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

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Work on Wallpaper

Larkspur wallpaper damage

Damage to the wallpaper in the Larkspur Bedroom (before conservation work)

At the start of this year, I wrote about how strong driving winds and rains had caused old damp patches and leaks to reappear in some of the south facing rooms in the house.

In the Larkspur Bedroom and the South Spare exhibition room, the damage was particularly bad. Both rooms have a history of leaks and damp, and this time they had developed leaks above the fireplaces. The water ingress had badly stained the Morris & Co. wallpaper, and – despite the use of fans and a dehumidifier to circulate the air and stablise the humidity levels – the damp conditions led to mould forming directly on the paper.

The water had come in under the flashing around the chimney, so the first thing we did was to renew the flashing and pointing in this area. Then it was the turn of the wallpaper; and so a conservator recently came and worked on the affected areas.

South Spare wallpaper damage

Staining on the wallpaper in the South Spare exhibition room (before conservation work)

He was able to remove much of the unsightly mould from the Larkspur wallpaper. The mould was very noticeable, and had begun to detract from the charm of this room. Although the wallpaper is still stained, it looks much better. Once the area has thoroughly dried out, the conservator will be able to come back to carry out work to remove the staining.

In the South Spare exhibition room, the wallpaper was carefully removed by the conservator, who has taken it away to begin a treatment to wash out the staining. It is quite a long process – not only does the delicate work on the wallpaper need to be carried out, but we also need to wait for the wall itself to dry out properly before rehanging the paper. This can take months, so it’s likely that the wallpaper will be back at Standen early next year.


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Standen in a hurry

Recently, I spoke to a visitor who said that he’d never visited Standen before, but was a little short of time – were there any objects that he simply shouldn’t miss? This was a tricky question, because although Standen is modest when compared to some country houses, there’s still much to see.

I told the visitor a few objects to look out for, but mostly advised him to ask the room guides as he went around. But it got me thinking – if I’d had more time to prepare, what would I suggest someone on a flying visit to the house absolutely shouldn’t miss?

Thinking about the objects and features that are most remarked on by visitors to the house – and only a little influenced by my own opinions – I chose 6 ‘must-see’ objects. In no particular order, here they are…

Dobbin (Standen © NTPL)Dobbin

Dobbin is the well-loved rocking horse that resides in the Billiard Room. He was brought for Amy Beale, the eldest of the James and Margaret Beale’s children in 1874, when she was 3 years old. Family anecdotes indicate that Dobbin was a reward for Amy learning the alphabet! Dobbin is a lovely, direct link to the Beales, and visitors always stop and admire him.


Dining Room fireplace (Standen © National Trust / Jane Mucklow)

Dining Room fireplace surround

The fireplace is one of the most striking features of the Dining Room and is frequently commented upon by visitors. The fireplace surround was designed by Standen’s architect, Philip Webb, and made by John Pearson. The metalworking technique used to create the decoration is called repoussé, and the material used is mild steel. The rack above the fireplace could be used by servants to rest plates and platters when serving the family at mealtimes – this is an instance of Webb and his thorough design process; where he tailored his designs to the lifestyle of his clients.

Pip tray (Standen © National Trust / Jane Mucklow)Silver pip trays

Another must-see object in the Dining Room, is one that is almost always commented upon by visitors. These clever silver trays attach on to the edge of plates, and were used to deposit unwanted pips and seeds throughout the course of a meal. The Dining Room table is currently presented as the dessert course of an evening meal, with bowls of fruit and the pip trays attached to the dessert plates. Visitors always ask what the trays are for, and I like to give them a clue by pointing out the fruit on the table.

Benson light fitting - landingBenson light fittings/lamps

This is cheating slightly, as this isn’t one specific object, but a type of object. The light fittings throughout the house were designed by W.A.S Benson, a friend and colleague of William Morris. He was a talented designer who owned a workshop and also designed for – and was later a director of – Morris & Co. Benson was well known for interpreting the requirements of lighting in an inventive and technically ingenious way, such as lamps which adapted to hang on walls or sit on tables. His creativity can be seen throughout Standen, and I especially like the beautiful hanging lights, like the one pictured, on the half landing.

