Putting the House to Bed Petworth House: The Big Spring Clean


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Putting the House to Bed

Andrew Graham-Dixon gets up close and personal with a Turner painting, does the dishes the National Trust way and vacuums one of Britain's rarest rugs.


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In an idyllic Sussex landscape created by master gardener Capability Brown,

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sits one of Britain's finest stately homes,

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Petworth House.

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Thanks to the National Trust, it's now open to us all.

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Except during winter when, like most the Trust's homes, Petworth shuts the public out.

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When the house is closed, however, it's far from quiet.

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Normally, nobody gets to see what happens here during the winter months.

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But this year, I've been given unique, privileged access

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to see what goes on behind the scenes.

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When the public has gone, the National Trust's expert conservation teams

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get the chance to do some housekeeping, on an epic scale.

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The paintings are fantastic, the furniture's amazing, the story is incredible.

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I had no idea until I took on this task how filthy the visitors were.

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And THIS winter, Petworth's got a new cleaner.

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-I can see that I've made a difference.

-Have you waxed it?

-No.

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It's a rare chance to get hands on with history.

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-Ooh!

-It's heavy. And glimpse the secret life of a great country house.

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On my first visit, I'll discover how a house can be put to bed...

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..learn the secrets of a 600-year-old book

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and do the dishes, the National Trust way.

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I'm joining perhaps the biggest spring clean in the world,

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which all takes place during the freezing months of winter.

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I'm really looking forward to my winter at Petworth,

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because not only is it one of England's really great country houses, stuffed with treasures,

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but it's a house that has meant a lot to me personally.

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I was brought up for a lot of my childhood in Sussex

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and I visited the house often.

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But this time round, I'm hoping to see a whole new side to the place.

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From the 12th century, Petworth was owned by the high-powered Percy family,

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one of whom, Hotspur, even turns up in Shakespeare.

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Now 100,000 visitors come here a year.

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But from today, they won't be let in.

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Along with many of the National Trust's properties,

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Petworth House is now closed, for four and half months.

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You might wonder whether that's, strictly speaking, entirely necessary,

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but apparently the answer is very much so.

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What exactly it is that they get up to during that entire third of a year,

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well, that's what I'm here to find out.

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It's November 5th.

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Yesterday was the last in the year when the public could visit.

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Hello?

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Now the place is off limits to everyone...

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except me...and the housekeepers.

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They're not your average cleaners.

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They're Petworth's conservation team.

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I've been told to report for duty at their storeroom.

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But it's not easy for an art lover to stay on track, when surrounded by

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the largest collection of paintings in the whole National Trust.

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I've managed to get lost already. But you know what?

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I don't really mind, because the collection's so fantastic.

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There are more Van Dycks in here than you can shake a hoover at.

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Though this part of house isn't in the guide book.

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It's where I hope to find Petworth's longest-serving housekeeper.

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KNOCK ON DOOR

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-Come in.

-You must be Jacky!

-I am, how do you do?

-Hi.

-Hello.

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-I'm Andrew. Very nice to meet you. So, day one.

-Yes. Day one, hooray.

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This is everything we need to clean the house.

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Hoover bags and filters, every size of latex glove.

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Then you've got masks for really dusty situations and so on, there's two sorts there.

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Everything we use is natural, we don't use man-made for anything.

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Synthetic can be quite abrasive.

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I see you've got more than one kind of brush here.

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What would you use, say, a pony hair brush for?

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Feel that. It's very, very soft.

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We use that on gilding, on anything that's really, really delicate.

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-This one is hog's hair brush. That's quite a bit stiffer.

-Oh, yeah, yeah.

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That's for sculpture and furniture and things like that.

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These are for cleaning the faces of the paintings.

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-This is a badger hair brush.

-Badger hair?

-Very, very soft.

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Which rather begs the question, how does one pluck a badger?

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-I don't know.

-You don't pluck your own badger brushes?

-No! Afraid not, sorry.

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Winter at Petworth clearly isn't a time for taking things easy,

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but Jacky insists the season does have its perks.

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Winter time is the best time of the lot. It's the time to

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give the house a rest, for us to do our jobs, which is cleaning this fantastic place.

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We get to see things up close that people don't see.

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We're that close to a Turner or a Van Dyck

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when you're cleaning these things. It's amazing, who else gets to do it?

