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 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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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A Fond Adieu…

Yesterday was the 21st June, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. It is really the turning point of the year, with summer holidays fast approaching and before we know it will be Christmas! It is also the turning point for me as I near the end of my contract as a Conservation and Interpretation Assistant – this year has just flown by. It feels like it was only yesterday that I started on one of the hottest days of 2014 (fyi – avoid long trousers and a jumper in the future).

I have learnt so much from the house team as well as from the volunteers and the visitors. Standen is one of those properties where you can see the results of a strong team in the atmosphere and the high level of detail that is apparent in everything they do, one which I am lucky to have been a part of. Also one that I look forward to continuing working with in the future.

So last year my predecessor, Hannah, left to be Assistant House Steward at Stourhead. I am not so much leaving as changing role. So from this week, I shall be the Conservation and Engagement Assistant here in the house. This blog through which I have shared my experiences, will become more of a collaboration between the house team and will give you more of an in-depth insight into Standen. Vicky, our House Steward, will be taking over and ensuring that we share some of the stories and tasks that are involved in the day-to-day running of the house.

Although the blog may be a little more sporadic, this will not be the last that you hear from me. In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger: ‘I’ll be back

On that note, I will leave you with an image of one of my favourite objects here at Standen:

The Grand Piano in the Hall

The Grand Piano in the Hall

 

 


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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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Deceptive dust…

One of the monthly jobs that we carry out is to dust the Billiards table. The dust is quite deceptive (hence the title) in that the table often looks okay after a month until we move the balls and cues!

A very dusty table

A very dusty table

Usually, all of the flat surfaces in the house will be dusted with a chamois every day so that the dust does not stick and cause problems. Dust mostly consists of lightweight organic materials like skin and clothing fibers along with carbon based products like soot and silica.

The Big Brush

The Big Brush

If dust is left too long, the dust starts to bind itself to the surface  causing a greenish grayish hue to appear on objects. This dust takes a lot of effort to remove and as such could damage the object. One example of this would be if there was a layer of dust embedded on a gilded picture frame – removing the dust could potential take any gilding off with it and just leave a bare wooden frame. So by dusting everyday and by deep cleaning every object once a year we hope to prevent this happening.

The first step with dusting the billiards table is to use a big brush to brush the dust from the edges of the table in the center – the bristle are longer on the two ends so that the bristles reach underneath the lip of the sides. This is when we start to see exactly how dusty the table is

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Dirt Devil and Square Mesh

We then place a square piece of mesh onto the edge and run a dirt devil vacuum lightly over the mesh. We use the mesh so that any loose baize or threads are not sucked in, avoiding any potential for damaging the baize. The mesh square is about 30cm by 30cm so this task can take some time. Once the whole table has been vacuumed, we check the table manually, picking up any larger bits of fluff or dirt that was not picked up by the dirt devil.

Once the baize has been cleaned, we run a chamois over the polished wooden edging of the table to give it a little bit of a shine. It is always a satisfying job to do seeing the table all nice and dust free (although it never remains that way for long!).


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And the loser is …

When I was talking to the volunteers about their favorite wallpapers, it caused quite a bit of discussion and eventually talk turned to the wallpapers that they did not like quite as much. This was less divisive then picking a favourite. There was one clear loser though in this discussion and it was:

Bachelor's Button

Bachelor’s Button

Bachelor’s Button was designed in 1892, one of the last wallpaper designs by William Morris. This wallpaper consists of a series of cornflowers with acanthus leaves. Bachelor’s button was a common name for cornflowers as they were typically worn by young men in love.

Bachelor’s button could be printed in a variety of colours, however it was most popular as a monotone, with the pattern being printed in a light cream colour on a darker background, such as navy blue or teal. This yellowy/orange tone was quite unusual.

This wallpaper is one of the few original wallpapers left in the house. Most of the wallpapers were replaced in the 1960 due to fading and general deterioration but were as closely matched to the originals as possible. The reason Bachelor’s Button was left untouched was because Margaret Beale had it varnished in 1906. By this point her children were having their own children and Margaret wanted to protect the wallpaper from as much damage as possible from sticky little fingers … This is also why its colour is remarkably unfaded – the colour you see today is very much the colour the Beales’ would have seen.

