Behind the scenes at Harewood House

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As the darker nights draw in and the clocks are wound back (yes, all 52 of them), Harewood House has closed its doors to visitors for the end of another busy season, but it’s not the time for hibernation - just ask Harewood Collections Assistant Rebecca Burton!

The winter months signal the start of the House and Collections Team’s busiest time of year; the annual deep winter clean gets underway, essential conservation work starts and preparation for the new season begins in earnest.

The closure of the House allows Harewood’s Housekeeping Team (a small, but determined group of just three) to work systematically around the visitor route cleaning from top to bottom – quite literally, so that any disturbed dust falls downwards and can be picked up at a lower level. Tower scaffolding is erected so that cornicing, pelmets and picture frames can be reached, and a buffing machine is brought in to tackle the floors below. Everything in between, from the great mahogany doors to gilded bedframes and fragile ceramics also need to be gently polished, waxed or hoovered.

The often delicate work that the Housekeeping Team undertakes is quite unlike the traditional type of cleaning that takes place in a normal home. To protect fragile historic surfaces and materials, abrasive chemical cleaning agents and equipment are discarded and replaced with sensitive washing up liquid, deionised water and cotton wool. Non-invasive cleaning techniques are also employed which utilise a multitude of brushes with different types of bristles, along with an array of low-suction vacuum cleaners fitted with gauze to catch any loose fibres or gilding – one specialist piece of kit is affectionately known as the ‘turtle vac’, as it can be worn as a backpack while working at height.

Although not every object on the visitor route is cleaned annually such as the paintings and books due to their volume and fragility, each item needs to be carefully assessed and checked to record any deterioration that may have taken place over the past year. It’s a time-consuming process, but essential one to monitor the condition of an object and identify any necessary remedial conservation action.

Other simple, preventative conversation measures are also implemented by the team during the five month closed season, giving items the opportunity to ‘rest’ while not on display to the public. This is particularly important for textiles, some of the most vulnerable objects in Harewood’s collection, which have a tendency to ‘set’ if left in the same position for too long. All carpets that had been rolled back to create visitor routes through rooms are unrolled once again, along with releasing each curtain in the House from its tie back. A key object is the Chippendale State Bed, famously slept in by a young Queen Victoria; its three mattresses are removed, laid out to air and checked for any signs of pests, and its heavy damask upholstery is untied and allowed to hang loose during this resting period.

The winter months are also a time when specialist and more challenging conservation work can take place. This year, the Collections Team will continue to conserve some giltwood carvings that are currently too fragile to display. The pieces include two 6ft supporting caryatids (female figures) from a mirror attributed to Chippendale the Younger, which have been exposed to historic water damage and high levels of humidity and dampness. As well as the removal of a layer of harmful dirt, the team use special adhesive in three strengths to tackle differing types of damage. The strongest glue will be used to re-adhere flaking gold leaf, the middle strength to smooth out wrinkled gilding, whilst the weakest mixture is used for cleaning. So far, the team have spent over 20 hours cleaning and consolidating the first caryatid, and look forward to tackling the second in the coming weeks.

For all great country houses, inventory work and the continual improvement of storage for their collections is an inevitable feature of any winter schedule. Often however, behind the scenes, projects such as these can continue to be undertaken throughout the open season and a number of significant projects are now nearing completion, including the inventory and re-housing of an important amount of metal work and silver. Each piece was first carefully polished, then meticulously listed and photographed to create an accurate overview of the collection, and finally, matching sets were re-united with each other. Meanwhile, the store room received a conservation-grade make-over by reupholstering shelves and draws with a specially designed silver cloth, a cotton textile with anti-tarnishing qualities due to small particles of silver embedded within its fibres. The fabric also works to reduce the sulphurous gases present in the environment that cause corrosion, ultimately reducing the amount of cleaning required.

A separate two-month project has also seen the re-housing of Harewood’s collection of over 700 prints and framed artworks. Once again, an initial cleaning process was implemented, damaged prints were un-framed and loose prints placed in conservation-grade polyester sleeves and boxes. Each individual print and framed picture could then be listed and photographed. This long process enables us to have a precise accountability of the collection and plan for its future care and preservation.

For housekeepers of old, putting the house to bed meant to shut up a stately home for winter while its family was away; it is perhaps now a misleading expression. For Harewood, the closure of the House to the public marks the start of a crucial period of activity for the care and conservation of its world-class collection. Harewood House certainly never sleeps.