one of our room guides, Richard. He’s been with us for a couple of years now and  consistently gets a round of applause whenever he does an introductory talk, no matter the weather!

It was a cold, wet and windy November day when I found myself sat in the house manager’s office at Standen explaining why I wanted to volunteer as a room guide. I remember gushing about how I loved old buildings and finding out about those who lived in them. I told him how I wanted to help bring Standen alive for visitors and share my passion for exploring historic properties. Over 2 ½ years on, I still mean every word I said and believe volunteering here has been the most rewarding “job” I have had.

For many years I have enjoyed visiting Standen. Whilst I have always enjoyed the colours and designs inside, I have always loved the way that such a big Victorian house still feels like a warm, inviting, family home. Because only one family have lived here, you get a real sense of a story behind the house and those who lived inside.

On my first day I was naturally nervous being surrounded by volunteers who seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the house and family. But being welcomed with tea and biscuits, I realised that the staff and volunteers are as friendly as the house is; help and advice is always on hand.

At Standen, every day starts with the morning briefing where we find out what is new, what events are going on and where we are guiding. Then it is off to spend a fun few hours chatting to visitors and sharing stories about the family and their possessions. I now also give introductory talks and enjoy leading guided tours up the water tower. Everyone has their favourite room, mine is the magnificent dining room with the huge Philip Webb fireplace. It never fails to bring a smile to my face encouraging cheeky children to bash the gong to announce dinner… I have even been known to have ago myself! [Ed’s note: please ask the room guide first!]

If you love the National Trust, love spending time in historic houses and love talking to people, volunteer. It is the most rewarding decision I have made.

I hope to see you soon,


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Object of the month: St Margaret’s, Westminster

This month I’ve chosen an object that you’ll still be able to see every day, even when we’re running our Behind Closed Doors tours on weekdays throughout January. St Margaret’s, Westminster, with Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, London as seen from Mr Beale’s Office by Herbert Menzies Marshall hangs in the Business Room and provides a visible link to James Beale’s career as a solicitor.


St Margaret’s, Westminster, with Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, London as seen from Mr Beale’s Office

I also used to work in Westminster, and this is a view I saw frequently on my way to work. It amuses me that nothing has changed – the buildings are all still there and there was even traffic and roadworks back in 1887!

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James Beale’s office at Beale and Co. at the time was at 28 Great George Street, but unfortunately the building is no longer there. The company still exists though, diverging into two separate firms, Beale and Co. in London and Hadgkiss, Hughes and Beale in Birmingham. As the Ordnance Survey map from 1896 shows, however, this address seems to be on the wrong side of the square for this view. The artist, Herbert Menzies Marshall (1841-1913) went to Westminster School which is very close to the viewpoint of this painting and he also lived at 1 Victoria Mansions, now the location of 26 Victoria Street just down the road from the square, until 1896. This means he would have been very familiar with the area and have seen this composition almost every day. It certainly is the most picturesque angle of the square with all of the famous landmarks in one view. There are two other paintings by him that show the same view, but with a different ambience – St Margaret’s, Westminster from 1894 and Parliament Square from 1895.

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Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Herbert Menzies Marshall originally completed a travelling studentship at the Royal Academy to study architecture, but changed his mind when he came home and decided to retrain as a watercolourist. This early experience explains his ability to paint buildings and architectural details and his interest in townscapes. He was fairly well known, even becoming vice president of the Royal Watercolour Society, although less famous than his contemporary Whistler who he once had to move one of his exhibitions to make room for! Hill Top, Cragside and Tyntesfield are other National Trust properties who have works by him in their collections.

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Pest Monitoring

Insect damage along with light and RH (relative humidity) are one of the main causes of deterioration in an historic house. Some pests are very destructive and because Standen has so many textiles, original wallpaper, books and furniture it is essential to closely monitor and identify the insects in the house, their numbers and what items they are targeting. This monitoring is essential because insects left alone undisturbed can cause severe damage.

The main pests that continue to cause damage to Standen’s collection include clothes moth larvae, woolly bears, silverfish and booklice.


left to right: clothes moth larvae, woolly bear, silverfish and booklice

This is the Larkspur wallpaper in one of the bedrooms. You can see how the silverfish have grazed on it causing a typical doily effect. They are attracted to damp paper and graze on the starch and animal glue found in the wallpaper.


Silverfish damage

This three-legged chair in the hall shows woodworm damage; thankfully this is old damage as we know there is no current activity in the house. The evidence is wood frass left inside or under the furniture, created by the woodworm exiting the wood.


Woodworm damage

This is not one of our books as most of Standen’s books are in quite good condition. Booklouse, like silverfish are attracted to damp paper, starch and animal glue.


