Spotlight on: Physical Forces

Agent of Deterioration No. 3 – PHYSICAL FORCES

One of the most visual agents of deterioration is that of physical forces, and is perhaps the foremost agent which springs to mind when we are asked not to touch things in historic houses. Although we are trying to make our collections more accessible and engaging to visitors, hopefully this blog post will show you why sometimes it is in an object’s best interests to leave well alone if possible.

The main effects to objects are shock, vibration, abrasion and gravity. Often these effects are unintentionally inflicted upon objects.

For example, the photograph below shows a detail from the corner of one of the pier tables in the Top Hall. Look carefully at the arm and shoulder – it has recently been restored as the paintwork had been rubbed off, showing the different layers underneath.

Carefully restored paintwork on one of the tables in the Top Hall

The restoration makes it look as if the figure has always been in perfect condition. Yet this has not been the case…

Look at the picture below, which shows the damage that repeated rubbing had inflicted upon the carving and paintwork. This was caused by a number of factors, all human related. The positioning of the tables are such that when a wedding is held in the Top Hall, visitors come in and brush against the tables. In the past, visitors have also tried to use the figures as hooks to hang their handbags and coats on! After a few years, you can easily see the physical damage caused.

Damage caused by physical forces

Physical forces can be cumulative and occur over time (as seen above) or can be sudden and dramatic, such as dropping an item and breaking it, or larger disasters such as earthquakes.

Effects of physical forces include scratches, dents, holes, rips, tears, and breaking. Below are various photographs of objects at Nostell Priory which have suffered from physical forces. See if you can find a connecting factor between all of the images!

Scratches and a rip on the surface of the billiard table – too enthusiastic a player, perhaps?

Close up of the tear in the baize on the billiard table

Wear and tear at the top of the spine of books in the library. This is why you should be very careful when taking books from shelves!

Indentation in the Top Hall floor. It’s possible that this was caused by a high heeled shoe initially, and has increased over time.

Sofa in the State Bedroom. This was caused by a small child who started plucking stuffing from the arm before he could be stopped. We’ve placed a covering of netting over the corner to prevent idle hands continuing the damage!

Base of one of the lamps in the State Dining Room. Due to the natural low positioning of the base, it has gained lots of chips and scratches over the years. These have possibly come from shoes kicking against it, things being dropped on it, children playing near it, who knows?

Below is a photo of the servants’ stairs. In this instance, it demonstrates a case of physical damage that is not all doom and gloom! The repetitive movements of servants running up and down the stairs for many years has worn away the stonework, creating curved steps rather than flat ones. However, rather than being a case for restorers to repair any damage, the changed look of the stairs adds to the character and history of the house, and gives it charm.

Finishing on a happy note – not all physical forces are bad! The worn away stone steps bring the house alive and show the years of ‘upstairs downstairs’ that have taken place at Nostell.

Did you guess the connecting factor – that’s right, it’s us, humans!

It’s often noted that the worst threat to historic objects are humans, and this is probably true. However if we are careful how we treat them there is no reason why we can’t enjoy these collections for many years to come.



But how did they get up there?

One of my favourite rooms (possibly my absolute favourite, although there are some strong contenders!) is the library. Visitors also love seeing all of the books from floor to ceiling, and often wonder what knowledge and surprises are contained within the books.

One of the most frequent questions that people ask us is how we reach the books on the higher shelves in the library. For the Billiard Room, where the shelves are really high, historically they used really tall ladders to get the top shelves (which probably didn’t happen very often). Unfortunately none of these tall ladders survive at Nostell.

In the Library we know what they used to reach the high shelves as we still have the piece of furniture that they used!

And here it is…

It’s a set of Thomas Chippendale George III library metamorphic steps. The invoice dates them to the 4th of July, 1767. They cost the grand sum of £14.

Fully extended, the steps dimensions are 1840 x 1250 x 580 mm. This makes them big enough to reach the highest shelves in the Library (but not the super high shelves in the Billiard Room).

We’ve decided to open up the metamorphic steps and have them as our ‘open cabinet’ for a while, as we all like seeing such an impressive piece of furniture opened up as the Winn family who lived at Nostell would have had it.

Here are some photographs of us putting it together (complete with much scratching of heads and re-reading of the instructions!):

We lift the seat up and part of the steps fold out to provide some initial structure. Then it’s a case of fitting all of the parts together and slotting them in correctly!

