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

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Uncovering wallpaper

This week we’ve had a wallpaper conservator, Mark Sandiford, back with us.

He’s been with us to reveal more of the wallpaper originally in up the servants’ back stairs of the house. We knew we had some there as we had some of it exposed but we wanted to know how much more.

Originally this part of the house looked quite different to how it does now. The space which is now an entrance hall is half of what used to be the Butler’s Pantry and the archway was originally a solid wall. Entrance to the Butler’s Pantry was through both the door round the corner and through the cupboard which now houses all sorts of fuses. The cupboards with our servants exhibition were against this wall and would have held glassware and china for the dining table. The butler – or housekeeper as the family didn’t have a butler for very long – would be able to see into the court yard for any visitors.

Old side entrance

How the Butler’s Pantry/side entrance was when the house was built.

As you can see the door is a later addition – created after a lift was removed in the 1970s which had been installed for Mrs Beale to get to the upper floors. When the house was split up into flats in the 70s this was used as a main entrance for them.

Wallpaper side entrance1

Mark at work.

Mark was able to carefully peel back the later lining paper to reveal the remains of the paper underneath. He has also cut small squares in the paper elsewhere (see if you can spot them!) to see how far the wallpaper extends. This is the biggest piece remaining.

As you can see there are two distinct colours. Mark believes that the greener bit on the right is the original paper put up by the Beales which was protected by a later internal door frame. The yellowy piece next to it he thinks is a later addition which was also protected by painting it with size – a gelatinous liquid – to protect it.

Wallpaper side entrance

The extent of the revealed wallpaper.

We are now raising money so we are able to put the paper back up on the back stairs through our raffle this year so we hope to get it up before the end of February 2017. If you would like to help please buy a ticket!

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Farewell for now…

Tomorrow is May Day, but you probably won’t find me dancing round the maypole with joy as it also marks my last day working at Standen. Since arriving in September I’ve met many wonderful people – both staff and volunteers –  and learnt a great deal from all of them. I’ve also become overly familiar with the local bus timetable thanks to my inability to drive.


The 84 bus stop at the end of the drive.

I’m incredibly grateful that Ben and Vicky chose me for this internship and for the knowledge the house team have imparted. The support they’ve given me has allowed me to learn new skills, whether it be checking pest traps with Caroline, inventory marking with Sally, book cleaning with Sarah or packing archives with Lizzie. I’ve also presented my first piece of interpretation that is currently on display in the Butler’s Pantry, so I’m leaving a little reminder of me behind.


My Butler’s Pantry display about servants at Standen.

My time in the house gave me the opportunity to have a go at actually doing the conservation work I’d previously only read about in books and it is because of this invaluable experience I’ve been able to move on to my new job. On Monday I started as an Assistant Collections Manager at the British Museum with a focus on moving the European ceramic collection to a new storage facility. To make me feel at home, some of the first things I got to handle were De Morgan tiles!


A dust monitoring slide.

This isn’t the last you’ll be seeing of me though. Vicky and I are still working on a paper to present at the Institute of Conservation Conference in Birmingham in June so I’ll back in the near future to analyse the dust we’ve been collecting on our monitoring slides and have a chat over a piece of cake with you all.

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Cleaning the whole room

When we clean the whole room we start high up so we don’t have to clean things lower down twice as dust falls on them, cleaning the walls and ceilings with a brush on the end of the vacuum cleaner hose. Curtains are thoroughly vacuumed on low suction – with a mesh if they are particularly fragile – back and front and not forgetting in between the lining.


Amy dusting the panelling in the dining room.

We check for any insect or general damage to all objects as we go, recording any changes on condition reports. Drawers are taken out of furniture, given a thorough dusting with a brush with a vacuum cleaner head held close by to suck up the dust, and the carcase of the furniture is given the same treatment. Chairs and sofas are dusted with a brush on wooden parts and vacuumed on seat covers.


The fireplace in the dining room is lacquered so only needs a dust with a soft brush.

