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To Conserve or Restore, that is the question…

Posted:
28 March 2017
Posted By:
Bethany L Ronksley
Categories:
Behind the Scenes
Brodworth Hall in the 1990s (left © John Critchley, right © Historic England Archive)

If you visit Brodsworth Hall and Gardens today you will see beautifully manicured pleasure gardens and a lovingly preserved country house. But this was not always the case. When we first took over the care of this historic place, we faced a quandary. 

Brodsworth Hall and Gardens in South Yorkshire was given to English Heritage in 1990 by Pamela Williams – the daughter of the last occupant, Sylvia Grant Dalton. Pamela was the last in a long line of generations of the same family who had occupied Brodsworth and the estate since the late 18th century. This rich family history, and the stories of those who lived and worked there, was a one of the many attractions to English Heritage when deciding to take the property on. But a lot of things (including historical significance) are taken into consideration before this can happen though.

With its relatively untouched Victorian interiors as well as some its post war alterations, Brodsworth is a key example of the period in which it was built, and also (crucially) what happens to a country house later in its life. The importance of Brodsworth was seen as early as 1968 when the hall was Grade 1 listed by the Ministry of Works. This means that it was seen to be of exceptional historical interest, as only 2.5% of the buildings listed are Grade 1.

Arriving in the 1990s: A serious state of disrepair

Upon arrival to the house, the team of curators, conservators, architects and engineers were faced with a mammoth task. The house and the 15 acres of gardens had been left in a serious state of disrepair. Family funds had run extremely low after the end of the Second World War and the heavy death duties imposed after the passing of the last male heir, Charles Grant Dalton. This had left Sylvia with very little to maintain the building and its garden, and the new English Heritage team with a serious set of challenges.

A very leaky roof was causing extensive damage, and a lack of environmental controls (temperature and humidity) also meant that many the objects in the collection had suffered from mould or insect infestations. Outside there was erosion and environmental damage to the stonework to deal with.

An example of Victorian taxidermy in the Brodsworth Hall collection, badly damaged by moths.

An example of Victorian taxidermy in the Brodsworth Hall collection, badly damaged by moths.

And as well as cleaning the collection, it also all had to be catalogued. This includes photographing and documenting each individual piece – no mean feat considering there are around 31,000 objects within the Brodsworth collection!

What happened next?

The original assumption, when English Heritage accepted Brodsworth Hall as an “untouched Victorian house”, was that it would be restored back to the 1860s when the house was built. It wasn’t until we were able to have a closer look at not just the collections but also at archive photographs, that we realised there had been quite a few changes to the house.

Each generation that had lived here made their mark on the house, from the introduction of radiators and telephones by Peter Thellusson in the 1890s, to major redecorations by Charles and Constance Thellusson in the early 1910s. There is even evidence of Brodsworth’s wartime role, with instructions left by the Royal Signals on the back of the kitchen door and black out blinds.

With this new evidence coming to light English Heritage had two options: restore the house or conserve it ‘as found’.

Option #1 – restoration

To restore a property means putting all the interiors and exteriors back to their original state, such as plastering and repainting walls or rehanging wallpaper which could include replicated prints. In cases where the originals are too fragile or degraded to restore, replicas would be put in their place.

Restoring Brodsworth Hall and its interiors to their former glory was the original intention when English Heritage took over. From the impressive Italianate pillared entrance hall with contrasting coloured scagliola (imitation marble) to the French rococo inspired Drawing Room, the hall lent itself to be revived back to its Victorian heyday.

The drawing room with piano at Brodworth Hall, pictured in the 1880s.

The drawing room with piano at Brodworth Hall, pictured in the 1880s.

But this would have been a substantial as well as a costly job. It would have meant replacing everything post 1860s, as well as replacing some of the interior decoration that had been badly damaged. For example, while much of the ground floor retains most of its Victorian design elements, the upstairs bedrooms were updated and adapted to suit the families personal tastes over time.

Option #2: Conservation

To conserve a property and its contents means that the building, its interior and contents are kept as they are, and only necessary repairs are made. In conservation we aim to preserve as much of the original as possible, by controlling elements such as temperature, humidity and light exposure we can minimise the deterioration. Cyclical monitoring and cleaning within the house also aids in this process.

