Good Housekeeping 101

Preservation lessons from the real-life Downton Abbey.

By Betsy Thomas

May 20, 2013 

Like many of you, I count myself as a fan of Downton Abbey. For three seasons, this riveting series has graciously invited viewers to step into the splendors of a bygone era and follow the drama of the fictitious Crawley family and the Earls of Grantham, in whose halls the familiar tinkle of a bell summoned tea, and each member of the family retained a personal valet or lady’s maid.

But behind the camera and far removed from the scandals and family drama rises the stunning backdrop of Highclere Castle—the storied family seat of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679 and the real life stage set for Downton Abbey

The prominent Victorian facade, built in 1842 on the centuries old blueprint of an earlier foundation stands as an architectural masterpiece by Charles Barry, best known for his Houses of Parliament buildings in London. As one enters the main entrance, Highclere’s interior spaces reveal nothing less than a treasure trove of fine and decorative art and furniture—a gothic entrance hall believed to be a design by Gilbert George Scott, Napoleon’s Egyptian style desk and chair and Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s 14-foot Equestrian Portrait of Charles I in the formal dining room to name a few highlights.

While many of us fantasize about living in a stately home filled with art, the care and upkeep can be anything but glamorous. Indeed a centuries-old estate can take on a personality of its own and today’s aristocrats and their house managers are faced with daily household headaches ranging from foundational problems, leaky 17th-century shingles, cracking stone gargoyles on the roof, and living rooms that were never meant to be “sunken."

And yet, these vast estates house a huge percentage of Britain’s art treasures and have become major tourist attractions. To the modern visitor Highclere seems a veritable museum, but to each generation of owners it was, and simply remains, “home.” My own weekly addiction to Downton Abbey and love of art and antiques inspired me to uncover the secrets to successfully running such a home.

The Dining Room, Highclere Castle. Photo courtesy © Highclere Castle Enterprises LLP 2013.

At the Strand bookstore in New York I came across a remarkable book co-authored by Hermione Sandwith and Sheila Stainton entitled The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping: A Practical Guide to the Conservation of Old Houses and their Contents, 1984. Inspired by accounts from an 18th-century Manual of Housekeeping pulled from the extracts of local aristocratic housewives, it has become the estate manager’s bible; an exhausting survey of how to care for the valuable objects in a house, from the rafters to the basements. As the forward aptly states, (The Handbook) “bridges the gap between old, tried and tested traditions of good housekeeping and modern methods of preventative conservation.”

Could this book hold any relevance for today’s collector? These palatial historic residences may seem worlds away from the modern houses of today, and yet I discovered that the challenges remain the same—how do we keep the moths from feasting on the tapestries and rugs? How does one deal with fluxuations in temperature, or the harmful effects of sunlight? Indeed, if the paintings could talk and objects had a voice, each group would rise up with a chorus of very different demands. Part of the charm of the book is the way the authors animate the contents of the house. They lament the difficulties in balancing the atmospheric conditions to accommodate all the residents, and not just the human ones. They write “… woodwork would prefer to be more damp while paper would like to be drier.” The Manual stresses “long-term” preservation. And when the English say “long-term,” they mean a couple of centuries. In an attempt to glean the most important tidbits from the manual, I felt the following insights were worth noting.

A newly revised and expanded 2011 edition of The Manual, widely available at booksellers on the internet.

Paintings:

According to the Manual, “pictures play an essential role in the embellishment of any country house.” Although few of us have a “Long Gallery” lined with centuries old paintings of our ancestors, its best to hang the paintings we do have as if they were going to grace the walls for the next generation.

  • “Air should circulate to the back of the picture. A painting hung on an outside wall might be subject to condensation. Sticking corks to the bottom of the frame allows maximum circulation of air.” Today, conservation and framing supply stores sell sophisticated spacers, but an English stately home used what was available, and after a good bottle of Claret why should anything from the wine cellar go to waste?
  •  Paintings on panel are “particularly susceptible to adverse conditions” and should have relative humidity checked regularly; it should not fall below 45%.
  •  Picture lights that arch over the frame create “patches of overheating of the surface” and are not recommended. If, however, your paintings are double or triple hung on a tall wall and lighting is a problem, “it is sometimes possible to cant forward (tilt forward) the upper register of paintings … which reduces reflection.”
  •  When entertaining, they recommend that “Pictures be safeguarded whenever possible by placing furniture below them.” While this may be out of fashion, it’s not a bad strategy to push a few extra chairs against the wall to keep a tipsy guest from splashing champagne or elbowing your Dutch Still Life painting. They recommend that any painting hung in a “narrow passage or bottleneck” should be “glazed”—that is, protected behind glass.

Prints and Drawings:

  •  Particular caution should be exercised with works on paper and exposure to dreaded sunlight," for the consequences of colors fading are irreversible."
  •  “Inks are particularly susceptible to light and can fade irreversibly in a short period of time.” Pastels are “particularly prone to mould growths” due to their often tight enclosure under glass.
  •  Don’t hang a drawing above a table lamp; it creates harmful and concentrated heat.
  •  Be mindful of “acidity” caused by acidic mounts that can burn and discolor paper. Always re-mat any newly purchased drawing or watercolor.
  •  Today, UV glass is standard, but it is only a partial filter, so why not copy the English, limiting exposure by occasionally drawing the curtains, pulling down the shades and removing the works periodically.

Sculpture:

Sculptures are the naughty children of any family of objects—they don’t travel well, they can easily hurt themselves (i.e. broken limbs) and they are magnets for dirt and grease.

  •  “Never stand white marble on a carpet or polished floor ..." Marble is beautiful, but is very porous and can absorb color from a wood floor or colored and dyed textiles. As a remedy, make sure all statues are on a base or polythene sheet.
  •  The most vulnerable pedestals are the tall, narrow-based, hollow wooden type. While “filling … the base of the pedestal with clean, dry sand” is messy and outdated, the manual suggests “fitting a collar around the pedestal and fixing it to the wall.” Alternatively, if your pedestal is hollow, swap it for a solid wooden or marble one.
  •  Small sculptures or porcelain figurines were more commonly relegated to a display case for ultimate protection. If this is not an option, museum wax will adhere the base of the sculpture to the support without harming the piece.

Furniture:

  •  Sunlight: Light wood turns dark and dark wood will bleach out when exposed to sun. Marquetry and inlays in particular will lose contrast. Over time, uneven rays of light will result in uneven discoloration. In a room that is infrequently used, consider the age-old trick of covering fine furniture with a sheet.
  •  As with paintings, allow air to circulate around the back of a piece of furniture.
  •  Avoid harsh household cleaners especially when cleaning antique mirrors as the chemicals will react with the gilding on the frame. A simple feather duster does the trick.
  •  Wood expands and contracts and would prefer to be more damp. There is a particularly colorful anecdote from the Countess of Rosebery, the owner of Dalmeny House near Edinburgh. Her good French furniture—in a room directly under a leaky bathroom—received just right amount of humidity. When the collection was donated to a London Museum the drawers refused to open in the climate controlled environment. Antiques get homesick too.

With increased tourist visits on Britain’s historic house circuit a revised and expanded 2011 edition of The Manual was recently published with great fanfare, packed full of color illustrations (Trafalgar Square, c. 2011). Browsing through the lavish photographs of the rooms with so many original furnishings is a timely reminder of the importance of preserving our artistic heritage and how every small effort on our part will ensure the legacy of these works for our future generations.

Highclere Castle, commons.wikimedia.org (Top photo)