Acanthus bedspread (Standen © National Trust / Jane Mucklow)Acanthus bedspread

This Morris & Co. bedspread is displayed in the Westbourne bedroom. It was given to Standen to display after spending a hundred years in storage. Its time in storage means that the bedspread is in excellent condition, and the colours of the design are particularly vivid. The bedspread was handmade at the Morris & Co. factory, and it is possible that William’s daughter, May, who was famed for her embroidery skills, supervised the work on this bedspread.


The clavichord is on long term loan and is displayed in the Morning Room. It was made by Dolmetsch in 1897, and is beautifully decorated by Edward Burne-Jones, who was closely associated with the Pre-Raphelite movement. The clavichord has been conserved and is playable, but special training is needed, as it doesn’t play like a piano. We have a volunteer that plays the clavichord occasionally, and visitors are always fascinated by the sound it makes.

*There’s no image for the clavichord: because the object is on loan to Standen, we are not able to publish images of it without the permisson of the owner – but that’s the perfect excuse for you to come and visit us, and see it ‘in the flesh’!

What are your must-see objects at Standen?


Redecorating the Drawing Room

The Drawing Room at Standen, West Sussex.

The Drawing Room as it usually looks

For the last couple of days, the house team have mainly been concentrating on emptying the Drawing Room of its contents, as the room is being redecorated next week. The paintwork is looking a little old and tired, and a new coat of paint should really brighten the room up. Of course, this does mean that there was the ‘small’ matter of where the room’s contents were going to be temporarily stored!

Standen isn’t a large house, and aside from the permanent storage spaces that are already in use, we don’t have much in the way of additional storage space for our collection. When it came to temporary storage for the Drawing Room collection, we needed to utilise other showrooms – consequently we ended up with cushions on the billiard table, and an array of ceramics safely stored on the Dining Room table…a slightly odd sight! Although there were lots of objects to be moved, members from the house team – along some of our conservation volunteers – were on hand to help, and the move went a lot more smoothly and quickly than anticipated.

Drawing Room carpet

Checking and vacuuming the Drawing Room carpet and underlay

Clearing the Drawing Room of its contents was a good opportunity to properly inspect the room and its contents – in particular, the wallpaper and carpet. The wallpaper is a William Morris design called Sunflower, and looking at it closely, we could see that there was silverfish damage in places, although the damage didn’t seem to be quite as bad as we found in the Larkspur Dressing Room last week. The carpet – also a Morris design – is huge, and almost fills the room. We were concerned that it may have fresh damage in places from carpet beetle, but because of its size, it was impossible to check the carpet thoroughly until we were able to completely empty the room – luckily, we could find no traces of new damage.

The Drawing Room is a favourite of mine – it’s such a restful room, with so many wonderful features – and with the room empty, you could really appreciate the space itself. The craftsmanship that had gone into creating its outstanding features, such as the fireplace surround and the fretwork around the windows, was particularly apparent. The room looked so different, and we all agreed that it would make a fantastic setting for a dance or a party!

Drawing Room

Almost ready for the decorators!

This is the first experience I’ve had of emptying a room, and it was interesting for me to see the logistics of safely moving heavy items of furniture and countless precious objects – and organising them so that they kept the order they were displayed in! Fragile objects are removed bit by bit, which can often seem labour-intensive (a particularly fragile teapot lid was removed from the pot itself, and carried separately), but it really is the best way to ensure existing repairs or damage are not weakened. The heaviest and largest items of furniture – such as the huge, George Jack-designed display cabinet and the Morris carpet – will remain, covered in dust sheets in the centre of room, with the decorators working around them.


A Happy (if rather damp) New Year!

Happy New Year!

After a wet and blustery end to 2013 and start to 2014, we’ve been assessing the storm damage across the estate. There’s been some serious damage in the garden, and although we have been a little more fortunate in the house, some rooms were affected by the high winds and driving rain.

Staff living on site had been able to check the house over the Christmas break for immediate problems, but it was not until we all arrived back at the start of this week, and were able to check rooms in detail that we were able to establish what damage had been caused.

Silverfish damage to Larkspur wallpaper

Silverfish have eaten the wallpaper down to the plaster in some places

Some rooms in the house have a history of leaks and damp patches, and these were made worse by the recent weather. The Larkspur Bedroom and Dressing Room in particular have suffered in the recent weather – not only have old damp patches reappeared, but the relative humidity in the room rose to worrying levels; resulting in mould patches and damage to the Morris & Co. Larkspur wallpaper. We set up a dehumidifier, and fans to circulate the air, which should help bring down the RH to a safer level in time for opening in mid-February.

