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05.02.2019

So what did an Icon internship do for me?

Hilary Jarvis recently completed a two-year Icon preventive conservation internship at the National Trust. Here she reflects on the many things she learned, captured in an extraordinary day making a bed fit for a King.

One of my last tasks at the end of a two-year Icon internship at the National Trust was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: I was invited to help dress the C17th James II state bed in its newly refurbished surroundings at Knole House, after a fifteen-year conservation project. 

Such complex re-assembly requires detailed preparation and knowledgeable and careful hands, so I was thrilled to be asked to play a small role. I was also a little proud, as I could never have expected to be able to participate in such a thing at the beginning of the internship, and the invitation, in that sense, seemed a neat encapsulation of all that I’d achieved. That said, the James II bed, spectacular as it is, is merely one of literally hundreds of items being reinstated at Knole, after a £20 million project, Inspired by Knole, to make the building envelope water tight, and conserve the collection at this unique and special place. I had seen various elements of this work taking place throughout the internship and couldn’t wait to be there to see it all coming together.

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A bed fit for a King …

Attributed to Jean Poictevin for the upholstery and  Thomas Roberts, the royal joiner, for the bedstock, the James II bed was commissioned for the King’s Whitehall Palace apartments in 1688, only three months before he was exiled to France. Together with its suite of two armchairs and six matching stools it remains one of the most historically important sets of late Stuart furniture. Acquired around 1694 as a “perquisite” (or perk) by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, in his capacity as Lord Chamberlain, it arrived at Knole in 1701, where it has remained. What a story.

One of 21 such beds and canopies in the Trust’s care, each as unique as the next, conservation of the James II’s striking blue-green Genoa velvet and silk trimmings began back in 2003, when they were transported to the Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio in Norfolk. The bed itself had already been meticulously surveyed, and the team knew that all the textile elements would need detailed work, from the multiple upper  and lower valances, to the complex canopy (Tester), eight curtains, headcloth,  headboard and coverlet; 29 textile elements in all.

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Some 300 years of daylight, fluctuating humidity and accumulated dust and dirt had taken their toll, but the conservators also had to remove gutta percha and other adhesives from previous treatments, before methodically wet cleaning all the elements, and supporting and in-filling the silk with new woven material – all of this work pre-tested in advance, to hone and refine techniques. They also attached carefully dyed-matched (and virtually invisible) netting to protect particularly fragile areas, and painstakingly vacuumed meter upon meter of glorious red-gold passementerie. This was conservation on a truly regal scale. 

 

… Now fit for the future

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Unpacking and preparing all these pieces for final assembly was at times quite nerve-racking, but a real thrill, and the final result is breath taking. Aesthetics aside (I’m a conservator, after all!), the bed is now much more stable, and installed in a “glass box” (back in what is now known as “the Ambassador’s room”). This will help shield it from dust and regulate its now optimally heated environment. Seeing it returned to its former glory, however, I marvel that the visiting public will have little idea as to the years of painstaking work, dedication and expertise of the many people involved in restoring it and its surroundings, nor the various aspects of both preventive and remedial conservation that I have learned about during my comparatively brief association with it and the Inspired by Knole project.

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As I watched the bed slowly taking shape again, I reflected on the various processes I had observed, and the many things I had experienced: I had spent a week at the Trust’s Textile Studio back in May 2017 and had seen some of the laborious cleaning work in action, and even turned my hand to vacuuming some of that tassle fringe.

I had also seen work to the frame at the Tankerdale furniture conservation studio in Hampshire, watching with awe as the freshly applied water-gilding brought back the shine and vitality that must have been truly wonderous to seventeenth-century eyes. How fantastic to be able to present the bed again, as it was designed to be seen.

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I also knew from my various visits to Knole at different stages during the two years, the enormity of the background building work: I had seen the army of builders, electricians, surveyors, project managers, lighting & heating engineers, conservators, curators and carpenters. I had spent time at the on-site conservation studio, where the majority of the furniture collection has been conserved. I had taken notes on the diligent in situ protection, observed the state of the floors and the sagging ceilings and revelled in the way the house team managed the vast volumes of equipment, people and materials endlessly coming and going throughout the works.

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While the first part of the house (four showrooms) was completed in March 2017, this second part remains closed to the public, with the reinstatement of its seven rooms taking place from December 2018 until the grand opening in March this year. At this point all the rooms and most of their contents (including the James II bed) will have been conserved, cleaned and made ready for the future, and for the first time in three years, Knole will be fully open to the public—don’t hesitate to book your visit!

And what will I be doing? Well, having started my Icon internship in January 2017 with a healthy degree of technical knowledge but little practical conservation ability, I am delighted to say I will still be at the Trust, which grants its Icon interns a one-year extension to help turn learning into the ability to deliver. I will be taking a lead role as consultant conservator for one or 2 properties and continuing to support the Head Conservator and other National Specialists. And hopefully I’ll be in the running for a more prominent role in a project of my own in the not too distant future, albeit I don’t think anything will ever quite beat what I learned at Knole, and the day I got to help dress the King James II state bed.

With grateful thanks to my NT supervisor Katy Lithgow ACR, Icon adviser Shulla Jaques ACR, and Patrick Whife at Icon, as well as my many friends and colleagues at the National Trust, with particular thanks to the wonderful team from the National Trust’s Textile Conservation Studio, Claire Golbourn (senior conservator and project manager), Nadine Wilson and Terri Dewhurst.

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