The metamorphic steps are made out of polished mahogany, although the inside of the steps aren’t polished like the outside, as nobody would see them!

Carefully positioning the steps

Attaching the top support

The seat of the steps (which becomes the back when it is opened out) is padded with horse hair

Looking up the steps – it’s a long way!

Metamorphic library steps, with the Library’s false door of books in the background

And there we have it – a fully functioning set of metamorphic steps that the Winn family would have used to get books from the top shelves in the Library.

Fully opened set of Chippendale metamorphic steps in the Library of Nostell Priory. The painting next to the steps shows Lady Sabine and and Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet, standing in Nostell’s Library next to Chippendale’s library desk. It was painted by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, and dates to 1767. Sir Rowland commissioned the painting because he was enormously proud of the Library once it was finished, and wanted to show it off to his London friends, so hung it in their house in St. James Square.

Now, which book shall we look at first…?


Dust, Carpets and Books

Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 2

One of the main enemies that National Trust properties fight with on a daily basis is cleaned away, but always comes back with a vengeance. It can be found high and low, from cornices to flagstones, and that enemy is…dust!

Dust sample of just one day’s dirt from Blickling Hall, collected from vacuum bags

Dust is a subject which was mentioned in almost every session during the housekeeping course – namely, how to get rid of it. It can be very scratchy and gritty, and is composed of many things from soil, grit, skin, hair, which makes it not very welcome at National Trust properties. When left for a long time without cleaning, dust can begin a process called ‘cementation’, where the dust actually sticks to the objects it has landed on. This cemented dust can be very difficult to completely remove and can stain, discolour, and scratch the objects underneath. We examined the properties of dust, how to remove it using vacuum and different types of brush (for example pony hair, goat hair and hogs hair), and what sort of objects we should wipe on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis (flat surfaces from about knee to shoulder high acquire the most dust and so should be cleaned daily, but items in cabinets get the least, and so can be cleaned less often).

Another session was about carpets and rugs – after all, most properties have some form of carpet somewhere inside! Skills learnt include the beating of smal carpets:

Modern day carpet beaters, much like a table tennis paddle, just a bit floppier (yet still rigid to beat away the dirt)

More intricate carpet skills were also taught, including how to roll a carpet or large rug for transport or storage:

How to roll a carpet: equipment includes a large piece of pipe to keep shape, and acid free tissue paper to separate each layer

When the carpet is large it can require three or more people to roll it so that no creases are made and it stays in line

It’s very important to roll a carpet with the direction of the pile, so as not to pull or put stress on the weave. Therefore, at the start of the rolling process our very first task is to identify and mark the direction of the pile so we know whether it is symettrical or asymmetrical, and in what direction the weave goes.

Carpet with a symmetrical pile

A further session was on book and paper conservation. We’ve written a few blog posts about how to clean and repair books on Nostell’s conservation blog so hopefully readers should be aware of some of the work that we do! On the course, we were taught correct techniques of removing books from shelves (no grabbing at the top of the spine, please!) and how to display books, check for pests, handle books, tie them together in case the covers were coming loose, and examine the hangings and fastenings of paper items in frames for weak points. It was especially useful for Nostell, as we have an extremely large book collection in the library.

Demonstrating the proper technique for removing old books from library shelves

The Long Gallery at Blickling, which holds the majority of their book collection

And so ended another day jam-packed full of conservation demonstrations and the sharing of knowledge – a little of which I hope that we’ve shared with you today. Happy reading!


Repairing the Library Books

In one of the previous posts on this blog, we focused on how the library books are cleaned. But what happens when the cleaning team find books which are too damaged to be cleaned? They pass them on to Nostell’s book repairing team!

Table full of poorly books awaiting treatment

The volunteer in-house book repair team come to Nostell once a week to do minor repairs on the library books. They have been trained by a professional book conservator, and regularly have refresher training to ensure that they are taught any new techniques or skills. If they find that damaged books require more than usual care, they note it down and the books are sent away to a book conservator.

Tasks that Nostell’s in-house repair team do vary from simple repairs (for example minor tears and re-attaching loose pieces of leather) to slightly more complex ones (such as laminating scuffed corners of covers and repairing spines, which requires the creation of a hinge made out of hand-made paper).

The most important tool that the book repair team use is the book paste, which is all-purpose and used in every repair.

The all-important book paste!