While inspecting the dressing room, we also found that silverfish had caused significant damage to the wallpaper; something that I mentioned in a previous post about caring for wallpaper. It’s likely that the high humidity levels in this room contributed to the silverfish infestation; however the insects had not made much of an appearance in the traps we use to monitor them. Because of the risks to the wallpaper in both the bedroom and dressing room, we’ll be starting wallpaper monitoring as a priority.

Christmas clean up

The fallen pine needles outline where the Christmas tree in the porch stood

Post-Christmas, we also needed to take down the wonderful decorations our band of volunteers had installed. We had so many compliments from visitors about the decorations, so full credit has to go to the team of ladies that spent hours collecting, making and installing the decorations. It was a much messier task to take down the Christmas trees than it was to put them up – real trees are great, but pine needles get everywhere!

Finally, this week we’ve also been continuing with our annual deep clean. This is done on a rolling basis throughout the year, and this week was the turn of the North Bedroom and the Larkspur Bedroom and Dressing Room. This really enables us to check the Larkspur in particular for any further problems it might have. As the room is mainly roped off to visitors to protect the historic carpet, this can provide an undisturbed environment for unwanted problems – from mould to carpet beetle. As I speak, members of the house team are checking the room in minute detail, so fingers crossed they don’t find any other serious problems.

Hannah - deep clean

Hannah in the process of giving the North Bedroom its deep clean

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Wallpaper: layers of history

Morris wallpaper

Close up of a sample of William Morris wallpaper

Historic buildings are often known for a particular aspect of their collection – perhaps they have an unrivalled library, or a unique collection of ceramics. Here at Standen, we’re known for having – amongst other things – an important collection of William Morris wallpapers.

We are fortunate, then, to have recently hosted a regional training day focusing on the care of wallpaper. The National Trust’s Paper Conservation Adviser, Andrew Bush, led the training, which began with an account of the history and development of wallpaper. Now – wallpaper may not sound a particularly interesting subject, but it has a fascinating history…

Morris wallpaper

Sample of William Morris wallpaper

A (very!) brief history of wallpaper

Wallpaper was originally developed to line the inside of books and chests; later being used on walls. Because of these origins, wallpaper was first sold by stationers, and was produced in individual sheets, rather than rolls.

Wallpaper blocks

Examples of the printing blocks used to produce wallpaper

Wallpaper was intended to emulate textiles, and became popular first with the rich, later filtering down through society. It wasn’t really until the end of the 17th century that more ‘ordinary’ people began to use wallpaper to make their homes look neater. However, this didn’t include the homes of the poor – they started using wallpaper in the mid 1800s, when it had become much more affordable and commonplace. In the 18th century, wallpaper manufacturing and designs became more specialised; attracting taxation in 1712. Papers were marked with tax stamps, and in some cases, tax officers would visit wallpaper manufacturers at least once a day – a practice that lasted until 1836.

Many innovations in design and manufacturing were developed, with the choice of wallpapers becoming vast: from stencilled to flocked; leather to textiles; block printed to machine printed. The majority of early William Morris wallpapers were produced with the block printed method, and many of the wallpapers at Standen were also produced using this method.

Wallpaper on table

Samples of wallpapers and wallcoverings, including tapestries

Care of wallpaper

Andrew Bush spoke about how he considered wallpaper in historic buildings to be ‘live’: there are plenty of examples of wallpaper in museums, but in historic buildings, wallpaper is still in situ; still serving its original purpose. This does have it cons – creating the right conditions to protect and preserve wallpaper can be difficult, as it’s a living, functional part of a building. It’s also tempting to try and interpret the age of wallpaper purely by considering its pattern, but it’s important not to rely on this – patterns come and go and only tell part of the story. It’s better to rely on other factors – printing techniques or tax stamps, for instance – to determine the age of wallpaper.

Wallpaper samples

Wallpaper samples featuring flocked and handprinted designs

Like everything in National Trust collections, wallpaper can be affected by a number of different factors or environments – we call these ‘agents of deterioration’. Particular problems for wallpaper can include:

 – Insects: silverfish often ‘graze’ on wallpaper, because it sometimes contains starch due to glues, pastes or other adhesives.

