What are you doing?

‘What are you doing?’ was a common question asked when the conservation team were up in the Blue Bedroom working on the ceramics collection.

Suggestions included that we were painting, restoring, cleaning, washing, touching up, or gluing objects together. A few perceptive visitors worked out what we doing. Now that we’ve excited your curiosity, we’ll tell you what we doing…

Equipment for inventory marking

Equipment set out for today’s job…

We were inventory marking! Did you guess correctly?

Inventory marking involves clearly marking objects with an identification number.

Ceramic bowl

Objects to be marked included small and delicate ones, and large and heavy ones like this ceramic bowl. Usually we marked them on the bottom, so that they are unobtrusive and don’t spoil the aesthetic ‘look’ of each object

Collection of ceramics

Ceramics ready to be marked. We had our own complex organisational system at our headquarters, which was the Blue Room bed!

Inventory marking is important for a number of reasons. If an object has an identifcation number, it allows us to keep detailed records about it. For example, we can note when objects are sent away for professional conservation. It allows us to add notes about routine checks to an item’s condition report. It helps with locating an object’s whereabouts, and help with security records, in case of any damage, loss, theft, or insurance. Inventory marking also assists us to identify objects that might be of interest to researchers, scholars and National Trust staff by having object records collated in a collections management database.

Staff member inventory marking

Hard at work inventory marking

Ceramic pot

Inventory marking gives us the opportunity to examine the items as we inventory mark them. This piece is a Pyramid food warmer, invented by Samuel Clarke in the late 19th century. It would originally have had a contraption underneath it that would hold a tea light or a candle. They were often used to wean children off breast milk by heating up milk, or to heat up water.

Black ink pen

Writing the numbers with the ink pen was difficult due to the contours and awkward shape of some of the objects we were marking

Small paintbrushes

Small paintbrushes were used to apply the different layers used in the inventory marking process. No surprise that many people thought that we were painting! We were, in a roundabout sort of way…

It’s quite fiddly work, but satisfying to tick items off a list when they have been inventory marked! Just a couple of hundred more items to go…

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Conservation In Miniature – Part One

Here at Nostell Priory we’ve recently completed the installation of an exhibition in the Museum Room which focuses on all of the conservation work that we do to look after the property and contents. One of our most treasured exhibitions is also in the museum room – our wonderful Dolls’ House. When we were designing the exhibition we were inspired to use the dolls’ house as a model for part of it, which we have called ‘Conservation in Miniature’. I thought we’d use this blog post to share with you how we created our miniature dolls’ house.

Nostell’s historic dolls’ house, which is just under 300 years old!

Our aim was to create one room of a dolls’ house, and then furnish and decorate it as though it was undertaking the same deep winter clean that the actual rooms in Nostell are subject to each year. This included making miniature dust covers, book rests, tissue paper hats, vacuums, white gloves, shoe covers and other types of conservation equipment. It’s a way of really engaging people with the intricacies of conservation, on a miniature scale which captures the imagination and is memorable. Here’s how it was done:

First we had to build the dolls’ house display room, which was ordered and arrived flat-packed. I also measured up the walls and floor so that we could cut carpet and wallpaper that was the correct size.

We needed wallpaper with a small pattern which would complement the small size of the furniture to go into our dolls’ house display room

The display box was built up after the wallpaper and carpet were stuck on

The basic dolls’ house display box, ready to be filled with miniature furniture and (more importantly) a range of miniature conservation equipment

We chose a dining room setting as the best with which to display a range of conservation techniques. The main furniture in the room was ordered from the internet.

Smaller objects were bought from specialist dolls’ house shops to furnish the room, including miniature books, ceramic vases, and brushes. It’s amazing what you could find in the shops!

And then the fun began – making all of the conservation tools! Here I cut out felt mats which we place underneath objects to prevent scratching of surfaces (particularly wooden table tops)

Making replica foam book rests (out of a sponge!) Foam book rests help to support books when they are been used/looked at for research. It means that pages won’t come loose from spines and the boards and spines aren’t subject to excess pressure.

I tried to recreate the smallest of details to make it as representive of a room in a National Trust property as possible – including a drugget (long robust carpet that marks out the visitor route) and kickboards (long pieces of shaped wood which separate the visitor route from areas in a rooms which can’t be entered). Kickboards are better than traditional stanchions (upright poles with ropes hanging between them) as kickboards are lower and less obtrusive, letting visitors really feel that they are ‘in’ a room.