Metal is dusted with a soft brush and, if needed, polished with a mild abrasive polish and waxed to help keep its shine. Ceramics and glass are dusted in the same way and wet cleaned if necessary. We only do what is needed as there is always a risk of damaging an object through cleaning it – in fact, by polishing a metal object we are actually taking away a microscopic layer of the surface. This can be a problem with an electroplated object where the silver is only microns thick.

The frames of paintings are dusted carefully into a vacuum and we would only dust the painted surface very rarely – staff need to have special training to do this as paintings can be very fragile and there is a risk of damaging them. Glazing on paintings or photographs is cleaned with cotton wool and meths, holding a piece of card in front of the frame to protect it.


We even clean the windows carefully – because of the special film which blocks out the UV light.

Finally we deal with the floor. Carpets and druggets are vacuumed – historic ones on low suction – and all of them are lifted up to vacuum the underlay and floor underneath. Wooden floors are vacuumed to get the grit up and then waxed to protect them.


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Standen’s deep clean

If you visit Standen you may see some of our conservation team working in the house. They might be dusting, but they could also have pulled all the drawers out of a cabinet and are cleaning them. There also might be a team of volunteers dusting books or cleaning metal objects.


Metal cleaning in the kitchen

So what’s going on? Well, as part of the routine of caring for the house we clean all of it, every year, from top to bottom, and everything in it.

Our team of specialist preventative conservation cleaners work systematically through the house, dusting glass and ceramics with special brushes, vacuuming textiles with low suction and taking furniture apart to get to all the nooks and crannies and to make sure they are in the best possible condition.


Dusting the dining table glassware with a soft brush.

They note any changes on object condition reports and record what they have done. This is important as we have over 6000 objects in our collection and couldn’t possibly remember them all!

So why are you seeing this now? Traditionally, National Trust houses would close for 3 or 4 months in winter to do all of this work behind the scenes. The house would be “put to bed” and covered up, only uncovered to be cleaned and finally when we reopened to the public in March. Now we are open we can share the work that the house and collection needs to ensure that it is in the best possible condition for our visitors to enjoy.

hall covered

The Hall covered up for winter in 2009.

If you want to know more we run three weekends in November where we talk about the work we do – you might even get the chance to have a go! Or you could read the blog next time…



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Discovering more about the Beale family

Eileen has been a room guide with us for 12 years. She volunteered a few years ago to help transcribe a large set of photocopied letters dating from the First World War. Not only did she transcribe many of the letters, she also checked them for consistency and made sure that the formatting was the same throughout – which was no small task! Because of her experience with this she plays a key role in our archive group.


A couple of years ago I joined Standen’s archive group.  I have thoroughly enjoyed gaining an insight into the life of the Beale family.

I have faced the challenge of deciphering and transcribing a large number of hand‑written letters from about 100 years ago, recently donated by a descendant of the family.  I have learned a lot about the social history of the era, as well as about everyday life at Standen.


A historic photo of Standen, similar to those in the recent archive donation.

Other tasks that have given me great satisfaction have been examining, discussing, and cataloguing all sorts of objects, documents, and some beautiful family photos, some from as early as the 1880s, many of which were taken by family members who did their own developing and printing.  It is satisfying to accurately record details of each item, to provide a resource for the future.

To give just a few examples, the documents include things such as:

  • Mrs Beale’s detailed list of catering preparations for a ball held at their London home in the 1890s (“8 dozen lemons – not enough” she wrote)
  • a note of how much Mrs Beale spent on presents – e.g. 24s/6d on underwear as a gift for a granddaughter
  • a letter describing how Dorothy Brown (née Beale) and her family cycled from their home in Caterham to Standen, in the middle of winter, carrying a violin on a bike.

Qualities that shine through are the Beales’ caring attitude and public-spiritedness, their resilience, and their sense of humour.

Working on the archives has given me a greater understanding of the family, and given a glimpse into the spirit of Standen.

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Object of the month: St Agnes

With the weather finally starting to look like spring has arrived and Easter just around the corner, this month I thought I’d choose an object featuring a traditional symbol of new life.

