Volunteer Experiences

We’ve been very lucky recently to have been joined by a new conservation volunteer at Knole who’s spent a few months with us to lend a helping hand. He has very kindly written a little about his experiences with the team!

Volunteering at Knole

The single greatest and most interesting part of being a Conservation volunteer at Knole has been the immense variety of tasks and small projects that are undertaken by the conservation team.

Involving everything from cleaning 18th century caffoy fabric to waxing the lead fish tank in stone court, it is hard to say that being a Conservation volunteer at Knole entails two even similar days. With the nature of the larger restoration project at Knole, as well as the day to day running of any property of Knole’s size the outlets for conservative work is seemingly endless.

The Monday deep cleans are the best chance to work on the items which are either vast or extremely precious, requiring more time and specialist equipment than many other of the usual but by no means insignificant objects. Utilising specialist material brushes as well as museum vacuums in my opinion the most fascinating part of the deep clean has been the work on the Orangery statues as well as the Roman busts of stone court. Whilst the cleaning of the Great Screen using cloth and ladders is also spectacular, if you think the screen is not amazing enough.


The Great Screen was built c.1605-08 when Thomas Sackville did much to create the Knole you see today. The impressive edifice is bristling with heraldic symbols.

Being involved in the caffoy cleaning project was also highly rewarding. Once again the opportunity to use specialist conservation equipment and follow the stringent methods used to transform the fabric highlighted how precious Knole’s textiles really are. This time it was novel to use smoke sponges and once again low power vacuums to restore the caffoy. I can say that the process of removing a few hundred years’ worth of grime from the fabric was the most rewarding part of all of the mini projects which I have helped with over the last two months.

The caffoy material normally lines the Cartoon Gallery. During July 2016 we gave this piece a thorough clean!

The caffoy material normally lines the Cartoon Gallery. During July 2016 we gave this piece a thorough clean!

Another untold perk of being a volunteer in the conservation team here at Knole is that you truly get to experience the full character of the property, through objects, the different conditions and periods of each parts of the house, some of which is publicly accessible. Being able to see items which the team have restored or conserved is also fulfilling and history creating in itself.

All in all I have thoroughly enjoyed what seems like a very short couple of months at Knole with the conservation team and cannot overstate how fundamental they are to the condition and running of Knole as one of the country’s greatest properties. I would recommend to anyone who has even a slight interest in conservation or history in general to give conservation volunteering at Knole a go.




A Day in the Life of the Conservation Team


In a sense the title of this blog is a bit of a misnomer, because no two days at Knole are ever the same. Every day is different and it’s partly the variety that makes Knole such an exciting place to work. However, it’ll hopefully give you a flavour of what we get up to, day to day, in order to look after this magnificent house and its collection.

The work of the conservation team changes with the seasons. Over winter, when the house is closed, we are busy working in the show rooms, condition checking and deep cleaning the rooms and the all the objects in readiness for re-opening.


Zena cleaning the textile of a chair during winter before carefully condition.


This winter has been a bit different because of the project. Although the first half of the house (from the Brown Gallery to the Leicester Gallery) had its normal winter clean, the second half of the house (from the Ballroom to the Cartoon Gallery) was emptied in preparation for the project work that will be going on in there this year. You can see some of the collection from the second half on display in our Great Store.

Now the house is open, our routine changes. In the morning, we spend the first few hours when the house is closed getting the show rooms ready to open. Every room is vacuumed to pick up anything left behind by our visitor’s footwear the day before. We also dust any flat surfaces in front of the rope barriers and check to make sure that no cobwebs have appeared overnight. Any glass is cleaned to get rid of dust or finger prints. The blinds are set, the curtains are opened and then we’re ready to welcome our visitors for the day.



One of several long galleries at Knole that need careful attention every single day.


There are several reasons why we do this daily clean in the showrooms. Obviously we want the house looking its best, so people can fully appreciate the incredible collection that we have here. But it’s also a vital part of the preventative conservation work carried out by the conservation team. Monitoring the environment and general good housekeeping is the first step in combating the deterioration of our unique historic collection.

The afternoons at Knole vary hugely. Some days we are in the house working on various objects in front of our visitors. These conservation engagements can involve anything from textile cleaning to treating for woodworm and are a great way to show the public how we care for our collection at Knole. Other days we may be monitoring the environmental conditions in the show rooms or polishing door brass. But one thing’s for sure, no two days are ever the same!


Injecting a pesticide to treat for woodworm. Something we do fairly frequently!


Thanks for reading!


Winter clean part 1 – all wrapped up!

From when the house closes up until Christmas we clean and cover all the furniture and other objects in the show rooms. Then in the new year we return to clean the rooms ceiling to floor.

The Spangled Bedroom put to bed.