Protective corners on a miniature painting, and a roll of bubble wrap ready to help wrap it up for transportation. The painting is a scaled-down copy of Angelica Kauffmann’s ‘The Artist Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting’. I wanted something in our replica dolls’ house room which was specific to Nostell Priory

Shoe/boot covers (to stop mud, dust and dirt from being tracked into the carpets) were made from actual cut up boot covers! I also made light meters (blue wool dosimeters) and pest traps. The more conservation equipment that we could replicate to put into the room would help to show how busy National Trust properties really are over the winter period!

With furniture established in the conservation in miniature dolls’ house, it was time to furnish the room properly with all of the conservation equipment made and put it into the display cabinet (the fun part!)

Join us in the Part Two blog post about our Conservation In Miniature exhibition to see it all come together…

Ellie

It’s time for a spring clean…on a tiny scale!

One of the universally favourite items within the collection at Nostell Priory is our Dolls’ House. Nostell’s dolls’ house is one of two important 18th-century doll’s houses within the National Trust (the other is at Uppark House). Our dolls’ house was made for the Winn family (who lived at Nostell) around 1735, which was when the current Nostell Priory was being built. Traditionally, it’s thought to have been built by a young Thomas Chippendale, who was born at Otley, which is only a few miles away from Nostell (which sadly can’t be proved – but it would make a great addition to Nostell’s fabulous collection of Chippendale furniture, one of the largest in the country). The decorating and furnishing of the dolls’ house was done by the Lady Susanna Henshaw, the wife of the 4th Baronet at Nostell (who built the present main house).

And just like Nostell Priory itself, the dolls’ house gets its own spring clean once a year. We did this in front of the public as it was a great opportunity for them to see, learn, and ask questions about our work.

Julie gets ready to vacuum out one of the rooms of the dolls’ house (the furniture of the room about to be done has been removed – we don’t want any piece disappearing up the vacuum!)

The cleaning itself is relatively simple, but great care is needed due to the size of the objects. We don’t want to lose anything! It’s really a scaling down of the work involved in cleaning the main building and contents at Nostell. For example, each object will be carefully dusted, checked for damage or deterioration, and the fabrics will be vacuumed (with a special museum-grade low-suction vacuum cleaner). 

We set out tables in front of our work area so the public could get a close up view of the conservation cleaning, whilst protecting the dolls’ house

Carefully brush vacuuming the velvet curtains

When the house is open to visitors, the dolls’ house is covered with a large glass pane, to ensure that visitors can get a good view of the inside (and there are steps for our smaller visitors to be able to see the top floor rooms). The glass has the added effect of reducing the amount of dust and dirt entering the doll’s house, reducing the need to clean it more frequently. Infrequent cleaning also means that we are less likely to lose any of the contents – as some of them are very small indeed! It also fits in with a rolling programme of annual cleaning which takes places across the whole of Nostell Priory – after all it’s a big house, there are lots of objects to clean and conserve.

Each item is individually brushed to remove dust and dirt before being placed back inside the house, including this ceramic vase and lid

Wearing white gloves when handling the larger pieces of dolls’ house furniture to ensure no accidental damage is done. For some of the really tiny items (we have tiny glass goblets which are about 1cm tall) we don’t wear gloves, as the chance of them slipping out of our hands and being lost or broken is too great

Each item in the dolls’ house is of exquisite quality and craftsmanship. This drop leaf table even has hinged legs so that they can be folded away if required

The craftsmanship of all of the furniture and accessories suggest that it was made for adults to admire, rather than for children to play with. For example, in the photograph below there is a cabinet which is in the drawing room. The cabinet is never open whilst the dolls’ house is on show to visitors, so when it is cleaned we look at in detail to make sure there are no pests or signs of deterioration. It’s inlaid with ivory and because the inside rarely sees sunlight the colour has been preserved very well, including the ornate artwork on the drawers. Wonderful! Visitors really enjoyed seeing the inside of the cabinet. 

Cabinet in the drawing room, inlaid with ivory

Vacuuming the floors with a special low suction, museum-grade vacuum cleaner

Rugs and carpets in the dolls’ house are vacuumed with a gauze over the top, to stop any loose threads being sucked in

Aside from the Chippendale connection and the fact that the building of the doll’s house is contemporary with the building of Nostell itself, what is amazing is the detail of all of the accessories. The tableware is made of hand blown glass, all of the silver is hallmarked, all of the fireplaces were copied from James Gibb’s Book of Architecture (dated 1728), a table in the parlour has real wrought-iron brackets and a marble top, and the walls in the drawing room are decorated with contemporary French prints. 