St Agnes, a tapestry by Morris & Co after a painting by Burne-Jones, at Standen, East Grinstead, West Sussex

Morris & Co. Tapestry of St Agnes

This is the tapestry of St Agnes at the top of the stairs. She is often depicted holding a lamb to represent her purity as a virgin saint, and in fact her name comes from the Greek ‘hagnē,’ meaning chaste. Agnes is also very similar to ‘agnus,’ the Latin word for lamb. She was martyred in Rome in AD304 for her Christian beliefs and is the patron saint of engaged couples, gardeners and girls. Every year on her feast day, 21 January, two lambs are blessed at her church in Rome.

Agnes window1

Stained glass window from the Church of St Helen, Welton

This particular design was adapted from one of a pair of stained glass window by Edward Burne-Jones which can be seen at the Church of St Helen in Welton, Yorkshire, along with a version featuring St Cecelia. William Morris added the foliage to the design and the tapestry was produced by Morris & Co., highlighting the collaboration between the two men. Both were involved in the founding of the company that bears Morris’ name, even though nowadays Burne-Jones is better known as one of the leading Pre-Raphaelite artists.

label 1

Label on the back of the tapestry frame

The tapestry was originally made for Sir Thomas Wardle, a fabric printer from Staffordshire who produced many early Morris textiles. There is a label on the back that tells us that it was exhibited at the Manchester Jubilee exhibition in 1887. Another label from the Stockport Centenary Exhibition in 1892 wrongly labels it as an image of St Cecelia, so it must have originally been one of a pair.


Chalk drawing by Henry Stacy Marks

The tapestry of St Agnes is not the only object in the house to feature a lamb, you can also see one in Henry Stacy Marks’ chalk drawing representing spring from ‘The Seasons’ in the Billiard Room.


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Thoughts on archives

Continuing with our theme of hearing from our volunteers here is Nita, a volunteer who has been with us in the house for a number of years and got involved with all sorts of things over that time.

I can’t believe it’s five years since I first began my volunteering career as a room guide at Standen! So many different opportunities have come along in that time to widen my volunteering experience, from conducting guided tours of the house and cooking on the kitchen range on cold winter Sundays, to helping put together exhibitions and decorating the house for Christmas. It’s all so enjoyable and I work alongside lots of lovely people who have the same enthusiasm for the property as myself.

HMB Certification (1) VAD dept letter 1920

A letter to Helen from the V.A.D Department. Photo by A. Stutchbury.

Most recently, I’ve become part of a small archiving team which came about when a descendant of the Beale family started passing over bundles of old family documents for safe keeping at Standen. It was wonderful when the first big batch of letters arrived relating to the First World War. They were passed out to us to transcribe, so that they could be worked from more easily, and immediately gave a thrilling insight into the lives and characters of various members of the Beale family. The information contained in the letters were put to good use when we were compiling an exhibition about Helen Beale’s experiences as a VAD in France from 1915 to 1916. We recreated the ‘hut’ she lived in at Etaples, drawing on all the information we gathered from reading her letters home.

Batch Batch 4 105 - Letters from HMB to Mother 27 dec 1915 (126)

A letter from Helen to Mrs Beale, “mumsy”, when she was posted to Etaples, France in the First World War. Photo by A. Stutchbury.

After that successful exhibition, more bundles of documents arrived into the care of our PhD researcher. She invited a few interested people to get together and, lo and behold, the archive team was formed. We are now working our way through all the material we have received, cataloguing each item on a database, and carefully wrapping and storing it away for safe keeping. There are letters, documents, guest lists and even Mrs. Beale’s Christmas lists, as well as photographs and a number of precious glass plate negatives. We work surrounded by boxes and acid-free tissue and polythene document sleeves and need to spread ourselves out, so finding sufficient space to work is sometimes a challenge, but we manage! There is a lot of work still to be done, but eventually each letter or document will have a transcription and a link from the database so that it will be easy to find the scanned-in item for researchers. It is such a privilege to be able to handle these old and precious documents and to know we are doing something worthwhile. I love it!

CIMG4801 Boats photograph of Glass plate negative (AS)

One of the glass plate negatives from the donation from the family. Photo by A. Stutchbury.


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