Andrew Graham-Dixon learns how to vacuum-clean sculptures, polish banisters, preserve Capability Brown's immense parkland and buff-up baroque angels in the chapel.
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In an idyllic Sussex landscape,
created by master gardener Capability Brown,
sits one of Britain's finest stately homes - Petworth House.
Thanks to the National Trust, it's now open to us all,
except during winter when, like all the Trust's homes,
Petworth shuts the public out.
When the house is closed, however, it's far from quiet.
Normally, nobody gets to see what happens here in the winter months.
But this year, I've been given unique, privileged access
to see what really goes on behind the scenes.
When the public has gone,
the National Trust's expert conservation teams get the chance
to do some housekeeping on an epic scale.
We see things up close that people don't see.
It's amazing - who else gets to do it?
I had no idea, until I took on this task,
quite how filthy the visitors were.
'And this winter, Petworth's got a new cleaner.'
-I've made a difference.
-Have you waxed it?
'It's a rare chance to get hands on with history...'
Ooh! It's heavy.
'..and glimpse the secret life of a great country house.
'On this visit, I'll discover how Petworth became a private palace,
'why baroque cherubs have to go undercover
'and how to conserve 700 acres of horticultural heritage.
'I'm joining perhaps the biggest spring clean in the world,
'which all takes place during the freezing months of winter.'
Petworth House may now be closed to the public
but the real work of the winter is about to begin -
somewhere highly appropriate.
From the late 17th century,
the Marble Hall was the first room visitors entered.
Now it's the first place where I'll be working,
under instruction from house steward, Sue Rhodes.
So what are we going to do today?
Today's the start of the room-by-room clean.
I thought we would do it by categories, so do sculpture next.
No, most of it's pretty big and immoveable and it makes more sense
to clean a room, shut it down and move on to the next one
so there's not people coming back and forth.
So it's like a military campaign - you secure an area and then move on.
We'll start at the top, work our way to the bottom
and condition check and clean everything.
Petworth's high ceilings mean the six-strong conservation team
have to double as builders.
I doubt people would think you'd have to know how to put scaffolding up.
I like the hat.
Was that a dare?
'Because the team must check and clean
'every last inch of Petworth House,
'over the next 18 weeks they'll be building two scaff towers
'up to a height of 25 feet in each of eight different state rooms.'
But every journey must begin with a single step.
So these are our hoovers.
You can pass them up to me, up the scaffold.
Why have we got hoovers?
I thought we would have Ken Dodd-style feather dusters.
We use hoovers cos it will remove the dirt
whereas a feather duster will just disperse it.
-You got it?
-Yep, got that.
I feel as safe as houses.
It feels a bit wobbly but it is perfectly safe.
So we are going to condition report.
Make sure everything's here that's supposed to be.
What about this, is that worth noting?
-This is on here, "Chip off crown on figure in centre".
There's a tiny bit of... would you say that's damage?
That is a tiny bit of damage.
These aren't recorded on the condition report so we will record that.
I don't think it's new but it hasn't been recorded.
-Do you have the brushes?
-I've got the brushes.
These are hogs-hair brushes,
which we use for slightly more robust objects such as painted wood.
They're stiffer and lift the dust off much easier
than some of the softer brushes.
And then switch it on.
So you start in one area and flick it into the nozzle.
With something like the unicorn's horn, which is quite loose,
we want to be incredibly careful.
-There's a lot of dust on that unicorn's horn.
'Any dirt on the unicorn originates from less mythical beasts - us.
'Flakes of visitors' skin and clothing fibres
'are carried this high by air convection.'
-Right, did you want to have a go?
OK, so where had you got up to?
I've done the head and to this shoulder here.
You've left me the unicorn's bum.
-I don't know.
-Be careful of the horn.
So, gently stroking into the hoover head and removing the dust.
Do feel free to shout at me.
You've definitely got the technique. I'll leave you to it, you're doing a great job.
The rest of the team have also started on their gargantuan task.
Anna's on the first of the winter's 282 paintings...
..while Judy's got under way on one of Petworth's 116 sculptures.
Once cleaned, objects need to be kept free from damaging dust
until the house reopens in March.
So each statue has its own tailor-made winter outfit.