Hallmarked silver tea service

Each individual piece is examined, cleaned, and placed back in its original location

The silver spoons are only as long as the end of my finger!

Carefully placing the tea service back into the drawing room

Julie shows some of the star pieces of the dolls’ house to interested visitors

Most of the dolls are made of wax, but the cook (shown here) is made of painted wood. Some people suggest that the cook is made from wood to signify his lower status in the household than the other dolls, which is an interesting theory

Delicate hand blown glassware in one of the rooms

There we have it – a clean and dusted dolls’ house. We especially enjoyed talking to the public during our conservation work on the dolls’ house, as this is definitely one of our favourite jobs to do at Nostell and we love to share it with visitors!

Beautifully clean dolls’ house – at least until next year!

We arranged for some journalists and photographers to come and photograph us cleaning the dolls’ house, which is great publicity for Nostell and will hopefully encourage more people to come and see the dolls’ house for themselves. Articles were published in The Yorkshire Post, the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Wakefield Express. Here is a link to one of the articles that was also published on the newspaper’s website:

Spring clean for Nostell Priory dolls house – Top Stories – Yorkshire Evening Post

Happy reading!

Ellie

Are you being served?

One of the most iconic rooms in any stately home/country manor is the dining room. Here in Nostell Priory we have two – the sumptuous State Dining Room and the charming Small Dining Room (which is still used occasionally). To help bring the property to life, we lay out the dining service on the table so that the whole spectacle of stately dining can be seen by visitors. Which means only one thing…it’s time to lay the table!

One of the continuously changing aspects inside Nostell is the main State Dining Room table. Recently, it’s been transformed into a sweet shop at Christmas, and has been a feast of bright colour for Easter. You’ll see a future table display being created step-by-step on this blog – but we won’t tell you what event it’s for just yet….

Sweetie shop with hand decorated gingerbread men

Colourful at Easter

Once these displays have been taken down we reset the table as though a banquet is about to be held. (I admit, it’s one of the really fun tasks that we enjoy doing!). Here’s some entertaining pictures of how we do it, beginning with the tablecloth:

Bare wood. Some people prefer seeing the wood rather than a tablecloth, but the tablecloth allows us to decorate the table with less fear about scratching the surface

Nostell’s state dining room table was probably made by Gillows of Lancaster, and dates from the early 19th century. It definitely wasn’t made for Nostell’s dining room, as when it is fully extended and all of the leaves are added, it’s longer than the whole room!

Bringing the tablecloth over…

And it’s on! Phew

Once the tablecloth has been smoothed and has no creases, we begin putting out the full dinner service, for all eight place settings. The mahogany dining chairs date approximately from the 1740s – which means that they predate a lot of the actual house! They have claw-and-ball feet, and records tell us that they have always been situated in this room.

Lots of knives, forks and spoons!

A multitude of glassware

Beautiful gilded creamics, and our rather regal centrepiece

I wonder what delicious food would have been put into all of the dishes – what would you put in, if you had the choice?

Concentration in Action

The centrpiece in the above and below pictures is a Victorian silver plated candelabra with a tricorn base with elaborate foliage and grape vine motifs, dated 1830-1870. It has six arms and a central basket, and brings a sense of height and elegance to the table, in addition to helping to centre the symmetry of the place settings. 

If you look carefully you’ll see circles of brown felt underneath the serving dish which Claire is about to put down. We use felt so that gilding or paint isn’t scratched off by the rough undersides of other ceramics, and so that accidental damage doesn’t occur. It also means that the table can be decorated with layers of ceramics, making it much more visually interesting.

Sparkling glassware really sets off the place settings, and we have glasses for red wine, white wine, and port too!

After an afternoon’s hard work we were finished, with a beautiful set dining table ready for visitors… a feast for the eyes, if not for the stomach!

The finished result…

Nostell Priory’s State Dining Room Table

Ellie

Bugs, Pots and Wood

Gallery

Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 1 One of the questions conservation assistants are frequently asked is ‘how did you learn to care for the objects in your collection?’ A lot of our knowledge and skills is acquired by on-the-job training and conversations … Continue reading