Stately homes are busy preparing for spring opening. Rachel Jones goes behind the scenes at Stansted House.
They call it ‘hug a jug’.
Housekeeping can be hard work in any setting, but when you’re looking after a stately home even picking up something as simple as a jug requires plenty of thought.
After all, this piece is likely to be porcelain and hundreds of years old.
‘If something is old, picking it up by the handle or rim is not an option,’ says Janet Sinclair, house and events manager at Stansted House near Rowlands Castle. ‘If it’s going to go, that’s where it will go first. So you hold it in your arms – like a baby really – and support the bottom.’
Similarly, centuries-old chairs must be picked up from the bottom because the handles could be fragile. And housekeepers must adopt all kinds of other techniques for preserving the precious items in their charge.
This kind of careful lifting and carrying, as well as painstaking cleaning techniques, have been going on up and down the country as our historic houses prepare to open up for the spring.
Most stately homes close down for the winter and every item is carefully covered or wrapped up and rooms plunged into darkness to protect valuable paintings and tapestries from the light.
Come spring and the shutters go up, the acid-free dust covers come off and every piece of crystal, glass and china must be carefully inspected and cleaned using protective techniques,
At Stansted housekeepers Christine Day and Sandra Morrissey and a team of volunteers from Portsdown Decorative and Fine Arts Society have been getting everything ship-shape and shiny for the first event of the spring season on Mother’s Day (March 18).
This isn’t simply a case of washing a few plates. Each one of dozens of the crystal glasses – once part of the huge dining service of Stansted owners the Earls of Bessborough – have to be hand washed individually so there is no risk of chipping.
The large dining service bearing the family crest is treated in the same way. And a collection of antique Japanese and Chinese porcelain must be inspected for every tiny flaw, and if dusty cleaned with cotton buds.
Considering there are more than 20 rooms at the house, full of valuable brass, china, wood, textiles and paintings, it’s a huge task.
‘It’s the copper and brass that takes the longest,’ says Christine, revealing it can take more than two weeks to get through the whole collection.
‘You have to get in all the nooks and crannies. But that’s what I loves about this. Because you have to take so much care over everything, you work slowly and it’s quite relaxing. And it’s lovely to be looking after all these beautiful things.’
The volunteers from Portsdown Decorative and Fine Arts Society help out at the house every Monday and their support is invaluable. It was members of the group who recently cleaned some brass candelabra with lily design, a task that took several weeks because of the intricate detail.
‘I don’t think people realise what goes into it but we don’t mind that. It’s part of running a country house. We want it to be very relaxed and natural looking so visitors really enjoy the experience,’ says Janet.
The reality behind the scenes is that everything has been packed and unpacked from special acid free tissue so chemicals can’t harm the precious items.
Silver items have been wrapped and packed in cupboards so they don’t tarnish. Shutters are closed through the winter and out of public visiting hours so light doesn’t bleach antique tapestries, paintings and rugs.
Embroidered chairs are vacuumed with a pair of nylon tights covering the nozzle and gauze placed over the fabric so precious fibres aren’t sucked away. Tapestries are cleaned with extremely soft brushes to again preserve the fibres.
All these cleaning and preserving techniques must be carried out extremely carefully as no one working at the house wants a breakage.
‘It hasn’t happened to me in eight years,’ says Christine, proudly.
Luckily if she did break something she wouldn’t be treated liked the servants who worked at the house in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
In Stansted records cook Mollie Plummer boasts that she never broke a plate during her employment – a good thing as a single breakage would have cost her two guineas, about a 10th of her annual wage!
Some of the centuries-old porcelain bears cracks and these are recorded and monitored. Janet says: ‘Things are only repaired if absolutely necessary. The ninth Earl of Bessborough bought the house in the 1920s and these old possessions would have been moved around a lot. A little crack in something is part of the history of that object.’
The team have learned the techniques partly through lessons from the past. Janet points out a pair of 17th century walnut chests with brass fittings. On very close inspection traditional brass cleaners have left residue and a few tiny cracks in the wood. These days far less abrasive silver dip or cleaners used for classic cars do the job.
But staff and volunteers only clean when necessary. ‘We only do what absolutely needs to be done,’ says Janet. ‘It’s far better that something looks a bit tarnished than we risk breaking it.’
The volunteers from Portsdown DFAS have painstakingly recorded every book in the impressive library and covered many for protection. Janet says it’s all about preventive conservation. ‘It’s easier to maintain things than deal with damage when it occurs.’
But there are also plenty of conservation experts around for the team to call upon when things require professional treatment.
Historic houses such as Petworth and Uppark share ideas and information with Stansted.
‘We’re all doing the same thing, looking after our treasures and preserving history.We’re all happy to help each other out,‘ says Janet.
The key is to approach everything carefully and only clean or repair after plenty of thought.
‘We’re lucky we have volunteers and staff that have the right attitude,’ explains Janet.