4 min read

Step inside the National Trust’s new Conservation Studio at Knole

a photo of a two ornate Tudor and Stuart portraits in gilded frames

Ribbon framed paintings in the Conservation Studio at Knole. Copyright National Trust images, James Dobson

Precious paintings, furniture and decorative objects are being restored inside Knole’s new public conservation centre

Knole in Kent, owned by the National Trust, is one of Britain’s most important and complete historic houses. It boasts a colourful past that includes periods as a medieval Archbishop’s palace, a royal Tudor hunting ground, the home of the Sackville family for 400 years and the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s iconic novel ‘Orlando’.

However, ever since the Trust acquired the property in 1946 it has faced an expensive running battle with leaking roofs and windows, damp, moths and woodworm, which have all put Knole’s precious collection of furniture, paintings and textiles at risk.

Now a new conservation studio is responding to the mammoth task of rescuing and preserving these precious relics as part of a massive HLF-funded £19.8 million building, conservation and restoration project, which is the biggest in the Trust’s history.

As well as preserving the fabric of the house and restoring its rooms and forgotten spaces so the public can visit them, conservators are now working in a converted medieval barn on site to arrest centuries of wear and in some cases decay to the collection. With the public invited in to see the process they are preserving a fine collection of paintings and many pieces of rare Stuart furniture, some acquired from Royal palaces by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset when he was Lord Chamberlain in the seventeenth century.

a photo of a man with a small brush woring on a frame of a large double portriat of two Stuart gentleman

Conservator, Mark Searle, inpainting with watercolours on a painting of Mountjoy Blount, 1st Earl of Newport and Lord George Goring. Credit National Trust Images, James Dobson

a photo of a woman conserving small pieces of decorated porcelain at a desk

Conservator Carmen Vida Conserving a garniture of Flight, Barr & Barr porcelain from the Ballroom. Credit National Trust Images, James Dobson

a photo of someone fiddling about with a knackered old sofa

Senior Conservator, Heather Porter, cleaning the velvet of the Knole sofa with a cosmetic sponge. Credit National Trust Images, James Dobson

Among the many precious artefacts is the famous seventeenth century Knole Sofa, an iconic piece of furniture made of beech and covered with crimson velvet and passementerie with cushioned wings. It is said to have kick-started the modern fashion for sofas and settees and saw endless copies produced around the world.

Still upholstered in its original but now worn red velvet, it was originally designed as a throne on which a King or Queen would receive their visitors. Conservators are surface cleaning the fabric and restoring the profile of the sofa with a view to uplifting its base to better support the structure and upholstery.

It is one of several pieces of furniture in a collection that includes intricately upholstered and embroidered chairs, some dating to the time of James I and acquired from the Palaces of Hampton Court and Whitehall.

A Royal ‘Stool of Easement’, an early form of ‘loo’ from the French ‘lieux d’aisance’, is thought to have been used by Charles II

Royal connections come thick and fast at Knole. As well as once being in Royal possession during the Tudor Dynasty – when Henry VIII and his henchmen would hunt in the grounds and Elizabeth I visited – an oak paneled Brown Gallery is effectively a ‘Who’s Who’ of great names of the English and European courts, including Henry and Elizabeth.

The series of Royal portraits presented as ribbon-framed panel paintings depict both historical figures and important contemporaries, including Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Edward VI, Jane Seymour, Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More. Analysis of the material suggests the paintings were made as a job lot in 1605 – commonplace for such an order – to give Knole an instant royal collection. They were commissioned by Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, whose royal art aspirations were a commonplace practice in the homes of the aristocracy and gentry at this time.

As conservation and building work took place in the House in 2016, the original frames of some of the portraits were discovered hidden behind the caffoy (the rich red fabric on the walls) of the Cartoon Gallery.

There’s even a Royal ‘Stool of Easement’, an early form of ‘loo’ from the French ‘lieux d’aisance’, thought to have been used by Charles II, which will be subject to the careful conservation process.

a photo of a woman cleaning a inlaid silver platter

Cleaning the silver dish. Credit National Trust images, James Dobson

a photo of a man woth a small brush working on a portrait of an Elizabethan era nobleman

Conservator, Mark Searle, consolidating the decorative scheme for the Lionel Portrait. Copyright National Trust Images, James Dobson

a photo of a pair of gloved hands brishing the distressed leather of a case

Swabbing the metal studs of the leather trunk to clean the surface, credit National Trust images, James Dobson

a photo of a panting of Henry VIII in a golden frame

Ribbon framed painting of Henry VIII. Credit National Trust images, James Dobson

Other projects inside the Conservation Studio include a large oil painting of Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex and Baron Cranfield. Lionel Cranfield was knighted and sat in the House of Commons from 1614-1622. Appointed Lord High Treasurer in 1621, he later fell out of favour with parliament after opposing the war with Spain and was briefly imprisoned for corruption.

