Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Below the surface

Recently there has been a lot of research going on about the grounds and how they have changed over time. The hot weather has highlighted these changes in what I think is quite an unexpected way; i noticed it first in the car park, which was once upon a time the kitchen garden. There are yellow lines which indicate where the glass houses used to be in the early 1900's.
An ordnance survey map dating from 1903. Montacute House is to the centre right, and the glasshouses are circled in red.

Foundations of glasshouses in the car park
There also used to be a second East Court, beyond the one that still exists today; this would also have been walled, and contained fruit trees, and what we think was a large gate house.
beyond the East Court, you can make out where the second East Court once was,  and where the original drive was leading up to the front of the house.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Button button, who's got the button?

I came across these beautiful buttons are all wrapped up in our furniture store. They were originally found in the stumpwork box in the Hall Chamber. The box itself was made in 1693, but has a 19th Century interior, and I have a feeling that that is when these buttons date from. Along with them is a Bryant & May match box, and a very risque wax seal depicting three nude ladies!
wax seal

Stumpwork box

Stumpwork box interior

Monday, 10 June 2013

'Scribbling and Writing Nonsense'

In the last few weeks I have begun to take an interest in the numerous window etchings we have in the house, and have enjoyed searching for them; they aren’t always easy to spot, you have to catch them at the right angle and in the right light- photographing them was particularly tricky!

Window etching is an early form of graffiti; diamond tipped pens were produced for the purpose and an elegant hand was required, therefore it is hardly surprising that those whose names appear in this way are often the wealthy and aristocratic.

The words are difficult to make out, so click on the images for a better look.

My favourite etching so far, it reads:

Elizabeth Phelips
always scribbling and writing

Elizabeth Phelips (1750-1841)

I am struggling to make out the words on this etching from our stewards library. There is definitely the name ‘Phelips’. Also, part of it appears to be in Latin; ‘Gaudeo equis Canibis(ing?)’ roughly translates as ‘I am happy with horses and dogs’, perhaps a hunting reference?

If anyone could shed any further light on it that would be wonderful!

Plenty more still to come!

The Children of Charles I

One of the most endearing paintings on display at Montacute is also one of the most historically interesting. It is an 18th century copy of a famous portrait by Anthony Van Dyck of the three eldest children of King Charles I. The original was painted in 1635 and is now in the Royal Collection.

All three of the children in the picture went on to become important figures in the history of the monarchy. The boy on the left is five-year-old Prince Charles, who became Charles II following the execution of his father 14 years after the portrait was painted. However, Charles II was forced to spend ten years in exile before taking up the throne.

When Charles II died in 1665, the crown passed to his unpopular younger brother James – who became James II of England and James VII of Scotland. James is the two-year-old child in the centre of the picture. At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking this is a little girl, but in those days toddlers of both sexes were dressed in much the same way.

The girl on the right is four-year-old Princess Mary. She went on to marry the stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, William II of Orange. Their only son – William III – was born a few days after his father died of smallpox. Mary herself died before her son was formally made Stadtholder at the age of 22 in 1672. But there were greater things to come. William’s uncle James II proved such an unpopular monarch that Parliament was only too happy when his nephew usurped the throne to become William III of England!

The National Trust’s copy of “The Three Eldest Children of King Charles I” can be seen in the Parlour at Montacute House.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The first-floor store room

 As a continuation in making the former administrative wing of the house more open to visitors, and to tie in with the conservation theme that we have been demonstrating over the past year or two, we have this year begun working on making the 1st floor storage room more accessible. Previously the room had rarely been worked in, it was closed-off to protect the items kept inside, and on occasion briefly opened up when something on display needed exchanging.

As of this year an effort has been made to reorganise and tidy up the room to make it both a more suitable working space, and also to allow for visitors to have a look around when possible (however it is still not regularly open at the moment), and this entry will provide a look at a couple of the changes that we have made, and also to show what the room is like.

The room is the only large room of the house dedicated exclusively to storing items not currently on display. These may be items on rotation with ones in other areas - such as carpets, samplers, and cushions, which may become light-damaged or worn if on permanent display – or simply things which the house has come into ownership of over the years and do not yet have a suitable place to put them.

The opening half of the room is the where most work takes place. The table is where any minor conservation or cleaning work is currently done (anything major that does not have to be done in-situ – for example wallpaper repairs – will be taken off-site to a specialist). The paintings currently on it are from the mantelpiece of the fireplace, and were removed due to concerns about shoulders brushing them as people walked past.

The black-curtained unit against the left wall of of the area is the racks where we keep our samplers. Many of our samplers were donated to the house by one private individual, Douglas Goodhart, who had built up over their life through single purchases. Nowadays these items are more cherished than they were back then, which means that many of them have become quite valuable. A large bulk of them originate from the 17th century, and can be very easy to date because the sewers tended to incorporate years – or even dates – as well as their names into the design. The blackout curtains are to minimise light damage, and we also have the same type of curtains on the main windows, and are closed when the room is not in use.

The pile of rolls are mostly rugs, many of which are on rotation with similar ones currently out in other areas of the house. We rotate which carpets are out or in storage to minimise wear when possible, and also we try to occasionally turn them 180 degrees if, for example, one had an end next to a doorway with heavy footfall, so that the wear does not occur all on one side. The majority of our rugs are from the Caucuses and near-east and dated around the late 19th-/early 20th-century. There are also some large wall tapestries, silk quilts, and a banner or two, which are mostly in storage due to their fragile condition.

