‘Putting the House to Bed’ – Conserving Charleston’s Collection

by charlestonattic

After a long, hot summer hosting thousands of visitors who came to experience the delights that the house and garden offer, Charleston closed its doors for the winter at the beginning of November. As soon as it was empty, a team of expert volunteers and conservators took up their tools to start cleaning, wrapping, covering and repairing the house and its contents. A time-consuming and delicate operation, the group will be working until the new year to complete their mammoth task. Once ‘put to bed’, Charleston will be left to rest over the winter months before opening again in the spring for the next season.

Charleston conservation winter quentin bell figures covered 11- 2012. screensize.photo p.fewster

Quentin Bell’s figures covered for the winter. Photograph © Penelope Fewster

From sculptures and paintings, to the artists’ everyday possessions such as hairbrushes, teacups and bathroom plungers, each item in Charleston’s collection must be carefully cleaned with pony hair brushes and covered with tissue paper for the winter months. Not only shielding from dust and dirt, this also protects objects, furnishings and painted surfaces from light damage and any pests that manage to sneak into the house.

Charleston conservation winter studio reflected 11- 2012. screensize.photo p.fewster

Charleston’s Studio wrapped up for winter. Photograph © Penelope Fewster

It is particularly important to use acid-free tissue paper when protecting objects as lower-grade materials can cause more damage than good. Lignin in the wood pulp used to make most commercial tissue papers is acidic. If an object is wrapped in an acidic paper, the acidity can migrate to the object and cause significant damage. Papers, textiles and wooden items – the main body of Charleston’s collection – are particularly susceptible to attack from acids. Museums and conservators therefore use acid-free papers when storing, wrapping and mounting works to ensure their condition is not compromised.[1]

Charleston conservation. intern Alice. 11- 2014. photo p.fewster

Cleaning curtains from Duncan Grant’s bedroom. Photograph © Penelope Fewster

We have been privileged to join the team putting the house to bed, and to gain invaluable experience of object handling, care and conservation. Working alongside volunteers and expert staff members has been both highly enjoyable and informative, especially as many have worked at Charleston for years and have so many stories to share about the house and its contents.


Sketchbooks in the Angelica Garnett Gift. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

We have put the practical skills gained to great use when wrapping and storing the sketchbooks in the Angelica Garnett Gift. Once photography has been completed, each book is carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue, marked with its newly-assigned accession number and stored in a special (you’ve guessed it) acid-free box. While individual sketchbook boxes will be made in the coming months, such as the example below, until then they will be safe and stable within their tissue wrappers. Having arrived at Charleston in 2008 piled in large crates without protection from each other or the environment, the books are now stored in line with museum standards which will ensure that they can be enjoyed and studied for many generations to come.


A new sketchbook box. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Many thanks to Charleston’s wonderful volunteer photographer, Penelope Fewster, who provided photographs to accompany this post. See more of her photographs of Charleston here.


[1] Read more about conservation materials here.