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

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Christmas 2016


The cottage

We’re well into Christmas at Standen, so if you haven’t already been to visit us here are a few photos to whet your appetite!

Don’t forget we have some wonderful tapestries and knitting by Kaffe Fassett around the house, and he also designed our Winter Tree in the courtyard.

You can also see we’ve been yarnbombing round the place – all crocheted by our volunteers.

And finally, just because it is Christmas doesn’t mean we are letting our standards drop…


Sarah dusting the turkey


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Chim Chim Cher-ee

This winter, we have been able to light the fire in the Hall for the first time in over 40 years. But there are always a few things that need to be checked before lighting a fire in such a historic and unused fireplace.

Testing the Chimney to see if there are any gapsChimneys need to be swept regularly so that the flues remain clear of soot, debris and birds nests (especially in unused ones – see previous posts about birds coming down the chimneys in the bedrooms upstairs here). Also they need to be swept so the gases can escape safely out of the top of the chimney as opposed to building up and causing a chimney fire. All of this will help to increase the chimney’s ability to draw the smoke up instead of out into the room and generally help to keep the fire going.

Much like in the song in ‘Mary Poppins‘, brushes are still used today – technology has not changed that much due to the confines of space in the chimney, the main change has been that vacuums are used in some to help get rid of build ups of soot and tar. The brush are twirled upwards to dislodge any soot and tar until the brush pokes out the very top of the chimney. A series of poles are used to extend the brush to make it long enough.

One of the other jobs that needed to be done, was to line the chimney. If a chimney is not lined and burns wood, tar builds up on the inside and eventually seeps through the walls leaving black/brown stains. If lined incorrectly, the flue can also start to leak smoke and fumes such as carbon monoxide as well as leading to poor updraught. The main reason that we got the chimney lined was a precaution against moisture and tar leaking through the walls. Also as it was last used in 1972, we needed to make sure that the chimney would draw well.

We have been lighting the fire every weekend in December and will do so over the 27th and 28th December if you would like to come and have a sit down by it (House open 11am – 3pm). You will be very welcome to.

Merry Christmas everyone.The fire all warm and cozy



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Something Old, Something New

The De Morgan Cabinet

The De Morgan Cabinet

Recently we have been loaned a beautiful cabinet, designed by William De Morgan and made by J.P. Seddon around the 1870s, by the De Morgan Foundation.

The cabinet is made of stained ebonised oak with floral inlaid motifs on its sides created from ebony, padoak, box and maple, as well as gilt accents. It also has an oil painting depicting St George presenting the princess and the captured dragon to the King.

As with any item that comes into our care, we thoroughly clean and

1 Hogs Hair and 2 Pony Hair Brushes

1 Hogs Hair and 2 Pony Hair Brushes

inspect it. I used three different brushes plus an ergo vacuum cleaner to do this. I used a hogs hair brush for the wood, mostly the back of the cabinet and a softer ponytail hair brush for the inlaid wood. I also used a separate ponytail hair brush for the gilt accents. Hogs hair is a lot coarser so can be damaging to soft materials but on hard woods it is very good at getting dust from little cracks and crevices. Pony hair is very soft and as such can be used on most materials apart from textiles.

Condition Report

Condition Report

Dusting the cabinet also gave me the chance to inspect it for any possible damage like cracks or chips. I recorded this all onto its Condition report, so that when we next deep clean it, someone can look at the report to see if there is any new damage.


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Dressing up the House

Jan and Sue decorating the Stairs this morning

Jan and Sue decorating the Stairs this morning

Every year the house is decorated for Christmas in either a Victorian or 1920s style and you all get to come in and see the finished product. But not this year; if you come to visit in the next two weeks we will still be dressing the house up for the festive season.

