There are so many things to look at in the show rooms at Knole, Stuart furniture from the Royal Palaces, hundreds of portraits, including some by Reynolds, Van Dyck and Lely, rare carpets and tapestries, all housed in rooms with beautifully detailed wood panelling and fine Jacobean ceilings. However, the one thing visitors probably never look at are the floors, which have a beauty all of their own, and are in fact as fragile as some of the Knole’s famous textiles.
The show room floors are a mixture of oak and pine, some were laid much later in the 19th century and others are original 17th century floorboards, such as in the Cartoon Gallery. They are affected by the agents of deterioration like the rest of the collection. The uncontrollable levels of relative humidity cause the wood to swell and contract in the changing damp and dry conditions.
The floors aren’t safe from insect attack either. Our wood-boring pest insects have had attacked the pine boards in particular, as it is softer than the later oak floors. You can see the tunnels that the larvae of the Common Furniture Beetle (woodworm) have munched. They wouldn’t have been visible at first but over the years with tens of thousands of feet walking over the floorboards the top layer of the wood has been worn away to reveal the tunnels. Not all the damage is historic, we have active infestations too. Fresh holes and frass were found in the Leicester Gallery just last week.
95,000 pairs of feet walked over Knole’s floors last year, and over for 4000 visitors came over the Easter weekend this year. Some of those feet were particularly wet and muddy thanks to April showers. We vacuüm the floors every day before we open. We do this to keep dust levels to a minimum, but also in adverse weather much more mud, grit and stones are brought in by visitor’s shoes. If we don’t vacuum the mud etc up it will be trodden in to the floorboards causing dents and gauges in the wood, possibly leading to the board edges breaking up where they are already vulnerable.
Other physical damage is caused by different types of shoes. Stiletto heels in particular are the worst offenders. They leave pit marks in the floor, and will break down a weak part of the board, or even get stuck in one of the cracks between the boards. We wax the floors regularly to give the top surface some protection against the repeated wear and tear. In the open season we spend most of cleaning time in the mornings before we open caring for the floors.
We could protect the floor with the use of drugget carpets, but then we wouldn’t be presenting the rooms at Knole as they were historically. However some of floors had some protection in the past. We have evidence in our archives that show the Cartoon Gallery had rush matting, and a small fragment was found a couple of years ago by our PHD students. 19th Century photographs also show three large Persian carpets in the Gallery, perhaps something we could do again.
New methods of floor protection are also an possible option. We are currently trailing an eyemat at the top of the Great Stairs. A high resolution photograph was taken of the area and printed on to a rubber backed mat. It holds itself to the floorboards and merges in to the real floor as if it wasn’t there. It protects the floor from heels and mud, and it a good dust collector too!
So when you visit Knole, take a moment and look down at floors in each room, you’ll see that every floor is completely different from the next, beautiful in their own right and fragile too! But before you come in make sure you’ve wiped your feet and please don’t come in your best stiletto heels, you’ll leave a mark on Knole’s floors forever!
Lucy, Melinda, Emily and Sarah