What’s that smell?

Historic houses are full of smells. What smells, you might wonder?

Well, historically there could be smells of polish from servants busy polishing shoes and riding boots, kitchen delights of baking and roasting wafting through the air, perfume and lavendar water from a lady’s dressing room, an aroma of sherry drifting from an open decanter in the library, cigars after dinner, fresh washing from the laundry, smoke from the fires, mothballs and fur coats, scented flowers from the garden, and wet dogs running through the hallways. And… rotten eggs.

Rotten eggs?

The explanation must be that the conservation team have been doing some work at Nostell which resulted in such a smell pervading visitors’ nostrills. So, what were we doing? Our work table might give you a clue…

Work table ready for an afternoon’s hard graft!

We were cleaning the silver! Did you guess correctly?

We clean our silver once a year, and the product we use is Goddard’s Silver Dip. The dip removes all of the tarnish that accumulates over one year’s exposure to air and the elements. It’s the silver dip which smells! It works by removing sulphur from the silver surface, which removes the tarnish and leaves a bright silver finish. It’s the sulphur that gives off the eggy odour!

Today’s task was to clean the silver centrepiece which sits on the State Dining Room table, and is a focal point for the room.

It’s a Victorian candelabra with a tricorn base, dated 1830-1870, with grape, cupid, and vine motifs. Here it has been decorated with red, white and blue for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The centrepiece separates into different pieces. This meant we could clean it as a team (and it would be a lot quicker than one person doing it by themselves!)

Here’s what we did!

We don’t actually dip the silver into the silver dip, as this would remove too much of the surface. We apply it carefully with cotton wool buds. This ensures we only use a small amount at a time, and can get into the nooks and crannies of the ornamentation

We also use soft bristle toothbrushes for larger areas that don’t have intricate decoration

The colour co-ordination of clothes and nitrile gloves was not intentional, honest! We wear nitrile gloves with all metalwork to stop grease from our hands transferring to the objects, which could result in deterioration (and unsightly finger prints!)

Once the silver dip has been applied, we then rinse it in warm water and dry it off. Rinsing it off doesn’t tarnish the silver, don’t worry! With metalwork, it’s important that whatever you put on (in this case, the silver dip) we also take off

The intricately detailed parts are dried with pads of cotton wool

You can really tell the difference between parts which have been cleaned and parts which haven’t!

Making progress on the arms of the candelabra

Some of the silver cleaning team, hard at work. It’s great having the opportunity to talk to visitors about our work as we are doing it, as it helps them to understand the process of conserving a historic property. Others just wanted tips on how to clean their own silver!

Beginning the main stem of the candelabra. Top downwards seems to be the easiest way to go!

Looking pretty good – not long now!

The finished result! The bottom part looks more tarnished than the top – this is because over time some of the tarnish becomes too deeply ingrained to clean off. Who knows what food may have been spilt on it in the past?

Back where it belongs on the centre of the State Dining Room table, looking as magnificent as ever!

And if you came to visit us at Nostell the day we were cleaning the silver, we can only apologise about the smell!

Ellie

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