Pardoned a year later, Knole owes much of its impressive furniture collection to Cranfield. His daughter Frances Cranfield married Richard Sackville, 5th Earl of Dorset, in 1637 and, as a result, the Cranfield’s collections from Copt Hall came to Knole at the end of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The conservation team are also working on a leather trunk, which was used to transport Cranfield’s collection from Copt Hall to Knole during this period.

Leather trunks, containing papers, letters, books, textiles and personal items, were stored in the attics at Knole (the South Barracks) for years and In 2016, three letters dating back to the seventeenth century were found under the floorboards.

The letters dated 1603, 1622 and 1633 give an intriguing insight into running a country house 400 years ago and must have fallen between the floorboards as items were moved in the attics – where they remained undisturbed for hundreds of years.

Describing the Knole project as “the biggest building and conservation project that Knole has witnessed in the last 400 years” Hannah Kay, Knole’s General Manager said the ongoing restoration was “an enormous but exciting challenge and we are thrilled that we can now share the next chapter in the story of this fascinating house with our visitors and supporters”.

“The new conservation studio will allow us not only to care for our own collections but to take in work from other Trust houses and external organisations in the future, and offer work-based training, which will make Knole a national centre for conservation excellence.

“We have a wealth of conservation expertise in the Trust and we can now share this with our visitors who will be able to see the latest conservation techniques in action for themselves and talk to specialists and volunteers about the work that goes into looking after some of the country’s most important treasures.”

Take a look at the newly conserved rooms at Knole using the slider below:

a photo of an ornate room with wallpaper and old portriats on the wall
a photo of a room with red flocked wallpaper and twp large portriats of eighteenth century nobles flanking a large carved marble fireplace
a close up of a bedhead with a crown on it inside a four poster bed
a photo of a detail of a room with furniture and large paintings of religious themes on the wall
a photof a room with paintings on the walls and a marble sculpture of a man and woman in classical poses in the foreground
a photo of a room with carved panels and guilded paintings and baroque side tables
a photo of a panelled room with guilt framed paintings
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    [description] => Knole is one of England’s most important, complete, yet fragile historic houses, set at the heart of Kent’s last remaining medieval deer park. 

* Rare collection of Royal Stuart furniture 
* Important portraits by Van Dyke, Gainsborough and Reynolds 
* Birthplace of novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West 
* Magnificent 1,000-acre deer park
* A Site of Special Scientific Interest
* Currently undergoing a £19.6million building and conservation project to conserve Knole     and its precious collections and open new spaces to the public
* Knole's most impressive treasures are currently on display in the Great Hall (until Nov 2016)
* The Gatehouse Tower, Knole Conservation Studio, Hayloft Learning Centre and new Brewhouse Cafe will open in summer 2016
    [legalStatus] => National Trust
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                    [qualifier] => Web Site
                    [url] => www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knole
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            [0] => stdClass Object
                    [address] => knole@nationaltrust.org.uk
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                    [number] => 01732 462100
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                    [number] => 01732 465528
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    [addressStreet] => Knole
    [addressTown] => Sevenoaks
    [addressCounty] => Kent
    [addressPostcode] => TN15 0RP
    [addressCountry] => England
    [latitude] => 51.267202852904816
    [longitude] => 0.20521426715083635
    [openingHours] => Showrooms:
5 Mar - 30 Oct, Tue - Sun (and Bank Holiday Mondays): 12pm-4pm.
Guided tours only 11am-12pm. Last entry to showrooms at 3.30pm.

Visitor Centre, Orangery, Estate Office, Outdoor Cafe, Bookshop Cafe, parkland:
Open all year, 10am-5pm*

*November to February, Outdoor Cafe and Green Court closes at dusk.
 Whole property closed 24 and 25 December.

Private garden:
5 Apr - 27 Sep, Tuesdays only, 11am-4pm. Last entry at 3.30pm.

The Gatehouse Tower, Knole Conservation Studio, Hayloft Learning Centre and new Brewhouse Cafe will open in summer 2016.
    [charges] => Admission and parking is free to National Trust members.

Adult - £8.50* (£7.60)
Child - £4.25* (£3.85)
Family - £21.25* (£19.20)

Car park: £4 per car.

Group rates available.

