Standen

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


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Preserving Plastic

There was an interesting article in the Guardian recently about the difficulties that the V&A Museum are facing when it comes to preserving plastic objects: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/19/va-conservators-race-to-preserve-art-and-design-classics-in-plastic

The Blow Chair

The Blow Chair Image Courtesy of The Guardian

The rise in technology has led to the creation of new materials which are used to create art and objects, both decorative and every-day. However, we know very little about the longevity and the process as to how these materials will change. This has become apparent with some of the plastics in the V&A’s collection. Objects such as the Blow chair, designed in 1969, and the Stephen Willats Mini dress, also designed in the 1960s, are starting to degrade to the point beyond repair, and the only way to protect them to keep them in dark, temperature controlled stores.

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Stephen Willats Mini dress Image Courtesy of The Guardian

The common assumption with plastics are that they are a stable substance, when in actual fact they are very brittle. The reason plastic is brittle is because plasticers are used in the process to make it malleable. Unfortunately, plasticers have a habit of leaking, making the object sticky, attracting dust and dirt. This stickiness also makes it very difficult to clean as brushes and water only further damage the object. Plastics are also susceptible to changes in temperature, humidity and light, which can lead to discolouration, decaying to a powder, warping, cracking and shrinking – all the things that we try to prevent happening to our collections as a whole.

As plastic is still a relatively new material we do not know as much as we would like in order to prevent damage to it. This is why the V&A has partnered with Imperial College London to try to see how we can prevent further damage as well as its causes. With most other materials that can be found in historic house, there is a history of research that has gone into how we can best look after them.

Light damage to the Sofa turning it from Pink to Green

Light damage to the Sofa turning it from Pink to Green

Temperature, light and relative humidity are monitored both weekly and biannually. This ensures that we keep an eye on things that might be in danger of deteriorating and we can then assess how best to limit any damage. Humidity causes objects to shrink and grow that leads to stress fractures and cracks as can be seen on the cabinet at the Top of the Stairs. Light not only causes objects to fade but also causes threads to fray and eventually tear. Light also causes a chemical reaction whereas the object will actually change colour – like in the drawing-room where the rose-pink sofa has faded to a murky green colour.

Deep Cleaning the Mosque lamp in the Drawing room

Deep Cleaning the Mosque lamp in the Drawing room

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, (https://standennt.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/deceptive-dust/) dust is another factor that damages the collection as it discolours objects but also forms a hard surface which not only attracts more dust but is also very difficult to clean off without damaging the object.

This is why knowledge and a good cleaning routine are so important. We dust and vacuum the house once a day plus every object gets an annual deep clean every year. It is also why the house may seem cold or dark as we try to preserve it for the future.

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Good Clean Fun….

One of our annual tasks in the house, is to deep clean all of the rooms. Recently, I have been helping to finish off the Dining room before its goes to a night-time scene at the end of this month.

Brush dusting the sideboard in the Dining room

Brush dusting the sideboard in the Dining room

Every morning we will dust flat surfaces and vacuum the visitor route but the deep clean takes it to the next level. It means moving most of the objects off any surfaces, dusting and inspecting both, checking for any damage. IT also means crawling under tables and chairs to get rid of cobwebs and dust as well as inspecting the carpets for insect activity like carpet beetle and clothes moth. This happens in every single room and corridor in the house that is open to the public.

In the past, the majority of this deep clean took place in the winter months when the house was closed. But this year it has been different. We are now open for 363 days of the year, leading to interesting debates on the effect this may have (or may not have) on the collection. So the deep clean is now being carried out whilst we are open and in front of volunteers and visitors.

As we are open longer, we have already noticed an increase in our work so trying to fit in deep cleaning can be difficult. Our Assistant House Steward always tries her best to plan days where at least one person can do the deep clean but it is the nature of heritage that things pop up.

The Dining room has taken us 5 days over a 1 month period to complete and there is a noticeable difference to the room. A lot of the plates that look like they are cream are actually an off white colour, whilst the dust on the tablecloth also made it look yellow but it is now a lovely snowy white.

