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

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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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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).