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THEY LAUGH

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The other five members of Petworth's conservation team now turn up

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to move the cleaning kit into the public part of the house,

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along with 30 crates of covers.

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The upholstery has just been vacuumed.

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The sheets keep it dust-free during the winter.

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Each is individually tailored for its specific object

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and carefully numbered accordingly.

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-That's it! That's done.

-Settee number 54, in bed for the winter.

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That's right. It's got its pyjamas on.

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Dust not only looks bad, it also attracts mites and pests,

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and can permanently damage historical artefacts.

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Few visitors, gazing at these works of art,

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realise that they may be harming them.

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But nearly all Trust dust consists of their clothing fibres and dead skin.

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The dust that's accumulated over that open period is why we need to

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close in winter to get rid of it, or get rid of as much as we can.

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-I get the feeling dust is a major character...

-It is.

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-..in your work.

-Dust is extremely important. Dust is coming from everywhere.

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Every time you flap your arms around or move your head or just twitch,

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there's skin and hair and things flying off you all the time. That's just us.

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When you add into walking outside and people coming into the house,

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there's sand and grit, leaves.

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-Do you have dreams about dust?

-Definitely not!

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Only after a really rainy day and people have walked in

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and there's mud all over the floors.

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Apart from that, definitely not.

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Taking these precautions is just the warm-up

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before the real work of winter begins.

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The public tour of Petworth House takes in a dozen showpiece historical interiors.

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Over the coming months, the team will tackle each of these in turn.

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Their job isn't restoration, but conservation,

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cleaning every last inch of the house

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and preserving the collection for future visitors.

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But before they embark on their room-by-room tour of duty,

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a few other preparations need to be made.

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They'll begin with conservation work on some of the most fragile items in the collection.

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Petworth began accumulating ceramics in the 1690s,

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thanks to one of the great women to live here, Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset.

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She became swept up in Chinamania, a craze for collecting pottery,

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instigated by her friend, Queen Mary.

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So for 300 years now,

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Petworth has been home to these priceless objects made in China,

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or, in the case of this gilded dish, Japan.

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For most of the year, it's displayed in what's known as the Red Room.

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But during the winter, it heads to safer climes.

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These are too vulnerable to leave out where they are.

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The cleaning process, which you'll see in a minute,

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is quite intense and it requires you to be seated at a table,

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so it's much easier to move the ceramics to a dedicated space

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than moving all that equipment around throughout the house.

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When we lift up ceramics, we need to make sure

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we're supporting the weight and structure of the object.

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So it's basically placing your hands underneath and lifting from below

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-and supporting it as so.

-This is something you think I should do?

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-Yes.

-Just how much money will I be dropping, if I drop it?

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It has a huge historical value. It's very important to the collection.

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But I have every faith in your abilities, Andrew, you'll be fine.

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With ceramics, there are a few things to bear in mind.

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You always make sure your route's clear, which we've checked so that there's nothing in the way.

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We also don't talk to each other while we're carrying ceramics,

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so we're solely focused on the piece and where our feet are.

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Very, very hard for me. Motormouth! Here goes.

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-Right! Just like that?

-Perfect.

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-Oh, it's heavy.

-It is quite heavy.

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Gosh... Oh! Don't say anything. Right, OK.

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Though the National Trust won't reveal the value of anything they own,

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safe to say I won't be invited back if I drop this.

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Wonderful, see? Easy!

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OK!

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The rest of the conservation team have gingerly gathered

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the other delicate porcelain from across the house.

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The process of conservation begins with reading

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a crucial document called the condition report.

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Every object in the house has one of these,

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which basically lets us know everything about this object.

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Each year, we compare it year on year to see if there's been

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any deterioration or any damage and what treatment to give it.

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They're a bit like school reports, these.

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"Colours vivid," it says here. "Gilding generally intact."

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"Problem areas - large travelling crack."

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I like that, "travelling crack". I'd say that crack has travelled.

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And it doesn't say anywhere on here who broke it.

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"Dust with a pony hair brush."

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Because if we washed it with the dust on,

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it would act as an abrasive

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and could actually take off parts of the surface.

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-Right.

-So you always remove dust first.