Now that the Dining room is complete, it is off to start the next one – the Drawing room. This is by far one of the more complex rooms to deep clean as there is so many objects and pieces of furniture. I got to clean the Mosque lamp this morning, which matches the one in the Conservatory and were both bought during Mr and Mrs Beale’s world tour in 1906.

Cleaning the Mosque lamp in the Drawing room

Cleaning the Mosque lamp in the Drawing room


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Environmental Monitoring…

Running a historic house involves lots of different kinds of work, which we divide up into daily, weekly and annual jobs. One of the weekly jobs is to monitor the light, humidity and temperature. If the levels are wrong, than the collection deteriorates and becomes permanently damaged.

The Sofa in the Drawing room that used to be pink...

The Sofa in the Drawing room that used to be pink…

Light is one of the main causes of damage in any house, not just historic ones. It can be quite easy to see some of the damage through fading of colors but this is really only an outwardly sign of deeper damage. A high amount of light activates the chemicals, that make up the color, to react and change. One of the best examples that we have here of this is  the velvet upholstery on the sofa and matching chairs in the Drawing Room – they used to be a bright rose-pink but are now green.

Light also affects the threads in fabric, causing them to break down and snap leading to tears and rips. Ever handled something that has fallen apart in your hands when you  pick it up? This is what can happen to fabrics like curtains, carpets and tapestries.

Humidity levels are different for every type of object. For example, the correct humidity level for metals is too dry for wood, which would cause the wood to dry out and split. If the humidity is too low, organic materials like leather and wood shrink, crack and even in extreme cases, break. If the humidity levels are too high, than organic materials swell and stick, like drawers in a desk. High humidity causes dampness which in turn encourages mould and fungi. It also attracts insect pests and cause metals to rust.

Temperatures has two effects on collections. It is directly linked to humidity levels, so if it is hot, then humidity levels will be low and vice versa. Low temperature, especially sub-zero ones, will cause objects to become brittle and crack, whilst high temperatures can soften and melt some materials.

Environmental Monitor

Environmental Monitor

It can be difficult to find the right balance between these factors, which is why we monitor them at least once a week. In order to attempt to prevent damage, we have set budgets. In every room, there are certain objects that have been deemed as at a higher risk than others, which is determined by several factors, their materials or their historical significance to the house. These are the objects that we measure off using an environmental monitor.

This measure light or lux levels, relative humidity (RH) and temperature. We record it manually and take action a level is too high or low. Light is the easiest to fix as we can adjust the blinds, which is why it can sometimes be a little bit dark at times. Humidity and temperature is a bit harder to fix as it often involves adjusting heating levels and putting out humidifiers/de-humidifiers.

 

 


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Bird in the house!

One morning very recently was more eventful than usual, when it became clear that a bird was trapped in the chimney of the North Bedroom. While this doesn’t happen very often, it is something that has happened a few times in the past here at Standen. We currently have inflatable chimney balloons to keep draughts and dirt out, but it doesn’t always stop birds from getting trapped or making their nests in the chimney.

Before conservation: glass vase damaged by a bird trapped in the house (image courtesy of Pat Jackson, conservator)

A trapped bird is obviously very distressed, and so if it is safe to remove the bird we try to do so. There are also conservation factors to consider, as birds can also cause serious damage to historic materials. A bird trapped in a chimney may fall into the fireplace; escaping into the house itself, and so there is the obvious risk that it could knock over and break historic objects. Bird droppings are acidic, and could cause damage to historic interiors that would be difficult to reverse. Bird nests, as well as dead birds, harbour pests such as clothes moth, carpet beetle and silverfish, which could make their way into the house, and are harmful to historic materials.

Fortunately, on this occasion, the bird was very much alive (we could hear it flapping around!), and luckily, there were a couple of members of staff who were willing to try and rescue the poor creature from the chimney.

