Standen

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


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Freezing them out: how we deal with pests…

Here we have a blog by our newest conservation assistant Rachel. She’s previously worked at Scotney Castle and has been covering a role here at Standen since July. It’s hard to believe she’s only been here since then as she’s a great part of the team!

With only 3 months left as a Conservation Assistant at Standen, it’s pretty shameful that I haven’t contributed to the blog but my excuse is that it’s been a busy 6 months.

To prove this, I thought I’d explain one of the tasks that I have done to assist the House Team in order to protect Standen’s collection. I’ve chosen one that I’d never done before this week because I enjoyed it and think it’s pretty interesting: freezing objects to destroy insect pests.

A few weeks ago, Kay, Standen’s Facilities Assistant, and I were asked to inspect and clean the display cabinet in the Butler’s Pantry and its contents. The cabinet is rarely opened so you might think it would be unnecessary to clean inside. However, although the doors are kept shut, they are not air tight so a bit of dust had got in but more significantly so had a certain kind of pest – carpet beetle and their larvae, woolly bears.

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The Butler’s Pantry cupboards (NT/Rachel Finch)

Woolly bears sound cute but they’re actually the larvae stage of carpet beetles and eat keratin found in natural fibres so are a real threat to our collection, especially textiles, at Standen. The larvae shed old skins as they grow and it is usually these, along with the damage they cause, that indicate an infestation.

Have a look at them here

During our survey of the cabinet, Kay and I found enough woolly bear cases (plus one fully grown carpet beetle) to require action beyond a thorough vacuum.

Carpet beetles cannot survive below a certain temperature so an effective method of killing both the larvae and adult beetle is to freeze the items on which they have been found. The length of time it is recommended to freeze objects depends on the temperature of the freezer: 3 days at -30, or 14 days at -18 then 48 hours to defrost followed by another 14 days exposure. We use the latter method at Standen due to the temperature of our freezer.

This week, Fiona and I prepared the objects for freezing treatment. Carpet beetles target textiles in particular and although we had not found evidence of the pests on all of the textile items in the cabinet, we decided to freeze them all to be on the safe side.

To freeze the items we removed them from the display and wrapped them in acid free tissue followed by polythene.  It was important at this stage to remove as much air as possible from the packages before sealing them with tape to prevent any water ingress which could lead to dye leakage. For awkwardly shaped items a hoover can be used to suck the air out; we used this method for the chauffeur’s hat.

Once the items were all sealed in polythene with their identifying details and the date clearly marked on the outside, we took them to the chest freezer in the Stable Yard to be frozen.

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Fiona in the chest freezer (NT/Rachel Finch)

We placed the smaller items in hanging trays and raised the rest above the bottom of the freezer to allow air circulation.

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Everything packed and ready to be frozen (NT/Rachel Finch)

At the end of 2 weeks we will carefully remove the items and allow them to defrost for 48 hours before refreezing them for a further 2 weeks.  After this we will un-wrap them and hopefully find nothing, meaning they were pest free when they were placed in the freezer, or some dead woolly bears/carpet beetles.

In the mean time we will remove the remaining items from the display case and spray it with a water-based insecticide to kill off any insect pests left inside.


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How we use blue fabric to monitor light

You might have seen these around the house. They’re called blue wool dosimeters and we use them for keeping an eye on how much light exposure the house gets over a year. In February we have to collect them in and send them off to be analysed.

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A blue wool dosimeter in situ in the north bedroom (NT/Victoria Witty)

They are rather low tech, but very clever. They are made of picture mount and pieces of specially dyed (blue!) wool, the latter which is known to fade at a certain rate when exposed to light.

We use them to see how much light falls on certain objects or rooms over a whole year. As a registered museum we need to try to keep to museum standards of light exposure to our collection:

  • highly light sensitive rooms/objects = 150,000 lux hours
  • moderately sensitive rooms/objects = 600,000 lux hours

Blue wool dosimeters allow us to see how much cumulative light the house and collection has been exposed to over the year and if we need to adjust how we show the house.