Humidity: fluctuating humidity can cause mould and other problems. This in turn could exacerbate silverfish infestation, as they also like to feed on mould.

Structural weaknesses: old leaks and other structural problems can cause lasting damage to historic wallpapers.

Unstable materials: the quality of the paper used in wallpaper manufacture can cause issues – sometimes the acidity in the paper can have an adverse reaction to the environment surrounding it.

Therefore we have to keep a very close eye on wallpapers in our houses. If it is an especially significant piece of wallpaper, it’s important to understand exactly how stable it is – Andrew Bush recommended that a specific wallpaper monitoring process would be useful.

Wallpaper magnified

Magnifying wallpaper allows us to see how it was produced

As part of the training day, we carried out a practical monitoring exercise; assessing an area of Standen’s wallpaper for areas potentially at risk. Using a strong raking light, we concentrated on splitting the area into a number of smaller areas to assess their vulnerabilities – what were the potential risks and how would we continue to monitor them? We concluded that one area of wallpaper was patchy, and appeared to have been damaged by silverfish in the past – we shared our findings with Andrew, and he confirmed the damage was probably the result of a silverfish infestation. Although there was no immediate evidence of a current silverfish infestation, we need to continue to monitor the area by using insect traps and visual checks, as the wallpaper in this area was clearly vulnerable.

Beauty in wallpaper

Wallpaper sample booklet from the mid-20th century

This was a really interesting and useful training day. Our wallpaper is a great asset to Standen and is such a prominent feature of the house – its important that we get to know the areas that are at risk from deterioration, and how we can best care for them.

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Object in Focus: William De Morgan bowl

Standen is full of all sorts of ceramics, which can make it difficult to single out one piece as a favourite…

So we decided to be cruel and leave the difficult decisions to our Room Guides! We asked them which was their favourite ceramic in the house, and there were lots of great choices (we’ll definitely feature more volunteer favourites in this slot in the future), however there was a clear winner…

…the ceramic with the most votes was:

William De Morgan bowl (Drawing Room)

De Morgan bowl

William De Morgan bowl, on display in the Drawing Room

The bowl is a beautiful piece by the potter and designer William Frend De Morgan (1839-1917). De Morgan was one of the leading designers of the Arts & Crafts movement, and was also a close friend and collaborator of William Morris. De Morgan designed many pieces for Morris’ company, Morris & Co., channeling his talents into not only ceramics, but also stained glass and furniture design.

De Morgan tile

A Middle Eastern-inspired tile by De Morgan.
Part of the collection at Wightwick Manor, a National Trust Arts & Crafts house in the West Midlands

Like his fellow Arts & Crafts advocates, De Morgan was inspired by Medieval imagery, but he was also influenced by Middle Eastern designs – particularly those from Persia. The inspiration for the motifs and colours of this bowl is probably drawn from Persian designs – the use of yellows, pinks, blues and purples was especially common in Persian ceramics (often also referred to as Iznik ceramics).

The overall design of the bowl is striking, and it appears almost contemporary – one of our volunteers remarked that it looked ‘almost modern’, and wouldn’t look out of place in a present-day home.

The intricate decoration of De Morgan’s designs was carried out by a very skilled group of decorators. Many De Morgan pieces were signed by their decorators, which gives a fascinating glimpse into the manufacturing process. This particular bowl is signed ‘J.H’, which we know was a decorator by the name of J. Hershey.

De Morgan bowl underside

Underside of the De Morgan bowl, showing the decorator’s signature: ‘J.H’, the initials of the decorator J. Hershey

Standen has many De Morgan pieces throughout the house, and the variety in designs illustrate his talents. In the Drawing Room you can see not only Middle Eastern inspired pieces, but also many items of lustreware – ceramics finished with an iridescent metallic glaze, a technique which De Morgan is credited with reviving.

Perhaps one of the reasons the bowl is such a favourite with our volunteers is its connections to the Beale family. It was given to Mr and Mrs Beale for their silver wedding anniversary in April 1895 by their children. It is the only piece of De Morgan the Beales owned, but was the inspiration for Arthur and Helen Grogan, the first National Trust custodians of Standen, to buy more of the De Morgan ceramics which you can see around the house today.

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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!