The Spangled Bedroom put to bed.

The bi-annual wet cleaning of Lady Betty's China Closet ceramics

The bi-annual wet cleaning of Lady Betty’s China Closet ceramics

For ceramics with over glaze painted decoration and gilding we wet clean with a cotton bud, avoiding the overglazed decorative areas.

The Billiard Room furniture gets cleaned before having their dust covers put on.

A years worth of dust on the upholstery of a campaign chair from the Billiard Room.

The upholstery is cleaned with a low suction vacuüm cleaner to remove the dust.

An exhibition label from one of the campaign chairs.

Cleaning under the billiard table…dust does get everywhere!

The Billiard Room put to bed.

Cleaning the armada chest, inside and out!

Cleaning the armada chest, inside and out!

Once the armada chests are cleaned with apply a protective coat of renaissance wax.

Zena - always happy in her work!

Zena – always happy in her work!

The Cartoon Gallery almost put to bed.

The Cartoon Gallery almost put to bed.

Wishing all of our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,Alex, Emily, Lucy, Melinda, Sarah and Zena

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas


A team of nine volunteers assisted by the Conservation Team spent two weeks at the beginning of November carrying out some essential preliminary conservation work to three of the five 17th century Flemish tapestries from the Spangled Bedroom. Representing stories from Ovid, they came to Knole at the end of the 17th century from Whitehall Palace. Therefore, they are highly significant, but centuries of hanging in the Spangled Bedroom have taken their toll, and these tapestries are now one of our highest priorities for conservation.

The tapestries show signs of substantial wear and tear and light damage. They are extremely brittle to touch and encrusted with dirt. To ensure their survival they require full conservation treatment which will include surface cleaning, washing and re-lining.  To be washed they are being sent off to the De Wit tapestry conservation studio in Belgium.

The work we were to carry out before going to Belgium was to remove the existing linings, vacuum clean the front and back of each tapestry and document the tapestry, including taking thread samples, recording damage and earlier repairs. Thankfully we weren’t going it alone. For the first day we were instructed by Ksynia Marko (NT Textile Conservation Advisor) and Rachel Langley (Senior Conservator) from the NT Textile Conservation Studio.

Ksynia demonstrates how to do a warp and weft count.

Ksynia demonstrates how to do a warp and weft count, this is part of the documentation of the tapestry.

Using a needle you count the amount of warp and weft per centimetre.

Using a needle to count the amount of warp and weft per centimetre.

The tapestries are very vulnerable to further damage and have already torn in many places where the textile fibres have deteriorated. To prevent further tearing during transport and the wet cleaning process Rachel showed the team how to sew in holding stitches.

A polyester cream thread was used for the holding stitches. The stitches are quite big and vary where they are sewn in depending on the path of the damage.

The smallest tapestry laid out before having its lining removed.

The smallest tapestry laid out before having its lining removed.

Sue documents the lining, measuring the components of the tapestry hanging mechanism.

Sue documents the lining, measuring the components of the tapestry hanging mechanism.

Val uses a scaple to cut the through the stitching attaching the lining to the tapestry.

Val uses a scalpel to cut the through the stitching attaching the lining to the tapestry.

Alexandra cuts through the stitching securing the folded galloon edge (the blue border).

The reverse of the tapestry is vacummed once the lining is removed.

The reverse of the tapestry is vacuumed once the lining is removed.

The front of the tapestry is vacummed as we roll it.

The front of the tapestry is vacuumed as we roll it.

The tapestries are stored on a roller. We unroll one end, work on it, and then carefully roll it to another roller.

The tapestries are stored on a roller. We unroll one end a section at a time, work on it, and then carefully roll it to another roller.

The process of wet cleaning the tapestries was patented by the De Wit in 1991. The method involves lying the textile flat on a suction table. The suction applied to the fabric is constant and uninterrupted and keeps the tapestry in this position until cleaning and drying has been completed. A cloud of steam, to which a very small proportion of detergent has been added, is produced above the entire fabric and is sucked through it.

The wet cleaning in action. Image from De Wit website

The wet cleaning in action. Image from De Wit website

Diagram from the De Wit website showing the wet cleaning process.

Diagram from the De Wit website showing the wet cleaning process.

 Thanks to our volunteers, Alexandra, Alice, Andra, Bekki, Jo, Lolly, Sue, Val and Vicky for all your hard work.

Alex, Emily, Lucy, Melinda, Sarah and Zena.

The treasures of the tea-chests and the tower…

…Knole Unwrapped 2014: Book and Paper Conservation

In 2013 when the hayloft was being cleared of its contents for its transformation into the hayloft learning centre a fantastic discovery was made.  As Project Conservator Siobhan Barratt, Curator Emma Slocombe and Lord Sackville pulled the sheets off piles of furniture and boxes they came across several large tea-chests. And inside…? A huge collection of books, packed haphazardly and now covered in varying degrees of dust, mould and the carcasses of insects.