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Results of the blue wool dosimeters from around the house 2015-6 (NT/VW)

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The back of a blue wool dosimeter – important information for when they are analysed (NT/VW)

You can see below that the aperture is smaller than the piece of fabric so when they are analysed there is something to compare the faded area against. We need to make sure that the dosimeters aren’t moved to make sure they give the most accurate information they can.

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This is what it looks like after a whole year out, just before we send it off to be analysed (NT/VW)

Sometimes, as they are wool, they get munched by pests – wool is a favourite food of carpet beetles and their larvae, woolly bears…

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We try not to let this happen! (NT/VW)


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What goes on in January?

The house opens differently in January for lots of reasons! We’re not as busy as usual so we take the opportunity to open in other ways.

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Opening up in the morning (NT/Victoria Witty)

We run special Behind Closed Doors Tours which go into not usually seen parts of the house. You get to go down to the cellar and up to the water tower and we have some extra time in the main part of the house to get some of the deep clean done in awkward areas.

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At work in the Billiard Room (NT/Victoria Witty)

We also use January opening to get any building or decorating work done – this year we had the painters in to decorate the Morning Room Corridor.

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Painters in the morning room corridor (NT/Victoria Witty)

We use special water based paint and the colour is mixed specially for us by our specialist decorators. The colour comes from investigations into original paint colours

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Samples of paint mixed specially for us to match the paint colours in the house (NT/Victoria Witty)

This year, following the success of our Winter Tree and exhibition round the house we also have a special Kaffe Fassett exhibition. It’s in the house in our exhibition rooms, open from 12 to 2.30pm (last entry at 2pm).

Come along and see what we are up to!

 


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Focus on – the morning room

The morning room is one of my favourite rooms. It faces south and east so naturally gets the morning sun. It was the ideal place for the ladies of the family to get out of the way of the servants so they can clean and not be disturbed.

Bright and sunny can cause us a few problems though – we have lots of things in the room which are sensitive to light. We’ve recently put new blinds in that are a mesh kind of fabric that cuts out a lot of the light but also can be seen through to outside.

It’s the only room in the house that has fabric hangings on the walls in this way – a bit like medieval houses had tapestries on their walls. The hangings up at the moment are reprints by Morris & Co. from about the 1970s, but we have a small scrap leftover from the originals that has been made into a cushion.

Morris and Co adjustable chair in the Morning Room at Standen, West Sussex.

The original colours and scale of the Daffodil fabric hangings in the morning room

We get asked a lot what is underneath them – it’s just plaster and lining paper! If you visited last year you might have seen it as we’d taken down the hangings to allow the wall to dry out as we’d had a leaky downpipe outside.

We have also fairly recently replaced the sacrificial carpet on the floor – the old one had been down for a very long time and was developing some fairly extensive holes from all the feet walking on it.

The Morning Room at Standen, West Sussex.

The morning room with its old carpet

We wanted to ensure that the replacement carpet was similar to that which the Beales had in the room, rather than just any old carpet. Luckily we had a volunteer who was working with our family archives for her PhD and she, alongside our curator, were able to identify the style of carpet the Beales had. If you look in the photo below you can see the geometric border of the carpet.

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This photo of two Beales in the morning room was very helpful indeed

Our curator was then able to go to carpet suppliers and specify exactly what we were looking for.

After we got the carpet we realised that we’d not only got a carpet very similar to the Beales’ original, but, looking at their receipt, had also managed to buy it from the very same place!


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What to do with the carpet?

It’s November and we’re running our usual focus on conservation weekends with demonstrations and an exhibition.

As we cover up the Larkspur bedroom we have a small carpet we need to store for the duration. As you might guess, we have a very particular way of storing carpets – and this is how…

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Hearth rug from the Larkspur Bedroom

We can’t fold it because textile weakens on the creases over time and can crack, so we have to roll it.

To roll it, first we turn it over – so much easier with a small carpet – when we rolled the carpet in the drawing room it took 6 of us to turn it over!

Hand made carpets are made vertically so they have a distinct direction of the pile – they feel smooth as you run your hand down it. Turning the carpet over and rolling from the top  down means we open the dense weave of the pile helping dust and ingrained dirt to get out.