Dust sheets, poles and a box were brought along, and as many breakable objects as possible were moved out of harm’s way, just in case the bird escaped into the room and started flying around. The bird – a large crow – was dislodged from the chimney, and although it did briefly escape into the room itself, the quick-thinking staff members were able to throw a dust sheet over it, put it into a box, and release it into the courtyard, where it flew away.

After conservation: the glass vase can be seen in the Larkspur Dressing Room (image courtesy of Pat Jackson, conservator)

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t the first time a bird has been on the loose in the house. A crow fell down the chimney in the Larkspur Dressing Room a number of years back, knocking a small glass vase off the mantelpiece and smashing it to pieces. A conservator was able to put the vase back together, piece by piece, and it once again sits on the mantelpiece. The vase is one of a pair, and if you look closely, you can see the difference between the repaired vase and the undamaged vase. The bird also left droppings on the frame of a painting – a small stain is still visible, having been cleaned off as much as possible at the time. It certainly makes for an interesting anecdote!


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Protection Store: update

Infested carpet in the Protection Store

A reminder of what the infested carpet in the Protection Store looked like

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the overhaul of the Protection Store and our subsequent discovery of an infestation of carpet beetle larvae, or ‘woolly bears’, as they’re known.

We had emptied the room of its contents in order to create better storage solutions, as well as inspect what we thought was a minor carpet beetle infestation. After discovering a rather more serious infestation than we had thought, we performed a hygiene clean in the hope that it might remedy the situation, but finally decided to remove the infested fitted carpet as a last resort.

Carrying out a hygiene clean

Carrying out the hygiene clean of the room – I’m standing on the platform at its original height, and stored underneath is the lino

With the room now completely empty, we needed to think about how we would store the room’s contents more effectively – especially the fragile William Morris lino, which was originally stored under a platform of sorts. This platform had been custom-made by some National Trust volunteers, and while it was really useful to be able to store objects on top of the platform, we thought that we could probably maximise the storage in the room by raising the height of the platform, which would then mean the lino would no longer need to be stored on the floor.

The finished platform!

The finished platform!

We recruited some of Standen’s Woodland volunteers to make alterations to the platform, and they did a great job. The platform was raised to about 5 ft 5 in, with plenty of room both on top and underneath for storage (though taller members of the House Team should mind their head when ducking underneath!) Most importantly, the Morris lino could be stored on top of the platform, out of harm’s way, therefore preventing further deterioration.

The finished platform

There’s plenty of storage space on top and underneath…

On a side note, the Morris lino is a really interesting item from our stores, and one that, unfortunately, visitors are not able to see – I think this makes it a good candidate for a future Object from the Stores feature, so watch this space!

The finished platform

The platform is tucked away in a corner, freeing up the rest of the room for more storage!


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Bug Alert! Adventures in the Protection Store

At the top of what was once the servant’s staircase are a number of light, airy rooms. Some of the rooms were used by the family, and others formed the servant’s quarters.

Unfortunately these rooms aren’t part of our visitor route, but they still require care and inspection from time to time (though not the same level of care given to our showrooms), because some of them are used to store objects from our collection.

One such room is the Protection Store. In here we store all sorts of things: large rolls of original carpets, a Liberty & Co. bedroom furniture set that belonged to Helen Beale (the last family member to live at Standen), and a number of pieces of rather rare early William Morris lino – of a type called corticene – which is unfortunately too fragile to display.

We’d been closely monitoring this room, as we suspected it might have a carpet beetle problem. We also knew that the storage methods used in the room needed improvement – the Morris lino was stored underneath a type of platform, which had enabled other objects to be safely stacked on top, but meant that the lino itself was stored directly on the floor, which wasn’t ideal. With the added risk of bug damage, we decided to overhaul the room in order to create a safer, more effective storage area.

Bug infested carpet

A section of the infested carpet, showing carpet beetle larvae and their casings

We emptied the room of most of its contents, and then evaluated the carpet beetle issue. We found that one area of the room’s modern fitted carpet was completely infested: ‘woolly bears’, the larvae of the carpet beetle, had been slowly eating their way through the carpet, and in that one part of the room, they were everywhere!

