Conservation in Action: Visitors From Shaanxi Visit New Conservation Studios at Knole
On 1 June 2019, National Trust volunteer guides and staff welcomed Sara Crofts, Icon’s Chief Executive, and the delegation of Shaanxi heritage professionals to Knole.
The group met in the outer courtyard of this sprawling medieval archiepiscopal palace, which was heavily remodelled in 1603 by Thomas Sackville. We were enthusiastically welcomed by volunteer guides Ian and Maria, who were tasked with taking us on a private view of the newly re-opened Showrooms. This allowed the visitors plenty of time to admire Knole’s treasures, including intricate plaster ceilings, elaborately carved wooden screens, magnificent fireplaces, rare decorative objects, rich textiles, sculptures and portraits. The group were particularly intrigued by the story of the C17 Dutch Kussencast (wardrobe), which was discovered in a multitude of pieces in the attics and painstakingly reconstructed. They were also fascinated to see the portrait of Huang Ya Dong painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Huang Ya Dong (known in England as Wang-y-Tong) was brought to England from China around 1770 by the naturalist John Bradby Blake; by the time his portrait was painted he was in service as a page to the Duchess of Dorset at Knole.
After our tour we were taken to the Conservation Studio to meet Gerry Alabone, Senior Conservator (Furniture and Frames). Over tea and cake the group discussed the complex relationships between donor families and the National Trust, as well as the commercial and practical logistics of managing large heritage sites. The vital economic importance of the café and the shop were particularly noted!
The group also learned about Inspired by Knole – a £19.7million project to conserve the physical fabric of the property and its showroom contents for future generations, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. A key part of this project was the creation of the Conservation Studio, which opened in 2017. The Studio is a new approach for the National Trust as it allows visitors the opportunity to watch conservators working on objects from the Trust’s magnificent collections. Our group was especially privileged to be able to go behind the scenes to admire some of the state-of-the-art equipment in use in the Studio and to visit the conservation store, a 10-metre humidity-controlled space containing historic items awaiting their turn on the conservator’s bench.
With her past experience of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Sara was able to explain that learning and engagement are key elements of any project supported by the Fund and that the Conservation Studio was already proving its value – visitors really relish the opportunity to learn more about the processes of conservation and to talk to the conservators about their work. The delegates from Shaanxi admired this approach very much and concluded that they had learned a great deal from their visit to Knole that they will share with their colleagues on their return home.