We use an ordinary plastic drainpipe to roll carpets onto. It’s cheap, can be cut to size and easy to get hold of. It’s also fairly lightweight while being pretty sturdy, which is important when you think just how heavy huge carpets can be.

We wrap the drainpipe with acid free tissue and roll the carpet with tissue in between the layers to protect it (it’s easiest if you can find nice big pieces of tissue) and begin to roll.

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The view from the business end

You have to stop every so often to check the carpet is rolling straight, so the edges of the carpet are supported – if your ends are unsupported they can be damaged over time. However, sometimes the edges of the carpet aren’t straight, so we support them with little sausages of acid free tissue.

Once we’ve rolled it we wrap it  – in this case we’ve used a non-woven fabric called Tyvek. The ends are tied or tucked in to stop dust getting in and we can put it away.

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Finished and ready to store!

This carpet isn’t going away for long, just until spring next year when we will take down the conservation exhibition and reinstate the Larkspur rooms.


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More floors… (amongst other things)

In our quest to make sure our floors look lovely and are well cared for we try to wax the floors twice a year – getting down on our hands and knees, applying wax and buffing it up to a lovely shine – with the help of our venerable-but-still-effective floor  buffer.

However, for particular floors we have a wood and furniture conservator in every year to treat them slightly differently. These are rooms where we have stained them as the family had them originally – the Larkspur dressing room – and our two exhibition rooms – the South Spare and Croxley bedrooms.

 

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A very exciting picture of the floor in the Larkspur dressing room

The wear and tear of so many feet mean that the floors need re-staining and scratches filling in. Keeping on top of this means the underlying wood is protected and only the superficial surface is scratched and worn.

This year we got the conservator, Graham Marley, to do something a little extra – the Morning Room floor was looking sad and worn and obviously needed something more. After discussions with  our curator and conservator it was decided to put a coating of shellac on the floor.

Shellac is resin from the lac bug, and has many uses.78 records were made of it up until the 1950s, but you might be more familiar with it as nail polish. Shellac was chosen because it is natural and can be added to when it has been scratched – a plastic resin can’t be – which means we can maintain the floor at it’s best.

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Graham putting shellac on the Morning Room floor

We also took the opportunity to get him to clean up the banisters around the house. The team buff and polish them regularly, but they still get sticky when the humidity is high and we thought it was probably due to grease from people’s hands. This turned out to be the case – just look at the next photo!

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One section has been cleaned – the dull bit is from everyone’s hands who’ve ever touched this – yuck!


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An unexpected closed day

Last Monday, the 8th of February, was the day of Storm Imogen and for the first time ever we were closed due to wind! We did of course suffer badly in the 1987 storm, but that was back in the day when the property closed for long periods. Imogen was nowhere near as bad as that storm, luckily.

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Standen in 1987

We have a number of criteria that we use to decide whether it is safe for us to open on a day like this. These look at wind speed, speed of the gusts, direction and what the rest of the weather is like (if it’s been very wet, for instance) as well as if there are leaves on the trees. So for us, like many other NT properties in the south and west, on Monday it was not safe for us to open to the public.

However, we were able to let staff come onto the site. The house team took advantage of being closed to clean a part of the house which is a little awkward to do when we are open – the Morning Room Corridor.

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The Garrett bookcase without books! You can just see the Rooke paintings above the bookcase here.

We would normally do this over a few days, but moving and cleaning the large Garrett bookcase involves us taking all of the books off the shelves and having to find somewhere to put them. We have a large pile of displaced books from the Morning Room after it was painted recently stashed under the billiard table already so we haven’t really got any space for more books. However, because we were closed we could put them all in the Business Room without getting in our visitors’ way! It also meant that we could pull the bookcase out and give it a really thorough clean behind.

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The books from the bookcase, carefully labelled so we know where to put them back…

We also gently dusted the frames of the lovely T.M. Rooke watercolours – Rooke was good friends with Philip Webb and Kelmscott House have a lovely painting of Caxtons, the cottage near Crawley that Webb retired to with the help of his friends.

Luckily we had very little damage from the storm and opened again the following day – with the deep clean in the Morning Room Corridor completed!