The reason that a lot of the volunteers disliked this wallpaper was because of its colour and that it was fairly  garish and overwhelming.

Powdered wallpaper

Powdered wallpaper

The second least liked wallpaper was Powdered. This is interesting in that it was also picked as the most liked wallpaper and a couple of weeks ago. Also the opposite reasons were chosen as to why people did not like it as they felt it was too regimented and boring – it does not look natural.

 

 


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Scrubbing Churchill …

Chartwell

Chartwell

Recently I went to Chartwell for a day to shadow Flick and Sophie, the 2 assistant house stewards there.

Chartwell has a diverse history. it was originally a farmhouse that was builtin the 16th century, under the name of Well Street. Apparently, Henry VII stayed there during his courtship of Anne Boleyn, who was raised at nearby Hever Castle. During the 19th century, the farmhouse was significantly, enlarged and modified into the red brick Victorian building you see today complete with tile hung gables and oriel windows – bay windows on higher levels so they do not reach the ground.

Churchill comes into play around about 1922, when him and his wife, Clementine, bought it as their

The Garden Studio

The Garden Studio

principal home. Chuchill hired an architect by the name of Phillip Tilden to modernize the house, especially with regards to bringing more light as oriel windows were notoriously poky and small. Tilden followed the thoughts of Edward Lutyens, who disregarded the fashionable Tudor revival style and instead made each house part of its landscape. The gardens were also refurbished at the same time and a series of lakes created to house Churchill’s precious fish. The gardens provided much inspiration for Churchill’s paintings, many of which he painted in his garden studio.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

However, financial struggle struck in 1938 and Churchill put Chartwell up for sale. With the advent of World War 2 and with Churchill’s rising position in government, Chartwell was deemed unsafe for Churchill and his wife to live in due to its proximity to the English Channel and to the main road. Instead Churchill and his wife spent their weekdays in London and weekends in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

After World War 2, with strained finances, Churchill put Chartwell back on the market. However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. To thank Churchill for his efforts during the war, a group of business men got together and bought Chartwell. They charged him minimal rent on the condition that once both him and Clementine had passed on, Chartwell would be given to the National Trust. Upon Churchill’s death in 1965, Clementine decided to pass the house to the National Trust straight away. Clementine did, however, specify the route that the visitors would follow and still do today.

Churchill's Study

Churchill’s Study

One of the things that Churchill loved and this was untreated pine. to this end, as part of the modifications that Churchill made, large parts of the wood used was pine. As it is untreated it has to be treated quite differently then polished or varnished wood. This was one of the things that I helped Sophie and Flick with. The oldest part of Chartwell is the study and Churchill’s bedroom, both of which date back to medieval times. To this end it is decorated with darkened pine. The stair case that leads down from the study to the dining room is a great example of natural pine. So that it doesn’t splinter or  wear to quickly, twice a year a mixture of vinegar, sensitive soap and warm water are used to scrub the tread of the stairs as well as the top of the pine banister. After a short period of time clean warm water is scrubbed onto to reduce any stickiness. This mixture solidifies so that the stairs are non slippery as well as protected from the thousands of feet that climb up and down them over the year.

The banister, once the mixture of vinegar, sensitive soap and warm water is applied is then waxed with Harrell’s wax, giving a little more grip for the visitors, staff and volunteers.

I also got to help them with the deep clean of Churchill’s bedroom, which is not normally on display. It is a small room, simply furnished  as well as with photographs of his family and his favorite books. It also has an en suite bathroom with a sunken bath so that he could better enjoy the view.

All in all, it was a really interesting day and I learnt quite a bit about Churchill and his lifestyle, as well as more about deep cleaning. I also got to meet a couple of Chartwell’s cats including Jock – Churchill left quite specific instructions about there always being a Jock the Cat at Chartwell, including what he should look like!

Jock

Jock