Booklouse damage

We have had several carpets attacked like this – particularly one in the cellar, which was stored in a dark, quiet corner. Clothes moths love wool textiles, fur, feathers, bird and mammal skins. If found we clean the object, spray with Constrain insecticide or freeze the object in a freezer.


Clothes moth larvae damage

Woolly bears love to eat pretty much the same as clothes moths, leaving irregular holes in textiles. We have had a problem with them in the Westbourne studio (formally a bedroom) and in the protection store.

Woolly bears

Woolly bear (carpet beetle) damage

Now Standen is open 363 days a year, we are pleased to welcome many more visitors, but unfortunately with this dust levels increase! To maintain our high cleaning standards and reduce pest infestations, you will often find us deep cleaning our rooms in front of visitors. We find this an excellent way to demostrate how we look after our collection and protect it.

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Object of the month: A Dream of Patience

Since the house has been so beautifully decorated for Christmas I’ve chosen one of our Christmas themed objects for a closer look this month. It normally hangs in the Larkspur Dressing Room, but at the moment A Dream of Patience isn’t covered up for the conservation exhibition like the other objects in the room – it’s part of the Christmas exhibition in the Croxley.


A Dream of Patience – print by Alice Havers at Standen

At first glance it might not seem like a very festive scene, but it’s actually a Christmas card design. Lots of Victorian cards looked like this and they were very popular, with over 1.5 million produced in 1880 alone. Henry Cole only came up with the idea of Christmas cards in 1843, but as printing got cheaper the images became more elaborate and artistic to try to stop the holiday becoming too commercial.

People liked aesthetic Christmas cards as they could not only send messages of goodwill to their friends, but also have them as art in their houses. However, Punch magazine commented at the time that they were “about as appropriate to Christmas as strawberries and iced-cream.”

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Detail of left hand side of Dream of Patience

This particular design by Alice Havers won the first prize of £200 in a Christmas card competition judged by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais. The cards were first printed in 1882 by the publisher Hildesheimer & Faulkner, who also published Christmas cards by Beatrix Potter. The publishers sent some Christmas cards to Oscar Wilde who commented that they were “really charming” with the ones by Alice Havers being “especially good.” This design was later used in the programme of a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience, which parodied the aesthetic movement of the time.

The artist, Alice Havers, had an exotic upbringing, living in the Falklands and Uruguay as a child, before settling in England in 1870. She was unusual for the time for continuing to use her maiden name after she married and was a member of the Society of Lady Artists. She was a friend of Lewis Carroll and a well-known illustrator who exhibited at the Royal Academy. Some art critics thought that she was overly sentimental, but she was clearly talented – Queen Victoria even bought one of her early works.

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SPAB Webb Award – the end of our Webb season

Tuesday the 17th of November marked the end of our year of Philip Webb celebrations with the presentation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)’s Webb award. Our Webb exhibition had also ended the previous Sunday so it felt like a suitable rounding off.

Philip Webb was the architect of Standen as well as being a founder of the SPAB and close friend of Morris and many others in the Arts and Crafts movement.

Our Philip Webb exhibition looked at Webb and his work, focussing on Standen as his most complete remaining project. We had some brilliant loans from the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow and from the Emery Walker house at 7 Hammersmith Terrace. Emery Walker was Webb’s executor so had many of his possessions. It has just closed for some major conservation works, so it was a great opportunity to see some Webb pieces before they had to go into store.


One of the more unusual objects in the collection at Emery Walker’s house – a model of Webb’s ears!

It also featured the Birmingham University ceremonial mace designed by Philip Webb and made for our Mr. Beale’s brother who was the first vice chancellor of Birmingham University. It was the first time it had been out of Birmingham and we were delighted to have it. It’s now returned to Birmingham in time to be used for the degree ceremonies. Apparently it is the current vice chancellor’s “favourite mace”. See it here.

The SPAB have been running their Philip Webb award for many years, but gave it a break a couple of years ago. They relaunched it this year on the centenary of Webb’s death to celebrate his life and work. We collaborated with them so they were able to offer Standen’s barn cafe and stable yard as a case study and “live brief”.

Hand drawn proposed ariel site map of Standen2_Holly Spilsbury

Holly’s detailed aerial drawing of Standen and her proposed additions

The winner, Holly Spilsbury, created an excellent scheme that fitted SPAB’s conservation architect principles and our search for innovative ideas, which took a holistic view of Standen. Head judge, Kevin McCloud, praised Holly’s work, but also said that conservation architecture as espoused by the SPAB was not being taught in architecture schools. Holly’s design is currently on show in the V&A, alongside their Webb display.