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We're going to clean the dish now,

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so we're going to use this pot first,

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which is our soapy water, which is a tiny drop

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of conservation-grade detergent, mixed with tepid water.

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What's conservation-grade detergent?

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How is that different from what I use at home?

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Basically, it's sensitive skin detergent

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from your high-street chemist.

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Ah, so porcelain has sensitive skin?

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It does.

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And it's just a matter of going over the surface,

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very delicately, just to remove any surface dirt that might be there.

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And you're not touching the gold if you can avoid it.

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No, you avoid the gold, I'm going to avoid

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the crack running through this cloud.

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So, I'll go over the other side.

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-You can see the dirt on there.

-Oh, gosh, yeah.

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Now we've gone over those areas with detergent water,

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it's very important that we wash that off,

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so it's about going over the same area again

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but with this clean bud, which has just got the pure water on.

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We then have to dry it, and then it's just a matter of

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taking that surface water off so that the object is nice and dry.

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It's time to put into practice everything Sue's taught me.

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I'm still a bit nervous about how fragile these ceramics are,

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but there's evidence they've encountered clumsier hands than mine.

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I'd just like to point out that those cracks were there already.

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Nothing to do with me.

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This Meissen-style soup tureen was bought from a Chelsea warehouse

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in the 1750s - when it was broken is less certain.

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This is the way they used to repair ceramics, was to...

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Sort of like staples.

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They are, basically, they were just these metal,

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big staples, rivets, which hold the two pieces together and support the glue.

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Why is it not National Trust policy

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to undo the old repair and repair it again in a more invisible way?

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To do that is almost denying part of this object's story.

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The National Trust is also not into restoring things

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to look like new - we conserve them in their current condition,

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so it's a very different way of thinking.

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I mean, I personally like the fact that it carries its own...

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sort of like battle scars.

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Yes.

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That's it, you're just flicking away that dust.

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It's really amazingly beautiful piece of painting.

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I mean, these tulips are fantastic.

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Like a little English still life.

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It's not quite a painting or a sculpture,

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it's sort of a bit of both.

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Washing dishes the National Trust way

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takes a lot longer than it does at my house.

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-Gently, like that?

-Perfect.

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I'd feared a process this painstaking would be tedious.

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In fact, it generates an almost Zen-like sense of focused attention.

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I think one of the interesting things for me

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about the cleaning process is that

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it's not just cleaning, it's a thinking process

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and a looking process,

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and this process sort of forces you...

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-It does.

-..to live with this object maybe for an hour of your life,

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and by the end of that process,

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you really do have a different sense of this thing.

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The winter gives us a chance to reconnect with an object,

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to actually sit back and think,

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"Wow, this is beautiful, and it's my job to look after it."

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That's a really wonderful feeling.

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Now the ceramics are so clean,

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we need to make sure they'll stay that way

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until they go back on public display in March.

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I like the fact we're doing this in front of all these...

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rather sexy Stuart court ghosts of the past.

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She has definitely got a twinkle in her eye.

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Don't worry, we won't break the porcelain.

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So, basically, we don't need to wrap it tightly.

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It's just about ensuring that there's going to be no dust getting in...

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-Ah, the demon dust.

-..over the winter.

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All the ceramics are stored for the winter in their own cupboard -

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on the second floor.

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This is probably the most risky bit of the whole procedure.

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It is.

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Having carried a single dish with such care earlier,

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I've now got to avoid smashing a whole tray full.

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Can we go a tiny bit slower?

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Uh-huh.

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We won't see those again until March next year.

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Good night, me old china!

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No, that's...

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SHE LAUGHS

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Sorry, that's terrible!

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It's not just the public being shut out of Petworth House

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for the coming four months.

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So is the light.

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The curtains being lowered today won't be opened again until March.

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So, Andy, why are you shutting out this beautiful, Turner-like sunset?

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Well, light is potentially one of the most harmful things

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to historical collections,

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so we have to mitigate against that in a number of ways.

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Obviously, when the house is open to the public,

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we want as much light as possible to fall on the objects,

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so people can see and enjoy them,

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but when the house doesn't have visitors,

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we keep it as dark as possible.

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So, what are the things in the house

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that would be damaged by light in particular?

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Anything, really, which is constructed out of organic matter,

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so fabrics, paintings with pigments in,

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wooden furniture, all of which is susceptible to damage by light.