The hayloft before being cleared.

The hayloft before being cleared.

It turns out they were part of the collection belonging to 5th Lord Sackville Edward (Eddy) Sackville-West and his step-mother Lady Anne Sackville. Combined with the contents of Eddy’s bookshelves from the Gatehouse Tower, working with these books has formed the major part of the Knole Unwrapped volunteer programme for 2014. There are over 1000 books dating mostly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The collection gives a fascinating insight into the lives of Knole’s inhabitants. It has been the task of three intakes of volunteers to record, clean, repair and wrap the books, ready for temporary storage.

The books now in the store room.

The books now in the store room.

Eddy’s collection is made up of an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction (Why You Lose at Bridge; Flying Saucers from Outer Space…), with many well, and less well-bound classics. Some of his books contain examples of Eddy’s gothic and cubist bookplates. Anne’s collection shows her love of the theatre through the numerous English and American playtexts, often programme texts bought at the theatre and listing the actors in that show’s run. There are also postcards, calling cards and notes littered through the books as bookmarks, which lead us to speculate about the stories behind the books and their owners.

Eddy's ‘gothic’ bookplate.

Eddy’s ‘gothic’ bookplate.

Step 1: Condition Reports

The first part of our work has been to take down a record of every book, noting its usual features (author, title, publication date), its condition and any interesting features such as inscriptions and inserts. Always in pencil (no pens near the collection).

Sophie records a book’s condition.

Sophie records a book’s condition.

In general, the books are in fair condition with some torn dust-wrappers, a little foxing, perhaps some damage by silverfish or mould. Some are cheap productions, with browning acidic pages and loose bindings, but there are also leather bound collections of classics with stylish marbling on the endpapers. There are literary treasures, including beautiful large format books of art prints, and an edition of Eddy’s contribution to the Hogarth Essays, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, The Apology of Arthur Rimbaud, inscribed ‘To Uncle Lionel, with love from the author’.

Our paper records will be transferred later on to a computerised catalogue for the Knole team to use as a reference whilst the books are stored. Every book has been given a shelf mark, which is noted so that those books which came from Eddy’s tower can go back in the position they were found.


Step 2 Cleaning

The books are handled carefully but firmly, with crêpe bandages used to support the boards and keep the pages from being opened at more than a 90-degree angle. We use two separately marked soft-bristled paint brushes to dust the books: one for the outside, one for the inside. A smoke sponge is used to carefully remove any dirty spots; a bone folder to gently lift any folded corners. Any books where the spines are loose or have fallen off (eek!) are secured by a cotton ribbon, tied with a special knot placed so as not to damage the book any further.

Suzi dusting inside a book.

Suzi dusting inside a book.

Step 3: Repair

Many books with damage to the covers can be stabilised using starch paste. This natural paste causes no known lasting damage to the book (unlike the layers of browning sellotape we sometimes find) and can easily be removed later with water. Books with delaminating corners, where the covering material has come apart and the inside layers are showing and separating, or with pealing leather at the edges, have the paste painted onto them with a fine brush. At times it can feel like you are doing more damage by prising the corners further apart to push the paste into the gaps, but it seems you have to be cruel to be kind – this work will help stop further degradation. Greaseproof paper is used in between the covers and pages while the paste dries to ensure these don’t stick together.


Step 4. Wrapping

It’s getting close to Christmas, so it has been useful to get in some wrapping practice these past weeks! Once each book has been recorded, cleaned, repaired and dried, it is wrapped in acid free tissue, secured with a label noting the shelf mark and book title.

Anne and Pip carefully wrap the books.

Anne and Pip carefully wrap the books.

When the books have been stabilised and wrapped, they are placed back on the shelves in the conservation storage area at Knole. The collection will return to the tower when these rooms open to the public for the first time in 2016.

Suzi Williamson, Knole Unwrapped volunteer

Photographic materials cleaning and re-housing project

Our mini photographic materials conservation project is underway. I say mini, there is a lot of work to be done, but its not quite on the same scale as our Inspired by Knole project.  We don’t have a £18m budget for a start. We’re about two months in to the project now and we’ve made good progress.

The Knole photographic materials collection is in two parts:

Part A: a mixed collection of albums, loose prints, glass plate negatives and lantern slides which date from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Many photographs feature Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville, his wife Victoria and daughter Vita, as well interior and external views of Knole. Several of our photographs were taken by Sevenoaks photographer Essenhigh Corke. It also includes some lovely personal scrap books that include photographs, annotations and watercolor sketches. The collection is a mixture of ownership by the National Trust and on loan from the Sackville family.

