Earlier this week, I spent a day working at the NT-managed Chartwell; the family home of Sir Winston Churchill. Trust staff often spend a day or two helping out or job shadowing at other NT sites as part of their career development, and it was something that I was looking forward to doing.
Every Trust property is unique, and so it’s always useful to see how different properties manage the challenges that their site presents. In the case of Chartwell, I was interested to find out how they balance their high visitor numbers (it’s one of the most visited sites in the South East) with their conservation responsibilities. Chartwell has two Assistant House Stewards – the position that my own role is roughly based on – and so I was also interested to find out what their jobs entailed.
Chartwell is of a comparable size to Standen, and is similarly a much-loved family home nestled in a striking landscape. I was excited to get the chance to be nosy, and see behind closed doors at another property; especially one as famous as this!
The property is set in a picturesque landscape, and on the morning I arrived, the surrounding hillside was hidden beneath a layer of frost and mist. Churchill had a great love of painting and drew inspiration from the landscape around Chartwell – and looking around, I could see why.
I started the day by meeting the team, and having a tour of the house. Although the site is open 363 days a year, the house itself is open March to November and is currently under wraps and resting after a busy open season. In November, at the end of the season, the house was ‘put to bed’: windows were shuttered, blinds were closed and objects were covered in dust sheets and acid-free tissue paper. When a house gets as many visitors as Chartwell, it’s really important that it has some respite, and that the house team are able to carry out their winter clean by inspecting and cleaning the collection.
After the tour of the house, I began to help the team with the winter clean in the Drawing Room. The contents of Chartwell are fascinating: although the house has many fine pieces, objects are particularly precious because of their connection to Churchill, and not necessarily because they are a fine example of a particular artist or designer. I set to work inspecting and cleaning the huge bureau, which held some interesting bits and pieces inside; including some headed Chartwell notepaper.
In terms of balancing their high numbers of visitors with caring for an historic house, visitor flow through the house is managed by using timed tickets, so that visitor entry to the house is staggered. This helps with the logistics of moving lots of people around a relatively small space, and also eases the strain on the contents of the house.
The way the visitor route is arranged through the rooms also helps conserve Chartwell’s collection – for instance, some of the rooms are roped off at a specific point, from which visitors view the room; therefore helping to protect it from physical wear and tear. At Standen, we have replaced some objects – carpets, for instance – with ‘sacrificial’ items that are historically appropriate but can be used or walked upon, enabling visitors to move around rooms. However, visitors to a place such as Chartwell expect to see objects and furnishings belonging to Churchill, so roping certain rooms off at points in order to conserve the contents is a good way of striking a balance.
I enjoyed helping the Chartwell team with their winter clean, and it was a real privilege to be able to clean objects connected to such a well-known and respected figure. It was also a good chance to observe how different historic houses have different approaches to managing conservation concerns and visitor access.