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So, you're almost rationing the light?

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That's a very good way of putting it.

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-Only this much light every year.

-Absolutely.

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Sort of watching this process as it begins on this first day -

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watching each of our chairs, each of our sofas,

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having their pyjamas put on, getting ready for bed -

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it's as if the whole house is going into hibernation for the winter.

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There is this historic term, "putting the house to bed".

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When the family went away, the housekeeping staff

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would also put the house to bed,

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and that's exactly how they would phrase it.

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That's interesting, I never knew that.

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It does feel that it's going to be rather a dark winter.

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It certainly is.

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The final task of the day takes place

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in Petworth's en-suite art gallery - every home should have one.

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The team need to take a painting off the wall so it can be photographed.

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It's by one of my favourite artists - Turner.

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In the 1820s, Britain's greatest painter often stayed in this house,

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which remains home to a staggering 20 of his works.

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What's the plan, Andy?

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The three ladies at the top are going to unhook the painting from its chains,

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the three at the bottom will take the weight as they pass it down.

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-How heavy is it?

-Quite heavy.

-Heavy?

-Yeah.

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So, on my first day, I am...

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LAUGHTER

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This is a bit mad! ..I am squeezed up against the scaffolding,

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taking the weight of a Turner.

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Absolutely.

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What are we doing?

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We're walking it down the chain.

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It's coming down the chain, bit by bit.

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I'm not sure what would be worse.

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Would it be worse to drop a Turner or be bonked on the head by one?

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The picture I'm clinging onto is, needless to say,

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absolutely priceless.

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OK, slowly chaps. That's it!

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-Got it?

-Yep, got it.

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-OK.

-Slowly.

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-We don't want to catch the frame on the scaffolding.

-No.

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That's it.

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There's lots of times in my life

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when I've wanted to take a Turner off the wall.

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I've never actually had the chance to do one.

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The only pity is I can't take it home with me.

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-Take the weight with the hook and just support it.

-OK, yeah.

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-I'll say, "One, two, three, go."

-One, two, three, go.

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One, two, three, up!

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Bloody hell!

0:19:180:19:19

Are you OK with that?

0:19:190:19:21

-Yeah.

-Good.

0:19:210:19:22

You say if you want to put it down at any time.

0:19:220:19:24

-No, I'm fine.

-OK.

0:19:240:19:26

-Onto these blocks?

-Onto the blocks, that's it.

0:19:270:19:29

At ground level, the painting will be much easier to shoot

0:19:310:19:34

when the Tate's photographer arrives tomorrow.

0:19:340:19:37

I'm really glad Andy let me get up close and personal with this picture,

0:19:370:19:42

because it's quite a radical, adventurous, experimental,

0:19:420:19:45

sexy work of art, and it's a very unusual picture

0:19:450:19:48

to have ended up in an aristocratic collection in the 19th century,

0:19:480:19:52

because most English aristocrats were just collecting

0:19:520:19:55

pictures of themselves, their wives, their horses.

0:19:550:19:58

Most aristocrats were not interested in what I can only call

0:19:580:20:02

the English avant garde, but the owners of Petworth were.

0:20:020:20:05

And that's very important to remember that,

0:20:050:20:08

because that's what makes this collection so unique.

0:20:080:20:11

Petworth's aptly named Grand Staircase

0:20:200:20:22

is the next destination on the conservation team's schedule.

0:20:220:20:26

At its foot is another antique that needs to be moved for the winter -

0:20:280:20:32

rather bigger than the others I've encountered.

0:20:320:20:35

For reasons, which I'm hoping will soon be explained to me,

0:20:350:20:38

what appears to be a bit of net curtain

0:20:380:20:41

is thrown over this carpet before it's vacuumed.

0:20:410:20:45

It's clearly no ordinary rug.

0:20:450:20:48

This is a very rare hand-knotted English carpet,

0:20:480:20:52

manufactured in Exeter in 1758.

0:20:520:20:54

And there are only three English carpets of this period

0:20:540:20:58

and this type of manufacture in existence -

0:20:580:21:00

the other two are in the V&A.

0:21:000:21:02

So, this is one of the rarest objects in the house.

0:21:020:21:04

It's one of our great treasures.

