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

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Washing Wallpaper…

Willow Bough wallpaper, William Morris 1887

Willow Bough wallpaper, William Morris 1887

Wallpaper is one those items in a house that seems replaceable; a product of mass production that can be changed to suit your furniture or your mood. However, in the past, wallpaper was an incredibly rare thing and actually very valuable.

Wallpapers started out as a product that the slightly less elite (though still very wealthy) could use in place of tapestries. In fact they were hung like tapestries too – as a large sheet of paper. Now this is around the 16th century so they were hand printed and hand painted. Now as you can imagine, these wallpaper hangings did not last very long and as such not many still survive today – the earliest surviving piece dates to 1509 and is only a very small piece.

Silk Wallpaper found at Polesden Lacey

Silk Wallpaper found at Polesden Lacey

Fast forward to Henry VII and his decision to split the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, this caused a huge falling out between trading companies in Europe (especially between France and England) and as the aristocrats no longer had access to large Flemish tapestries that were oh so fashionable and popular so they turned to wallpaper instead.

Hand painted Chinese wallpaper made around 1780

Hand painted Chinese wallpaper made around 1780

By the mid 18th century, England was the leading wallpaper manufacturer in Europe and started to make more affordable designs aimed at the middle classes. As they were more affordable and more available, manufacturers had to make certain wallpapers that would still appeal to the aristocrats and the mega rich so they started experimenting with wallpapers that acted like materials, like leather, silk and velvet. the most popular turned out to be flocked wallpaper, where a designed was pressed onto paper and then pieces of wool or silk were blown across it and they only stuck to the printed design. Oriental designs were also becoming increasingly popular so plain wallpapers were shipped off to the China and Japan, whereupon they were hand painted with oriental designs and images of everyday life.

Along came the 19th century and the development of steam-powered printing presses, this meant that wallpaper became available to everyone, not just the rich and aristocracy. It also heralded an age of more scenic wallpapers with French influences.

By the time of the 20th century, wallpaper had established itself as one of the most popular items in a house but unfortunately its reign had to come to an end and the idea of wallpaper gave way to pain painted walls towards the late 1900s.

Cleaning Wallpapers:

So over the last few hundred years that wallpaper has been around, there have been suggested many different ways of keeping it clean.

Play-Doh - known as Kutol - originally invented as a wallpaper cleaner

Play-Doh – known as Kutol – originally invented as a wallpaper cleaner

As most wallpapers were regarded as insignificant, there was little bother in cleaning them. However,  it where finer wallpapers are involved that it gets interesting. For these wallpapers, light levels were kept to a minimum and some were even varnished to protect them. Some maids dusted the wallpapers whilst others used bread dough to help get rid if dirt. unfortunately bread dough leaves behind traces that insects and molds love or they became greasy and streaky. Play-doh, the beloved children’s toy, was originally invented as a wallpaper cleaner in the 1930s. However, when a classroom of children started using it to make models, the marketing changed and it became a children’s toy.

Nowadays with historic wallpapers we use methods that involve less chemical and avoid taking the wallpaper off the wall unless strictly necessary.

Why we clean wallpaper:

We clean wallpaper in order to preserve it for longer. If we left it dusty or with stains a) it does not look very nice and b) often dirt and stains hide a bigger problem.

Cleaning wallpaper at Standen:

The water stain behind the wallpaper in the South Spare

The water stain behind the wallpaper in the South Spare

We had a similar case with the wallpaper in the South Spare bedroom. With all the rains last spring, one of the chimneys sprung a leak and seeped down through the house. The wallpaper got wet and then later dried out leaving a brown water mark. If we had left the leak the water would eventually have flooded the room and done a lot more damage. By catching it at the water mark stage we managed to repair the leak and re-point the chimney to ensure it is watertight. However with that fixed, the wallpaper needed to be inspected and cleaned to check for any further damage – damp walls tend to grow mold and attract silverfish who eat away layers of paper.  The wallpaper was dampened until the adhesive gave way and the wallpaper sheet was gently peeled away – it takes a lot of skill to keep damp wallpaper in one sheet. It was then wet cleaned – a sponge slightly dampened with a mild soap and water is applied gently to the wallpaper removing the water stains.

Left: Dirty Right: Cleaned

Left: Dirty Right: Cleaned

When the chimney sprung a leak, it also damaged some of the paper in the Larkspur bedroom. This had already been wet cleaned once (which can only be done once in its lifetime) so  historic larkspur wallpaper was pasted over the top – so seamlessly it is difficult to spot which is the original.

Our Wallpaper Conservator cleaning the Trellis wallpaper in the Dog Leg Corridor

Our Wallpaper Conservator cleaning the Trellis wallpaper in the Dog Leg Corridor

while our wallpaper conservator was here we thought it wise to ask him to clean the trellis wallpaper in the dog leg corridor. Being trapped in a small space created by a false ceiling caused dust and dirt to build up. A smoke sponge, was used to clean this wallpaper, gently erasing away any buildups of dirt and marks.


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Emergency salvage training at Polesden Lacey

Many historic places or buildings housing historic collections have a salvage plan to help deal with the aftermath of an incident such as fire or flood. In May I attended a salvage training exercise at Polesden Lacey; a full-scale incident which even involved local fire crew!

Fire crew arrive

Fire crew arriving at Polesden Lacey (image: Eddie Hyde)

Salvage plans are designed to safely move and protect objects after a major incident, and National Trust salvage plans are tailored to the individual needs of each property. Much was learned by the Trust in the wake of the devastating fire at Uppark in 1989, and the lessons learned then continue to inform the Trust’s approach to salvage and conservation (see here for an interesting piece about the Uppark fire).

At Standen I am a member of the property salvage team, which also includes staff from different departments across the site. I have attended regular refresher training on the salvage process, but have never taken part in a full-scale training exercise – when I was offered the chance to attend Polesden Lacey’s training session, I jumped at it!

Roles are allocated...

First things first: roles are allocated (image: Eddie Hyde)

The training at Polesden took place after the property had closed for the day, and was attended by colleagues from local museums and Trust properties. The fire alarm rang to signal the start of the exercise, and we were allocated our roles. I was a member of the Salvage Team, and would be going into the building to remove important historic objects. However, first stop was the emergency store to get various pieces of equipment: room plans, personal protection equipment, and materials to prepare an area for objects immediately after they had been retrieved from the building.

Salvage Team

The Salvage Team prepare an area for temporary storage of salvaged objects (image: Eddie Hyde)

Shortly after this the fire service arrived, and they investigated whether the building was safe for us to enter. Once we had the ok from them, we began to enter the house in pairs, along with members of the fire service, to retrieve objects from the showrooms.

Salvage Team - going into mansion

The Salvage Team in the mansion, on the way to retrieve objects from the showrooms (image: Eddie Hyde)

While we were busy retrieving, the Recovery Team had set up a Safe Area for objects that been salvaged. Objects were checked against inventory lists, and a triage operation was set up to give attention to those items most in need of it.

Recovery Team

The Recovery Team transforming the cafe into a Safe Area for salvaged objects (image: Eddie Hyde)

Part-way through the evening, we had a break to rest and grab some refreshments, and then swapped roles with those that had been on the Recovery Team, so that we had experience of as many different aspects of the exercise as possible.

The exercise ended as darkness fell, so we gathered together and reflected on the evening. We all agreed that we’d learned a great deal: although regular refresher training at our individual properties is very useful, being able to take part in an event such as this gives you an idea of how a salvage operation really works.

Polesden and fire engine

(Image: Eddie Hyde)







Read a blog post about the salvage training by Claire, Polesden Lacey Conservation Assistant