It is rather unusual for a modern carpet to be so heavily infested with carpet beetle – modern carpets are often in rooms and buildings that are well used, and so carpet beetles and their larvae don’t often settle there. But this particular insect can be a real problem in historic houses, which are full of all sorts of carpets, tapestries and hangings – both historic and modern – in areas that are little used, which gives bugs a good chance to settle in and cause significant damage before they’re discovered, which is why it’s so important for us to closely monitor all of our showrooms and storage areas.

Carrying out a hygiene clean of the Protection Store

Carrying out a hygiene clean of the Protection Store

We started to conduct a hygiene clean of the room; sweeping away cobwebs, wiping down the paintwork and fire surround, getting rid of some harmless (but pesky) cluster flies, and trying to clean the infested carpet.

After a while, we decided the fitted carpet was too risky to keep – by simply cleaning it, we wouldn’t be able to ensure that we’d eradicated all the bugs, and since it wasn’t an historic carpet, it was decided that we should dispose of it. Luckily the man that looks after our carpets was able to come the same evening, cut the carpet into pieces (as it was too big to remove in one go) and take it away with him.

Protection Store

The carpet is removed bit by bit, revealing green stained floorboards underneath

Having got rid of the infested carpet, we checked the historic carpets that had been stored in the room. They appeared untouched by the infestation, which is probably because they had been very well sealed in protective packaging; however a couple of the carpets were frozen as a precaution – this would help kill off any bugs that had been able to get inside the packaging.

Protection Store fireplace

Once the room was empty, its original Arts & Crafts features were revealed

Protection Store cupboard

We’re not sure if this fitted shelving unit is a later addition, but we were pleasantly surprised to find it hidden behind rolls of carpets!

With the room clean, empty, and bug free, the next step was to adapt the storage solutions to make them more effective…more on this next week!


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Object in Focus: Corner Armchair

You might have seen my post from a few days ago asking you to keep an eye out for our new Objects in Focus series…well, here’s our first object!

18th Century Corner Armchair

18th century corner open armchair

This 18th century corner open armchair is displayed in the Hall

This chair is on permanent display in the Hall, and it’s one of the first objects our visitors glimpse as they make their way into the house. I was always intrigued by its unusual shape, and having had a number of visitors ask me about the origins of the chair, I thought this would make a good starting point for our spotlight on objects.

The chair is from the 18th century, and is an interesting shape; described as a ‘corner open armchair‘. It is made from fruitwood, and the seat is covered in red velvet.

This piece of furniture is particularly interesting, as we know that it belonged to the Beale family before Standen was built, and they brought it with them when they moved here in 1894.

More than meets the eye…

Anne Stutchbury is a Standen volunteer who is currently researching the Beale family archive as part of her PhD project. Anne told me that there is more to this chair than first appears…she’d come across evidence that the chair may have been altered from a commode corner chair. An 1894 invoice that she’d come across in her research suggested that this chair, or one very like it, had been altered by one Charles Sale of Kensington:

‘Altering 1 commode corner chair…making new seat, upholstering same and covering in calico 15s.0d’

Charles Sale Invoice July 20th 1894

The 1894 invoice from Charles Sale of Kensington, detailing alterations to a number of pieces of furniture – including the corner armchair

Commode chairs like this one were not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries. A chamber pot would have been hidden underneath the removable seat, and the chair placed somewhere discreet, such as a bedroom.

The Beale family were great admirers of antique furniture, which they thought was often better made and more refined than the furniture they could buy new. It would not be unusual for them to buy antique furniture and then pay for it to be repaired or altered so that it better met their needs.

Bug damage…

The back of the chair is rather damaged. At first glance the chair appears to be a well-loved and well-used piece of furniture, but the damage is not from use or age: it was actually caused by a woodworm infestation. Woodworm are the larvae of furniture beetles, and they live and feed inside wood, often causing serious damage to furniture.

The best line of defence against future pest damage to our collection is cleaning and inspection, and controlling the conditions objects are kept in.