*includes voluntary Gift Aid donation.
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            [0] => Baby changing facilities
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            [2] => High chairs in café/restaurant
            [3] => Wheelchair access to some public areas
            [4] => Toilets for disabled
            [5] => Parking for disabled available
            [6] => Bicycle park
            [7] => Gardens open to public
            [8] => Members/Friends facilities offered
            [9] => Shop
            [10] => Toilets
            [11] => Refreshments
            [12] => Meeting room available
            [13] => Studio/working space available
            [14] => Facilities for private functions and events
            [15] => Parking for coaches
            [16] => Picnic area
            [17] => Public car park
            [18] => Restaurant
            [19] => Wi-fi available
            [20] => Education facilities available

    [facilitiesInformation] => A mobility scooter is available to hire, please phone 01732 462100.
    [keyArtistOrExhibit] => Array

    [collections] => Array
            [0] => Costume and Textiles
            [1] => Decorative and Applied Art
            [2] => Fine Art

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    [constituentInstitution] => Array

    [lea] => 
    [regionalAgency] => South East
    [service] => Array
            [0] => Events and resources for children and families
            [1] => General guide to collections available
            [2] => Audio guides specifically for blind and partially sighted people
            [3] => Braille information and/or interpretation
            [4] => Induction loops in exhibition spaces
            [5] => Large print information and/or interpretation
            [6] => Sign language interpretation available
            [7] => Membership and/or Friends scheme offered
            [8] => Information point provided
            [9] => Brochure or leaflet available with directions to museum
            [10] => Pre-booking service for groups
            [11] => Volunteering scheme offered
            [12] => Community outreach programme/service
            [13] => Events/teaching/resources for people with disabilities
            [14] => Handling sessions
            [15] => Touch exhibits
            [16] => Foreign language leaflet or brochure available
            [17] => Guided tours
            [18] => Online shop
            [19] => Adult lectures and courses held
            [20] => Teaching/resources available for HE/FE students
            [21] => Direct teaching services for schools
            [22] => Early years education service available
            [23] => Member of staff available with responsibility for education
            [24] => Primary school education service available
            [25] => Printed/audio-visual information available for schools
            [26] => Roleplay/costumed interpreters available
            [27] => Secondary school education service available
            [28] => Special educational needs education services available

    [travelDirections] => By train: Sevenoaks station is 1½ miles away. Turn right out of the station and walk up the hill until you reach St Nicholas Church. The entrance is opposite. There is a taxi rank at the train station.

By car: Please note: Some satnav systems will not direct you correctly to Knole using our postcode. Use postcode TN13 1HU and follow the directions below. From north and west: leave M25 at exit 5 (A21) and follow signs for Sevenoaks. Turn right at mini-roundabout. Park entrance is in Sevenoaks town centre, left off A225 Tonbridge Road (opposite St Nicholas Church). From south: Leave A21 at junction signposted Sevenoaks Weald and follow A225 for Sevenoaks. Park entrance is on right after about 2 miles. From east: Follow A25 through Seal. Turn left at traffic lights. Continue ahead and through high street. Park entrance is on left 300 yards beyond top of the high street

Parking: 60 yards from the entrance, open 10am-6pm. Disabled spaces and coach parking available. Out of hours there is parking in nearby town centre

By bus: Look out for the Vintage Bus (route number 7), which travels to Knole and around Sevenoaks on select dates between March - September.
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            [3] => portrait (graphic forms)
            [4] => costume
            [5] => textile (Craft)
            [6] => England
            [7] => South East
            [8] => Art
            [9] => Bang Goes the Theory (9)
            [10] => Stargazing LIVE 2014 (27)
            [11] => Countryfile (7)
            [12] => Springwatch/Autumnwatch (5)
            [13] => World War One (62)
            [14] => Great British Sewing Bee (44)
            [15] => The Sky at Night (72)
            [16] => Heritage Open Days 2014
            [17] => Accredited Museum
            [18] => Festival of Archaeology 2015
            [19] => Heritage Open Days 2015
            [20] => Christmas
            [21] => Easter
            [22] => Museums at Night October 2016
            [23] => Architecture and Design
            [24] => Community facilities
            [25] => Culture (in communities)
            [26] => Family friendly (in communities)
            [27] => Community participation
            [28] => Inclusive accessibility
            [29] => Community identity
            [30] => Community services
            [31] => Building renovation
            [32] => Building conservation and refurbishment
            [33] => Building restorations
            [34] => Conservation projects
            [35] => Spliced
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            [45] => science and nature roles
            [46] => Tudor
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            [48] => Cross-cultural
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            [52] => School visit
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            [54] => Family learning
            [55] => Community engagement
            [56] => Whole school
            [57] => Mu_Cr

    [type] => Array
            [0] => Historic house or home
            [1] => Garden, parklands or rural site
            [2] => Heritage site

    [link] => http://www.culture24.org.uk/se000533
    [graphicUrl] => http://www.culture24.org.uk/asset_arena/0/50/52/425050/v0_thumb.jpg
    [priorityNumber] => 2001051100
    [modificationDate] => 19/09/2016
    [publicationDate] => 11/05/2001
    [relevance] => 10
    [uniqueID] => SE000533



Sevenoaks, Kent

Knole is one of England’s most important, complete, yet fragile historic houses, set at the heart of Kent’s last remaining medieval deer park. * Rare collection of Royal Stuart furniture * Important portraits by Van Dyke, Gainsborough and Reynolds * Birthplace of novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West * Magnificent 1,000-acre…