0:21:040:21:06

Visitors aren't allowed to walk on this carpet,

0:21:070:21:10

and even for its annual clean I've got to take my shoes off,

0:21:100:21:13

as well as take other protective measures.

0:21:130:21:17

I feel like I'm about to go skateboarding!

0:21:180:21:22

A skateboarding mime artist!

0:21:220:21:24

No, no, I'm about to clean an 18th-century carpet.

0:21:240:21:27

Believe me, they do help.

0:21:270:21:28

It's where we get the saying "housemaid's knee",

0:21:280:21:31

because they didn't have nice kneepads, they just knelt on them.

0:21:310:21:34

They're good.

0:21:340:21:35

So, tell me about this rather peculiar-looking process.

0:21:350:21:39

We have the netting down, because it is a fragile carpet,

0:21:390:21:42

if we catch a thread, we don't want to pull it up.

0:21:420:21:45

So, it's here to stop me hoovering up the carpet?

0:21:450:21:48

Basically, yes.

0:21:480:21:49

The conservation vacuums used

0:21:500:21:53

are much lower suction than a domestic model,

0:21:530:21:55

which makes the task painfully protracted.

0:21:550:21:58

I'm going more slowly than you.

0:21:580:22:00

Well, I have been unfair and given you the larger piece of mesh, so...

0:22:000:22:04

I did notice that.

0:22:040:22:06

Thanks a lot!

0:22:070:22:08

I fancy a hot bath tonight!

0:22:210:22:23

To clear room for the next stage of the process,

0:22:290:22:31

the extraordinary antiques which surround the carpet need to be moved.

0:22:310:22:36

These 18 gilded walnut chairs were commissioned for Petworth

0:22:380:22:42

in the early 17th century.

0:22:420:22:45

So, what we need to do is pull one side of the carpet over,

0:22:470:22:50

and then grab the other side and pull it back underneath,

0:22:500:22:53

so the carpet's upside down.

0:22:530:22:55

We're taking the trouble to turn the whole carpet over,

0:22:550:22:58

so that when we roll it, we won't be working against its pile.

0:22:580:23:02

So, that naturally wants to roll like that,

0:23:020:23:04

whereas if we were doing it the other way, we'd be compressing the pile.

0:23:040:23:08

-Yeah, I can see.

-So, we start here, and roll that way.

0:23:080:23:11

The tissue being put down for extra protection is acid-free.

0:23:120:23:16

Some papers release chemicals over time,

0:23:160:23:20

which would stain the antique fibres.

0:23:200:23:22

In previous centuries, carpets were cleaned by scattering them

0:23:250:23:28

with grass clippings, grated potatoes or even snow,

0:23:280:23:32

before taking them outside for beating and drying.

0:23:320:23:35

We're only taking this one as far as the Square Dining Room,

0:23:390:23:43

where it can lie undisturbed for the winter.

0:23:430:23:45

-Are we done?

-Yep.

0:23:480:23:49

Down, there we go.

0:23:490:23:50

Perfect.

0:23:500:23:52

One of the most precious things in all of Petworth

0:24:030:24:06

isn't actually hanging on a wall or sitting on a plinth.

0:24:060:24:09

It's a really early copy of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

0:24:090:24:13

The 2nd Earl of Northumberland, who owned Petworth

0:24:130:24:16

in the late 14th century, when Chaucer was writing the poem,

0:24:160:24:20

was actually married to the poet's great-niece.

0:24:200:24:22

The copy they've got here pre-dates the invention of printing by 50 years.

0:24:220:24:27

It's so rare that one of the National Trust specialists has come in to handle it.

0:24:270:24:32

I'm not going to use gloves.

0:24:320:24:34

Because of the silk velvet being so very fragile,

0:24:340:24:37

it's very easy to pull off fibres and lose them.

0:24:370:24:41

So, clean hands in this instance.

0:24:410:24:44

Ooh, look at that.

0:24:480:24:49

Ideally, no book should open more than...

0:24:490:24:52

..certainly not as much as 180 degrees,

0:24:540:24:58

and some books can only manage 90 or 45.

0:24:580:25:00

Gosh!

0:25:000:25:01

So, I'm going to open it in the middle.

0:25:010:25:03

Where are we here?

0:25:030:25:05

This is the beginning of The Knight's Tale.