Two ladies, Jan and Sue, from our volunteering team are in charge of organizing who does what when as well as being the first ones in to decorate. We do take pictures of what was done the previous Christmas, especially regarding the placement – and decorations – of the Christmas tree but mostly Jan and Sue rely on their memories of what worked – and did not work – from the previous year.P1040305

Christmas in the 1920s was similar to today – although not as commercialized. The children eagerly await the arrival of Father Christmas and their presents. Christmas trees were put up and lit with real candles – tinsel was even used though it looked more like long strands of silver and gold. Whole families would gather together, attend Church and have a big Christmas meal – though you were more likely to find beef on the table instead of turkey. Branches and leaves were used to decorate the house inside and out as well as Christmas Wreaths on the doors.

The Wreaths

The Wreaths

For the Beales, Christmas was a time to gather together. Mr Beale (and later one of his sons) would dress up as Father Christmas whilst the children would hide in the Hall. Father Christmas would then sneak into the Drawing Room, clatter the fire tongs and the children would come running in to see him, most especially to see what presents they were getting.

Later in the life of the Beale family, Christmas became one of the few occasions for the family to gather at Standen.


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We wish you a Merry Christmas…

Christmas tree in the Dining Room

The Dining Room is ready for Christmas, with children’s toys from our collection underneath the tree

Christmas Eve is the last working day here at Standen, before we all head off to enjoy a mince pie (or five).

I’ve really enjoyed blogging these last few months, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. It will be quiet on the blog from now until January, so all that’s left to do is wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

See you in 2014! (We’ll be back at work from 6th January, and Standen will be open for visitors from 15th February).

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Object in Focus: ‘Prince Pharamond and his cat – a fairy tale for Christmas’

As Christmas is approaching at an alarming rate, I thought that a festive-themed Object in Focus would be very appropriate.

I’ve always loved a Christmassy story to help set the mood for the celebrations, so I decided to have a quick search on our collections database to see whether we had any Christmas books at Standen. The database showed a number of books: some were Christmas stories; others had been Christmas presents (complete with inscriptions inside). A book called Prince Pharamond and his cat: a fairy tale for Christmas caught my eye due to its unusual title. The database entry said that it had been given to Margaret Field (later Margaret Beale, one of the creators of Standen) in December 1856, probably by her father. The book didn’t sound like a traditional Christmas story, but I was intrigued by it and thought it deserved to have its moment out on display.

Prince Pharamond and his catTucked away, high on a shelf in the Morning Room, I found it: a tiny, slim paperback that was lost amongst the larger, more substantial books on the shelf. Gently opening the front cover, I found the inscription that had been recorded on the database: Margaret Field with her [Father’s?] best love, December 29th 1856. Margaret loved to read; passing her passion for reading on to her own children, who regularly received books as Christmas presents.

The book is rather fragile: the spine is crumbling, and some of the pages are coming away from the binding. It’s clearly been well-read over the years. Our books are checked and cleaned annually by a team of volunteers, who record the condition of the books on a care sheet. Looking at the care record, I saw that although the book is in poor condition, it is stable – its condition hasn’t deteriorated in the last few years.

Prince Pharamond is definitely not your stereotypical Christmas story – instead, it promises a tale of magic and adventure. It tells of a young Prince who, upon the death of his father the King, seeks distant lands with only an enchanted snow-white cat for company. The Prince encounters fairies, elves and goblins along the way, and falls in love with a beautiful fairy. He returns to his homeland a wise and worldly man; marries the fairy, and together they become well-loved and admired rulers of the kingdom.

The book was published in 1857 (slightly at odds with the date of the inscription inside) by Routledge and Co. Routledge became famous for publishing huge quantities of cheap paperbacks, such as this one, which cost one shilling. Originally a small London-based publisher; today Routledge is a global publishing giant, producing books on many different topics.

Prince Pharamond and his catRoutledge helped to introduce well-known writers (such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Washington Irving and Benjamin Disraeli) to the masses by publishing affordable copies of their most popular works. The author of Prince Pharamond is not indicated on the book itself, and further research didn’t produce any answers. Some early works by writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Edward Bulwer-Lytton were published anonymously by Routledge, so perhaps this is the case with our book…

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November: a month of cleaning, decorating and learning

Standen was closed during weekdays in November, but far from being idle, it was an incredibly busy month for the House Team – in fact, it was possibly the busiest 4 weeks I’ve experienced since starting here!

