Keeping the collections safe for future generations

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Professor Ann Sumner is Historic Collections Adviser at the Harewood House Trust. Here she explains, in the monthly Behind the Scenes column about the objects displayed to visitors and their importance.

Working in a historic house like Harewood is a real privilege. The architecture, landscape and nationally significant works of art are outstanding.

From 18th and 19th century British portraits, old master Italian paintings, wonderful Chippendale furniture, Axminster carpets and Sèvres porcelain, the richness and depth of the collection at Harewood certainly deserves a note of respect.

Many thousands of items are cared by our team. The smallest object can tell a fascinating story which we like to share.

This year, we have embraced the Capability Brown 300 national celebrations which are honouring the influence of Georgian landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Alongside our exhibition programme responding to the landscape he created at Harewood, we have researched our libraries and porcelain collections to bring a botanical theme to the State Floor.

Our Collections Assistant, Rebecca Burton, discovered an interesting book from 1787, which includes 160 hand painted watercolours by amateur artist, Isabella Crathorne of Crathorne Hall, North Yorkshire. This book is filled with beautiful botanical watercolours from across Yorkshire which has never before been displayed.

In the Old Library, we are displaying different books from the collection with a landscape or gardening theme by significant landscape designers such as Humphrey Repton.

We have also included a botanical drawing album by Charlotte, Lady Canning. Charlotte was Queen Victoria’s Lady-in-Waiting between 1842 and 1855. Her husband was assigned Governor-General of India in 1852 and she eventually moved to India in 1859, where she painted some of her most beautiful botanical observations, before her death in 1861.

Our Collections Officer, Marie-Astrid Martin, worked with our Head Gardener, Trevor Nicholson, on a display titled The Ceramic Garden, presenting a new display of our Coalport ceramics.

These vivid plates were acquired by Louisa, Countess of Harewood in the 19th century. Marie and Trevor identified the decorative flowers on the plates and located them in the grounds at Harewood. Throughout the 2016 season, the botanical theme has provided a real opportunity for collections staff to look at objects in detail, and to share their new found knowledge with visitors, stewards and guides at Harewood.

The range of objects that the team care for is vast and extends from sculpture to textiles. The textile collection ranges from clothing to large carpets and offer unique conservation challenges. Harewood is home to two very rare Axminster carpets which were designed when the house was first built in the late 1700s. There are only eight known Axminster carpets which remain within their original interior design schemes, making the two at Harewood a high priority to conserve.

This year the Yellow Drawing Room and Music Room carpets were fully inspected by an independent conservator, Crosby Stevens, to assess the damage which the carpets have suffered over the centuries. Both are in need of conservation, however, the former is more significantly damaged. We decided to highlight this carpet and to produce a new display looking in depth at the issues around the conserving of this large textile. To do so, 12 members of staff had to lift it and reverse roll it to inspect it and re-display it. It took at least three hours to complete this part of the process.

We launched an audience survey about the conservation of the Yellow Drawing Room carpet. It has been really well received and extremely constructive. Following this, as part of the Yorkshire Year of the Textile, we held an ethical debate with a panel of five specialists from different backgrounds; two conservators: independent and from the V&A, a curator from Brodsworth Hall, and a tapestry weaver from Saltaire. We discussed with them how best to progress our project as we prepare for a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to conserve these beautiful works. It was an immensely helpful process and encouraging for the future.

Research is a major element of managing a collection. Occasionally we are approached by people who possess documentation, objects or information relevant to our collection.

Before we re-opened in March, a lady came to see us with several, original legal documents relating to Lady Worsley whose famous 18th century portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds hangs in the Cinnamon Drawing Room. The documentation, which is now on loan to Harewood, includes her signature and makes up a display alongside the stunning portrait.

We were also awarded a grant to work with the University of Leeds this summer researching the electrification of Harewood House in the 20th century.

This project will see Harewood work with Dr Michael Kay who is currently researching the archives and plans to prepare a new display of our lighting cupboard. The project has already revealed all sorts of new and exciting stories about Harewood’s early electricity history such as how Chippendale pieces were adapted by Princess Mary for electric lighting.

Working in the House is exciting and rewarding. We hope that visitors enjoy everything that we offer from small displays to large scale exhibitions.