Decision time…

By 1990 there was much debate and criticism about the presentation of country houses. Many people believed that they presented a sanitised view of the past. At Brodsworth Hall in particular, this was a concern as so much of the interiors from the 1860s were either in a poor state – or no longer existed due to later changes by the family.

Restoring Brodsworth would have meant a great loss of historical context and character of what was once a bustling country house as well as a family home. The balance of replicas would have outweighed the original objects of the house from the period, changing the character of the house to that of a show house or a hotel.

Curators and conservators realised that the best and most historically sympathetic approach was to preserve and conserve as much as possible of the house and its contents, while staying true to the history of the hall.

Starting conservation

Once the decision was made, work on conserving Brodsworth and its collections could begin. Most of the work entailed stabilising as much as possible to prolong their life without altering them. This included things like ‘first aid’ treatment to the silks by adding netting.

Plasterwork conservation on the Bedroom corridor at Brodsworth Hall in the 1990s ©Historic England Archive

Plasterwork conservation on the bedroom corridor at Brodsworth Hall in the 1990s ©Historic England Archive

The team also had to undertake routine tasks. Each object had to be checked to decide what kind of work needs to be done to it i.e. repairs and if it is safe to be displayed. And everything needed a thorough clean. This ranged from dusting objects to sandblasting the outer stonework to remove atmospheric pollution.

Brodsworth has a large and varied collection of textiles, so pest control was a major task. Most of the fabrics we found were severely infested with bugs such as silverfish and carpet beetles. To remove these pesky pests, the textiles had to be frozen in large on site freezers and then deep cleaned.

To keep the house as original as possible, and sticking to contemporary conservation methods, any repairs that were made were openly visible and easily reversible. This policy led to a short hand phrase that Brodsworth has been preserved ‘as found’. This is not strictly true, as many pieces in the collection are too fragile to be shown – and visitors need a route around the house. However, rooms such as the Victorian kitchen have remained very much how they were found – just without decades of dust.

Continuing conservation: Brodsworth Hall in 2017

The current project at Brodsworth is following up the work of the conservation team 20 years ago. We are using many of the same techniques to protect the building and collection, as well as more up to date methods.

The main areas of work that will be carried out during the project are ‘behind the scenes’. We’re updating the existing heating and electric systems (to the relief of our volunteers!), and installing new environmental monitors. These mean we will be able to control temperature and humidity levels much more precisely, allowing the collections and interiors to be better protected in future.

Continuing conservation at Brodsworth Hall. While the current project is underway, parts of the Entrance Hall are behind hoardings (which you can see into) to protect the building and collection.

Continuing conservation at Brodsworth Hall. While the current project is underway, parts of the Entrance Hall are behind hoardings (which you can see into) to protect the building and collection.

We’re also doing repairs to the roof as – despite the initial repairs 20 years ago – some areas in the house still suffer from leaks during heavy rain. The new repairs will mean we will not have to dash for the buckets every time it rains.

The Victorian roller shutters on the ground floor are also being restored. This will allow light into many of the grand rooms that have been in darkness for several years.

While this work is going on, our conservators will have a chance to inspect, clean and conserve many objects and areas of the house that are usually difficult to access. For instance rooms that have been emptied out allow us to erect scaffold so we can reach the high ceilings. We will be keeping as much of the house open as possible while this essential work is taking place, so you will probably see some of this cleaning going on around the house.

Through the on-going conservation and protection of Brodsworth Hall and its collections ‘as found’ we are giving the public the whole history of the house from its luxurious creation through its later alterations by the changing fortunes of the family.

See all this for yourself

Top image: left © John Critchley; right © Historic England Archive

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  • About the Author

    Bethany L Ronksley
    Collections Care Assistant at Brodsworth Hall

Comments

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  1. Brilliant blogging!

  2. I completely agree with the way English Heritage went about Brodsworth Hall.
    I have been many times and agree the heating and lighting really did need an overhaul.

  3. I love these kinds of articles, that give a historic and true picture of properties – not just what we see when we visit. We are American expats and LOVE English Heritage!

  4. Our visit to Brodsworth last year proved to be one of the most interesting of all the properties we have visited. We loved the gardens with their imaginatively designed Victorian features revealed to an new generation, and the story-telling of the interiors reflecting the highs and lows of the family’s fortunes over their periods of ownership.