Cleaning the Billiard Room Curtains

One of the tasks which is completed on a rolling programme (meaning it’s not done annually, but alternated with other items) is cleaning all of the curtains in the State Rooms.

This time it was the turn of the Billiard Room curtains! They are made from dyed cotton, and date from 1870-1930. There are three curtains in total, and comprise of floral printed ribbed cotton curtains and swagged pelmets held with rope tie-backs.

Cleaning the Billiard Room curtains

We have to put the scaffolding up to reach the top of the curtains as they are so high. This is a big job as we have to recruit many people (about eight) to help us move the billiard table so that we can put up the scaffolding, as the table is really heavy! We also take the opportunity to change the lightbulbs in the chandelier you can see, as usually we can’t reach it!

Cleaning the Billiard Room curtains

The curtains are cleaned with a low suction vacuum cleaner which has thin gauze tied around the nozze to stop material being sucked in. This gets rid of any dust which might harbour pests and contribute to the deterioration of the curtains.

Cleaning the Billiard Room Curtains

Talk about sitting down on the job!

Brightly coloured curtains

Usually the curtains are gathered up and tied back, but when we are cleaning them we have the chance to look at them closely. The curtains retain their bright colours of reds, blues, and greens because the amount of light falling on the curtains is relatively low.

Back of the curtains

Whilst the front of the curtains are beautifully patterned and coloured because people see that side, the back is very dull in comparison. This is purely functional, as if nobody sees the back, there is no reason to spend money on fancy patterns if they will just fade in the sunlight.

Back of the curtains

However, the back of the curtains can be interesting too. We can see the mechanics of how they are tied to the plasterwork. If you look closely, you can see two shades of pale brown. The darker is where part of the textile panelling was replaced during conservation work.

After two days of work, the final result is a great addition to the visual impact of the thousands of books which line the walls of the Billiard Room at Nostell Priory.

Finished Billiard Room curtains

The clean and finished curtains in the Billiard Room. Magnificent! Photo copyright National Trust / Robert Thrift.


Turn Over an Old Leaf…

…by coming to our event next week in Nostell’s historic library!

Join us on Thursday 20th September at 12.30pm for Turn Over an Old Leaf.

It’s one for the bookworms – enjoy a talk about Nostell’s historic library, followed by a special opportunity to take a closer look at some of our favourite books. If you’ve ever wanted to look inside the books on Nostell’s shelves then now is your chance! 

A variety of fishes and a hand drawn picture of an eel (bottom right of the illustrations). We don’t know who drew it but we can always guess! Who knows what books you’ll see at Turn Over an Old Leaf, so come along and find out!

The cost is £5 plus normal admission, which ensures re-entry for you to explore the house after the event. Booking is essential. Please be prepared to leave large bags in the cloakroom, and if you wish to take notes please use pencils.

For further information please look at:

We look forward to seeing you there, for some literary fun!


See any resemblances…? A page from ‘A Series of Lithographic Drawings Illustrative of the relation between the Human Physiognomy and that of the Brute Creation from Designs by Charles Le Brun’, 1827.

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…?


Secrets and Suites

On a routine basis in Nostell Priory we examine objects within the collection to clean them, check for pests, damage, and suchlike. This is most often during the winter closed period, when each item gets a deep clean. Doing this means that the house team see the secrets of the furniture, and we get to work with parts of objects which visitors aren’t usually able to view. We thought that we’d share a few of these secrets of the suites with you in today’s blog post.

This false door in Nostell’s library is one of the many secret and false doors within the house, and my personal favourite

Nostell is a very old house, so we have some very old keys to get into some of the rooms! The shapes on some of the oldest keys are really beautiful, and we have to hope that they won’t snap in the locks! The keys help to unlock many of the secrets within the Priory

Nostell’s glorious state bed. This room is usually very dark as we keep the curtains closed to protect the textiles in the room. However, to deep clean the room we opened the curtains and were able to see the bright colours of the bedclothes (shown in the photo below)

Bright pinks and greens on the State Bed cover, in an intricate pattern

The Gillows suite is cleaned with the museum vacuum and gauze

Each individual cushion gets a turn too!

Where can we safely store the cushions whilst the sofas are being cleaned? On another part of the suite, of course!

Pierre Golle’s cabinet in the Tapestry Room, made from (amongst other materials) ebony and marble

Look at the rather grand stately interior of the front compartment of the cabinet, it’s like a mini ballroom!

Look at the angle at which this drawer emerges – Golle must have been a very skilled craftsman

The side panels of the drawers are not as fancy as the front panel, but were still made with great skill

The drawers hide many surprises! We found draughts playing pieces in this chest of drawers in the Tapestry Room

Dusting the inside of the drawers

And there you have it – a few of the secrets within the suites of furniture within Nostell Priory. We hope that you’ve enjoyed having a sneaky look!


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!