0:25:050:25:07

Oh, yeah - "Here beginneth the Knight's Tale."

0:25:070:25:10

It strikes me that it's very, very beautiful.

0:25:100:25:14

It's got minute little dots of white lead,

0:25:140:25:16

and very, very fine shading there.

0:25:160:25:18

So, can I turn over a page?

0:25:180:25:20

Yes, if your hands are clean.

0:25:200:25:21

My hands are clean. Honestly, Mum!

0:25:210:25:24

Look, they are, I've washed them.

0:25:240:25:26

Here we are, the very first page.

0:25:260:25:28

Oh, isn't that a magical thing? Look.

0:25:300:25:32

Those famous words -

0:25:320:25:35

"Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote.

0:25:350:25:38

"The droghte of March hath perced to the roote."

0:25:380:25:41

The 638 pages are made, not from paper,

0:25:430:25:47

but genuine vellum - the skin of calves.

0:25:470:25:50

Ylva must check there's been no deterioration during the last eight months,

0:25:500:25:55

when the book's been on public display in a glass case.

0:25:550:25:58

What are the sort of ills the flesh of a book is liable to suffer from?

0:25:590:26:04

A book is a wonderful source of nutrition

0:26:040:26:07

for all kinds of pests and insects and vermin.

0:26:070:26:10

There are all kinds of dark places

0:26:100:26:14

where one could hide and breed.

0:26:140:26:16

-There are...

-Stop! Stop!

0:26:160:26:19

There may be termites watching!

0:26:190:26:22

On one of the last pages Yvla checks,

0:26:230:26:25

she does find cause for concern.

0:26:250:26:28

So, what is it you're looking at here?

0:26:280:26:31

Well, I've just spotted, in this capital here,

0:26:310:26:35

there's a big flake of the gilding missing.

0:26:350:26:40

If anything had become detached,

0:26:400:26:41

-we would still have it.

-I would have thought...

0:26:410:26:44

-Oh, I see, you're looking in the guttering...

-Yes.

0:26:440:26:48

That's the only place it could have gone, really,

0:26:480:26:51

and I don't see it.

0:26:510:26:53

It's like prospecting for gold.

0:26:530:26:54

It is, a bit, yes.

0:26:540:26:56

And I'm very much hoping I'm not going to find any.

0:26:560:26:58

Well, I'm quite pleased not to find any, actually.

0:27:020:27:05

Because that means it's not a recent loss.

0:27:050:27:07

-Yes.

-Good.

0:27:070:27:09

I'll make a note of that.

0:27:090:27:11

The damage WILL need to be stabilised

0:27:110:27:14

before the book is put back on display next year.

0:27:140:27:18

But for now, the Petworth Chaucer will be stored

0:27:180:27:21

in a custom-built box, the snugness of which

0:27:210:27:23

keeps the vellum pages pressed into shape with just enough pressure.

0:27:230:27:27

It's heavy!

0:27:310:27:32

-They don't make them like that any more, do they?

-They don't.

0:27:320:27:36

To the outside world, Petworth may seem to have closed down,

0:27:420:27:46

but I now realise it's going to be a busy and magical winter

0:27:460:27:50

for those of us left inside.

0:27:500:27:52

I've only been here for a couple of days,

0:27:520:27:54

but I have to say, I have found the experience really, almost surprisingly, thrilling.

0:27:540:28:00

I spend a lot of my life looking at works of art,

0:28:000:28:02

reading about works of art,

0:28:020:28:04

but it's only when you're in the position

0:28:040:28:07

of actually having to touch them, to conserve them,

0:28:070:28:10

even to just visually inspect them,

0:28:100:28:12

that you're really reminded that a great work of art

0:28:120:28:15

is an actual thing, with its own life force,

0:28:150:28:19

its own physicality, its own needs.

0:28:190:28:21

I have to say, I wasn't really sure that I wanted to take this job,

0:28:210:28:26

but now I actually can't wait to get back.

0:28:260:28:29

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:530:28:56

Andrew Graham-Dixon becomes an honorary member of the expert conservation team, as they commence the epic task of 'putting the house to bed' for the winter. He gets up close and personal with a Turner painting, does the dishes the National Trust way, vacuums one of Britain's rarest rugs and learns the secrets of a book which predates the invention of printing.