The wooden item next to the sampler storage unit is a hammered keyboard (fortepiano?) which is in need of repair. We would like to move it from the corner to a more suitable location to free up access to the secondary door to the room, but at the moment the legs are too fragile to do so. Unfortunately the inside is a pile of broken/removed hammers, so the instrument is unlikely to receive the investment able to render it in a playable condition. The white marks on the casing that look like paint flecks are the remnants of repairwork in which a solution is poured into woodworm holes to prevent further damage.
The room is divided into two by a large shelving unit built across the middle, which contains a variety of items such as cushions (which we keep in separate boxes), pots, and spare bits of glass and stonework, etc. It has three layers with some space beneath for flat items and each layer can have the covering material pulled aside, as in the adjacent image. It was purpose-built for the room, and the house has access to a work team for producing such items. Currently in planning is a rack for the carpets, so that hopefully they will occupy less floor space, and be more accessible with perhaps a couple of different levels of cradle seperating different types.

The rear half of the room is where the larger items of furniture are stored, as well as our framed pictures, which are lent against the back of the central unit. The house does not have many paintings in storage, and the ones on display in areas other than the Long Gallery (which has more of a regular turn-over due to special exhibitions and loans) are permanent fixtures. What we do have in the store room are a lot of are framed prints, cartoons, photographs, etc., many of which originate from the 18-19th century and also Lord Curzon's residence of the house.

It was also under Curzon's instigation that a lot of renovations were done to the house, including the wallpaper in this room, along with the house's central heating system, which we still use. There are some Chinese tiles which were probably removed during this time, and we have tucked them behind the two dressers so that they remain visible if you peek over the back of the chairs. The wooden carving on the far bench is an up-turned wall table which is too decayed to display, but is a pleasant sculptural piece (it also helpfully occupies a bench which is currently a little too fragile for people to sit on).

The iron fireplace is in the Gothic Revival style and the hearth guard kept under the bench to its left (as seen in the earlier photograph of the work table) is not originally a part of it, but may have been used in one of the fireplaces in the house at some point. The panelling above it is where we keep our thermometer and electronic temperature gauge. Monitoring the temperature of the various rooms in the house (you will see similar gauges placed high up in some of the other rooms) help us to make decisions as to which need heating, or perhaps de-humidifying. The paneling above the fireplace is in very good condition, but as with the woodwork all over the house, it has a couple of loose sections that will need re-fixing at some point (this is a periodical occurance and is routine to remedy).

Additionally, on some of the window sills you will notice insect monitors, which have adhesive strips that allow us to trap and examine which types of insects are currently travelling through each room. The majority of insects that we do catch are perfectly okay to be there, and in some cases predate on more harmful ones, but for example, if we were to discover that cloth-eating insects had taken residence in this storage room, we would be very swift to bring in a specialist to remove them.

The wallpaper is rough around the edges, but aside from one area of deterioration (see the far wall in the first image of this entry), is in good condition, with great spans of un-blemished patterns across several full walls. The reason why we have not had professionals repair the corners is partly due to the expense of doing so, but also because this will never be a display room, and as a working room we will be keeping an eye on any areas of concern to ensure that its condition is not getting any worse. Nowadays we are very careful not to touch anything to the wallpaper, for example leaning objects, but previous occupants of the house have unfortunately added nails, screws and the like for hanging pictures from, whose rusty presence will add further cost to any repairs if they were to be carried out. The cupboard at the end of the room doesn't have any special purpose, it just has a few miscellaneous items - the tall thing in the centre of the photograph is a chinese vase with trees, figures and a grotto.

As a closer, a picture of a window still before I began hoovering and dusting...

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Dutch window glass

The photograph on the left shows one of the windows in the Great Hall at Montacute House. Four of the panes in the lower middle of the window are decorated with colourful images. These panes originated in the Netherlands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, around the time Montacute House was built. They were installed in the house at the beginning of the 20th century, when Lord Curzon was in residence. He originally placed them in the door of the Parlour Passage, to replace what he described as “ a most hideous modern stained glass panel with a coat of arms upon it”. When the National Trust took over the property, they restored the “hideous” panel to its original place, and moved Lord Curzon’s Dutch glass to the Great Hall!

Perhaps the most striking of the four panels is the one on the lower left, which shows a Dutch merchant ship known as a “fluyt”. Under this is an inscription in archaic High Dutch, which translated into modern English reads: “No amount of close sailing or quiet tacking will further a voyage if God's will prevents it.”

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Work Experience at Montacute House

A few weeks ago, before the opening of the house, we had Ellen, a work experience student, come to us for a week. She was very enthusiastic and is planning to write an alternative house guide for us, aimed at teenagers, in the hope of  catering for this age group which makes up the minority of our visitors. Here are her impressions of the Trust.

During my half term holiday I spent a week with the National Trust doing work experience at Montacute House. Before coming to the Trust, I never knew how much effort it takes to keep the house running like clockwork, and make it as enjoyable as possible for families such as my own when we visit. I thoroughly admire their dedication and commitment, especially as many of those who contribute to the success of Montacute House are volunteers who have given up their valuable time to preserve the history of their local area.

During my week of work experience, I was very lucky to be given a private tour of the house by the house steward, Mark Rogers. I was amazed at how knowledgeable he was about the house, and how passionate. He showed me around an area of the house which is meant to be haunted by Lord Curzon, and with much of the furniture covered in dust sheets and the window shutters closed, it did feel quite creepy! I found myself looking over my shoulder rather a lot as I walked around the house for the rest of the week! 

I helped set up a couple of displays around the house, including the samplers collection on the first floor, which was really enjoyable and gave me a great sense of achievement, knowing that I had helped prepare Montacute House for the beginning of the season in March. I have enjoyed my week of work experience so much that I am going to start volunteering at the house as much as possible in my free time in the hope of inspiring other young people and instilling in them the same passion for preserving our heritage that has been instilled in me. Thank you, National Trust!