The first part of the month was spent on our annual deep clean, where we inspect and clean the house and its contents from top to bottom. The last week of the month was spent decorating the house for Christmas (you might have seen a preview of this in my post last week). The three days spent decorating were fun, but rather tiring – but it was all worth it in the end, as the house looks fantastic!

The House Team also spent time in November taking part in regional training days. Standen was hosting three of these training sessions (so we didn’t have far to travel!), and staff from other properties in the London and South East region would also be attending. For some of us, it was a chance to refresh previous training, but for others (like me!) it was a new experience all together. I was excited about taking part in my first training sessions, and was also looking forward to meeting people from other properties.

Here’s a little more about the first of the training days…

Caring for photographic materials

Slide from training day about photos

Learning about photo processing in the 19th century

The first training day hosted at Standen was with the National Trust’s Adviser on Photographic Materials, Sarah Allen. We have a small collection of photographs at Standen, but didn’t know much about how we should be caring for them, so we were looking forward to the training.

Sarah told us that the conservation definition of a photograph is ‘an image produced by light reacting with a chemically sensitive surface’. The very nature of a photograph means that they are amongst some of the most sensitive objects in National Trust collections: they are complex, multi-layered and are affected by almost everything, including light, temperature, humidity, biological factors (such as mould or insects), pollutants and…us!

Examples of 19th century photos

Some examples of 19th and early 20th century photographs

The National Trust preserves the objects in its collections through preventive conservation – carefully managing change in order to delay further deterioration. In the case of photographs, this means controlling the temperature and relative humidity levels, using high quality storage materials, and – if possible – limiting access to photographic collections by allowing access in other ways, such as digitising collections.

But before we can plan how to care for a photograph, we need to know what it is, and how it was produced. This sounds fairly simple, but as Sarah told us, there are over 1500 photographic processes (!), and establishing what type of photograph you have in front of you is often a matter of elimination. A magnifier can help us see what the image is made up of (such as dots, lines and squiggles), which can be a good indicator of the processes used to produce the photo.

Practical exercise

Practical exercise: matching up the photographs with the correct label. Everyone is wearing gloves, as the oily residues from our fingers can cause photos to deteriorate

We did a practical exercise to match up photos with a label stating the type of photo or process used to produce it – this proved rather tricky! Sarah pointed out that we should be considering the photo as an object, and not get distracted by the image itself, as this can often be misleading. It took a while, but as a team, we got most of the photos matched correctly, though we did need to refer back to our notes rather a lot!

It was a very interesting day – Sarah was a really engaging speaker, and we all learned a tremendous amount. Although Standen’s photographs are in relatively good condition, individuals from properties with larger collections commented that they were going away with lots to think about and put into action.

Slide from photos talk

I couldn’t resist sharing the final slide from Sarah’s presentation…!


Getting ready for Christmas: a sneak peek

photo 2

The last week in November is a very busy one here at Standen: all across the house, gardens and estate, preparations are being made for the festive season. So I thought I’d offer you a (very brief) sneak peek of what we in the house have been up to, before I head off to help.

Christmas decorations

Rustic decorations on one of our real Christmas trees

Christmas sees the house dressed for a traditional 1920s celebration with the Beale family. We brought out the vast quantities of Christmas decorations from storage, and brought in the fragrant pine trees from outside, ready for our small army of volunteers to begin decorating.

Christmas decorations

Traditional decorations, handmade by our volunteers

Monday was a long day, punctuated by lots of cups of tea (who knew decorating could be such thirsty work?!), but by the end of the day, we had got a lot of the decorations in place.

By the middle of the week, the house will be ready for Christmas, and we will move on to another of our festive traditions: our annual volunteer Christmas parties, when we get the chance to say thank you to our volunteers, and let them know that we really appreciate all that they do.

So a very busy, but exciting week ahead!

(See here for more about what’s on offer at Standen this Christmas).