The book paste is made by mixing strong white wheat flour with water and boiling the concoction until it thickens. It’s completely free from any harmful ingredients, and is reversible (it can be dampened and removed if necessary by trained bookbinders). The same recipe has been used for about a thousand years and if the books are kept in the right conditions (temperature and humidity) could last for a thousand more years! The paste is used very thinly, as a thick coat of of paste takes much longer to dry than a thin coat.

Here’s how a minor repair is fixed by the book repair team:

The paste is applied not to the book directly, but to the loose piece of leather in need of re-attachment. It’s brushed on carefully from the centre outwards, ensuring that no paste gets onto the surface of the loose piece.

The pasted piece is then very carefully and gently placed and pressed into position using fingers. A steady hand is necessary!

The repair is then covered with silicone paper (non-stick baking paper), and then rubbed over with a bone folder (which presses the repair in and helps to fix its location).

The final stage is bandaging (using normal hospital bandages). This holds the book tightly together and allows the repair to dry in a fixed position with no chance of it slipping.

More careful bandaging. Once bandaged, books are usually left for a week before unravelling to check that the repair has been successful.

A fully bandaged book, left to dry

Records are kept so we know what repairs have been done to each book, which helps to monitor progress and will tell us whether a book is deteriorating rapidly or not

A tidy table at the end of the day – ready for the next session of book repairing!

And that’s how it’s done! Some books need multiple repairs which are done separately, after the previous repair’s bandages have been taken off. The team are very good at spotting where a book needs more work doing, and know when a specialist book restorer is needed. The book cleaning and book repairing teams act as a method of preventive conservation so that we can stop further damage happening to the books by regular care, maintenance, and monitoring. 

We really appreciate the volunteers and the hard work that they do in the library, and I’m sure that the books appreciate all of their love and attention too!


How do the library books get cleaned?

Answer: with much patience, hard work and dedication. A love of books is also a must!

Scaffolding up ready to get books from the top shelves

Our volunteer book cleaning team were in today, to work their way through the library books. It’s an ongoing programme which has been going on for the last ten years! The team taught me the processes involved with caring for the books so that the collection will last for many more centuries and future visitors.

Once a book is selected and brought to the work area in the Billiard Room, a low suction vacuum cleaner is used to suck away excess surface dust on the book covers. There is a piece of gauze netting which is placed over the head of the vaccuum to stop large bits of loose material (which can be repaired) from disappearing into the machine. Then a shaving brush is used to brush dust off the top edge, fore edge, and tail edge of the books.

Terry uses the shaving brush – but not for him!

The cover is then lightly brushed with a pony hair brush, in the direction away from the spine and off the edge. Soft dusters can be used on covers to remove dirt very gently – dusters can also buff gilded patterns/pictures on covers, but not pressing so hard that the gilding is rubbed away. The book can then be opened, resting it on a foam book rests so as to not strain the binding and spine of the book. The inside pages are then examined, and loose bits of dust, dirt etc are brushed out using the pony brush. Each book is assessed individually – books that are in good condition can have most of their pages brushed, yet books that are in poor condition are usually left until they have been repaired by a professional conservator.

Carefully brushing the pages

Believe it or not but Terry is not wearing a butcher’s apron in the picture above – the stripey aprons are specially made from soft cotton, so that if a book accidentally touches against you it touches something soft and non-abrasive, and isn’t damaged (which it might be if rough material comes into contact with the book).

Smoke rubbers are used to remove any finger marks and general dirt from the pages

Using the smoke rubber

If any damage is found in the books whilst cleaning (e.g. the spine is becoming detached, cover slightly peeling away etc) this is recorded and the information passed to the in-house book repair team (we’ll meet them in the blog another time!) If the books are very badly damaged then they will go away to a professional book conservator’s workshop to be repaired and returned to Nostell at a later date. The book cleaning team meticulously record what work has been done to each book, what needs to be done, any significant features in the books, etc – they are extremely organised. And they have to be, as there are approximately 7000 books in Nostell’s library and billiard room combined!

After a book has been cleaned, if necessary (to protect the book from coming apart at the binding) it is tied with two thin lengths of specially dyed material (at Nostell we have a dark brown and a dark khaki green) which blend in with the library colour scheme, and so does not destroy the ‘look’ of the library for visitors to the house.

Jill carefully ties a book together

Once the team have finished working with a book, it is put back on the shelf, and the process is repeated 7000 times for each book in the library. When they have finished cleaning all of the books there is only one thing for it – to start all over again from the beginning!