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.
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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.
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.
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:
Sitting proudly within Kent’s last medieval deer park, Knole offers something for everyone. Originally an archbishop’s palace, the house passed through royal hands to the Sackville family – Knole’s inhabitants from 1603. Take a walk through the showrooms to appreciate centuries of history and Knole’s world-class collection. Children can explore…