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Holly Spilsbury and Kevin McCloud – photo by Ralph Hodgson

Find out more about the SPAB, the Webb Award and the winner Holly and her design here.

The SPAB also have had a blog on all things Webb this year so have a look here to find out more about the man and his works.

The V&A Museum has a Philip Webb exhibition on from now until 24th May.

In addition, the Morris & Co. The Forest tapestry is also on display in the V&A’s Tapestry Gallery alongside Webb’s drawings for it, on loan from Wightwick Manor.

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Object of the Month: Kitchen Clock

This clock has one of the plainer dials and cases in the house, and is sometimes overlooked in favour of some of the more exotic clocks. It does have some interesting hidden features though and after getting some more information from the clock conservator at the recent conservation weekend, it seemed like the perfect time to share them.


Kitchen Clock

The clock is on the wall in the kitchen and was in the house when the National Trust took over following the death of Helen Beale in 1972. It was made in about 1920 and has a plain, white dial and blued steel hands, which makes it very easy to tell the time accurately. Inside the mahogany case there is an eight day movement, which means that the clock only needs to be wound once a week. Caroline, one of the conservation assistants, still winds it every Tuesday and it still keeps good time – it hasn’t been more than one minute out this year.

The clock might not always have been in this room, but it would probably always have been in the servants’ quarters. It could have been used by the servants to set the other clocks at Standen as it’s likely it would have been the most accurate in the house. It has a very clever mechanism that means it could be corrected by telegraph from Greenwich at regular intervals – hourly, daily or weekly – if it was connected to the telegraph system and the subscription was paid. Inside the movement there is a horseshoe shaped section which allows an arm controlled by an electromagnet to drop in and centre the minute hand on the hour when it receives a signal.

telegraph mechanism

Inside of Kitchen Clock

Standardisation and synchronisation of time were very important issues in the Victorian era. A reliable, common time was needed to help the growing railway network run efficiently – which would help Mr Beale to get to his London office on time. In 1884 the common reference point for global time became the meridian in Greenwich and so the signal would have come to the clock here at Standen from the Observatory there by way of the local Post Office or the commercial business The Standard Time Company. The ‘Greenwich Time Lady’ is probably more famous for selling time in London in the early 20th Century though. A lady called Ruth Belville would travel around with her old pocket watch nicknamed ‘Arnold,’ showing customers the accurate time she had set in Greenwich for a modest fee.

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November conservation weekends

This weekend and the next are our annual “conservation in action” weekends. This is your chance to come and see some of the cleaning and preventative conservation work we do in the house and meet our team of conservation cleaners and volunteers.

Our team (as seen on the “meet the team page”!) are here to answer your questions about our collection and the work that they do. Today we also had the clock conservator, Duncan Greig, working on several of the clocks. This morning he went round with Caroline who regularly winds the clocks – once a week on the same day – to find out any problems or issues with them that she has noticed. He’ll then adjust them and will do an in depth service on one or two clocks. If there is more of a significant issue with a clock he’ll take away the insides – called the movement – to fix it at his studio.

Duncan's work bench. Clock from the staircase hall dismantled.

Duncan’s work bench. Clock from the staircase hall dismantled.

Sarah, Standen’s Assistant House Steward, has been running a book cleaning session today with her team of trained volunteers. Every book is cleaned in turn using a gentle pony hair brush flicking the dust into the head of a vacuum cleaner nearby. We have a schedule which tells us when the books are due to be cleaned, based on their proximity to the visitor route. Books closer to visitors need to be cleaned more often as they get dirtier!

Book cleaning in the kitchen.

Book cleaning in the kitchen.

Caroline and our intern Amy have both been in the Dining Room doing some of the deep clean. This is where, once a year, we clean the whole room from ceiling to floor and everything in it. We clean the walls, get behind pictures and furniture, check textiles – sometimes getting inside them if they are lined like the curtains, dismantle the furniture, you name it, we do it. This is to make sure the objects are clean but also to check their condition – that damage hasn’t been caused by pests or other reasons, sometimes just due to natural deterioration in their condition.

Amy dusting the panelling in the dining room.

Amy dusting the panelling in the dining room.

Tomorrow we will have Lizzie in to continue the deep clean in the Dining Room – although we are nearly finished in there – and Caroline will be metal cleaning.

Caroline inspecting the laquered mild steel fireplace in the dining room.

Caroline inspecting the laquered mild steel fireplace in the dining room.

Next weekend on Saturday we will have inventory marking and pest checking and Sunday will be metal cleaning and pest checking. Do come along and see what we get up to!


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