Some of our glass plate negatives, probably in their original packaging.

Some of our glass plate negatives, probably in their original packaging.

Part B: a new element of the collection, all items have recently been taken on loan from the Sackville family along with other contents from the Outer Wicket Tower rooms (new spaces we will be opening to visitors as a part of Inspired by Knole). Again it is a mixed collection of loose and framed prints, albums, carte de visites and cabinet cards, and cellulose negatives. They date from the late nineteenth century and early to mid-twentieth century and feature Edward Charles Sackville-West, 5th Baron Sackville (Eddy), his friends, and his family members, in particular his step mother Anne.

Condition of the collection:

A brief condition survey of Part A of the collection was carried out by Anita Bools (NT photographic materials advisor) in February 2012. Most of the objects looked at have been rated as follows: Condition = Fair Stability = unstable Treatment priority = desirable. A couple of the objects seen were rated poor and highly unstable. The collection has been kept in an environmentally controlled store room since the 1990s. Although some of the current housing of certain items is inadequate. A more in-depth condition survey of each individual item is required.

A more extensive survey of Part B of the collection was surveyed in December 2013 by photographic materials conservator and acting NT advisor, Sarah Allen. Overall condition of the collection has been rated as poor, stable / highly unstable and requires urgent treatment. The collection has been housed in a very poor uncontrolled environment for several decades, exposed to light, dust and there has been an active pest insect infestation.

The latest photographic materials taken on loan, in their previous storage location.

The latest photographic materials taken on loan, in their previous storage location.

So our mission is to condition asses every object in both parts of the collection.  Carry out basic cleaning and repairs, and identify those objects in need of more substantial conservation.  Then finally re-house the collection in the correct type of storage materials. We started off with sizing each object so we knew what type and size of storage housing to buy in for the collection. Now we have begun the condition assessments.

Every object is measured in mm and entered on the condition report spreadsheet.

Every object is measured in mm and entered on the condition report spreadsheet.

It is quite time consuming assessing each object, especially trying to identify each photographic process that has been used.  The more you see the easier it becomes to recognise the process.  Although we do have a little help to.

Two very useful reference books.

Two very useful reference books.


Alex, Emily, Lucy, Melinda, Sarah and Zena


My Morning with the Knole Conservation Team

I was lucky enough to spend one Monday morning recently with the lovely and talented group of people that are the Conservation Team here at Knole. Like many I’m sure, I have often wondered what their day-to-day work entailed, as much of this is completed deep within the property and remains unseen by visitors and office-based staff. A morning is only long enough to get a tiny glimpse into this, but was a fascinating and rewarding time nonetheless.

The team were taking me under their wing on one of their “deep clean” days, where they have a precious few hours in which the house is closed to the public. They explained to me that – although an important and enjoyable part of the role is to engage with visitors and answer any queries about conservation – during closed time they can properly concentrate on detailed care and cleaning, without worrying about interrupting the visitor experience or trailing wires from equipment etc! Whilst all areas of the house get a light cleaning every day, on deep-clean days the showrooms are visited in rotation so thorough attention can be paid to the  walls, windows, furniture and mouldings. It’s painstaking work, using a variety of different specialist tools to carefully dust and vacuum any debris that could build up and cause damage over time.

We were working in the Cartoon Gallery, and  I started by getting strapped in to my own vacuum back-pack, which Melinda rightly pointed out is like wearing a personal hot water bottle! I was privileged that the guys actually let me loose on the collection and woodwork, using a soft brush to vacuum up the dust and dirt and therefore removing it from the environment as much as possible. Not only is it highly skilled work but also requires the patience of a saint – something I can’t claim to have. These guys do, though, in buckets – and due to their experience and expertise they are quick also…completing whole sections of the massive gallery in the time it took me to clean one door frame.

I also got a “behind the scenes” insight into the storage areas the team have access to…tiny little cupboards hidden away out of sight behind panelling or in corners, where all the tools of the trade are. The Conservation Team not only have to be exceedingly patient to do their jobs, they also have to be pretty fit due to lugging heavy conservation equipment around the house. Of course cleaning and maintaining the house and collection is only a small part of what they do; as skilled Conservation Assistants the team assume a critical role in the ongoing project work here at Knole, assessing how we best secure and preserve the valuable objects and protect the fragile interiors for future generations, for example carefully removing items to be sent offsite for conservation, or helping lift the ancient floorboards for exploratory works. I know that the team are also becoming more involved than ever in visitor engagement, including hosting family torchlight tours offering an “up close” view of Knole from a specialist perspective.

No wonder they need such big cups of tea during their breaks!

 Rebecca Norburn – Fundraising Manager (maternity cover)