'The sculpture I'm cleaning may look like stone
'but this beast is in fact painted wood.'
When you get up close to it, you can see
what a wonderful piece of work it is.
It's created by a man called John Selden
who spent 25 years as a woodcarver to Petworth House.
He's not very well known but deserves to be because - so the story goes -
he literally gave his life
in the service of the house and its woodcarvings.
In 1714, a fire broke out which ravaged Petworth.
Tradition has it that Selden died
trying to save his life's work from the flames.
The coat of arms I've been cleaning belonged to the 6th Duke of Somerset.
The Marble Hall reflects his taste and character.
as does much of the Petworth people visit today.
Although there had been a manor house here since medieval times,
from the 1680s onwards, the 6th Duke almost completely rebuilt it,
on a much grander scale.
It's one of many reasons he was usually called the Proud Duke.
The English aristocracy weren't exactly known for their humility,
so to earn yourself the nickname the Proud Duke
you really did have to be pretty proud.
There are many stories about his immense arrogance and self-regard.
He is said to have ordered all the paths on the estate
to be cleared when he travelled along them in his coach
because he did not want to be exposed to the gaze of the vulgar.
The story goes that on one occasion a swineherd refused to be moved along,
and said, "I will look at him and my pigs will look at him too."
History doesn't relate what happened to that swineherd
but I think, given the Proud Duke's record, it probably wasn't good.
Prominent at court and with distant royal blood,
the Proud Duke was determined his home should reflect his rank.
So this space was intended to be much more than a lobby.
His records refer to it as the "Hall of State".
A large part of the grandeur is underfoot.
However, the conservation team have noticed an increasing number
of dents, scratches and holes.
So they've called for the advice of the National Trust's stone consultant -
the aptly-named Trevor Proudfoot.
So you're concerned about the floor.
We'd like you to have a look at the surface
or, generally, the whole floor.
There is a hole here in the corner.
Oh, a big hole.
-That's not good.
-That's not good, no.
Apart from that, the surface is really getting badly scratched.
-Is this the high-heeled-shoe brigade?
-We don't allow high heels.
-Oh, you don't.
They have to wear foam slippers when they come in in high-heeled shoes.
-Oh, really. Please note!
-That's a warning.
We've got some tiles here, this one's dropped.
And you can see another there.
-Which is pinching, so that's a sign of movement.
Well, you can see where you would expect to find pointing
or plaster between the stones and that's been lost.
And also there seems to be a general movement
which has now caused the stones to push up against each other.
At the moment, we're hoovering it on a daily basis when we're open
and washing it only when it's necessary during the open season.
-Do you hoover it in order to reduce scratching?
So no waxing, no polishing, nothing?
Only if it's necessary, we use damp cloths.
That should be enough because it's Kilkenny
or it's Belgian black marble -
but the white is generally Italian carrara - and as we know,
on it's own, marble is fairly resilient to wear and tear.
To calculate just how quickly the floor is deteriorating,
conservation assistant Jacky Brown has come up with a plan -
trace every tiny mark and chip that currently exists.
Basically, you're making a map of the floor.
A year later, they'll repeat the whole exercise
and so will be able to count up every single mark
to have appeared during the intervening period.
-A sort of damage diary?
-Yes, but we've then got the history of that floor over a period of time.
What kind of use can you make of that information?
That'll give us the trends of what's happening.
We'll be able to see areas where tiles are coming loose.
Hopefully, there will be some story there which we can understand.
I imagine it's one of the things people don't notice as much.
They don't. They walk across it.
They walk across it. It's what they put their feet on.
They're looking at the sculptures and the paintings but not thinking
-that the floor is itself a great work of art.
After three days, the Marble Hall is done and dusted for the winter,
with just one last Roman to be tucked into his togs.
The room's ghostly inhabitants will now be left to rest in peace
for the next four months.
Next, on my housekeeping tour of duty,
is a still more imposing part of Petworth.
The tragic blaze of 1714
cleared the way for the Proud Duke's most extravagant creation -
the Grand Staircase.
So what style did the Proud Duke choose
when he came to redecorate after the great fire?
Well, predictably enough, he chose the art of the baroque,
the art of power, the art of the gobsmackingly grandiose.
I think what he wanted was a centrepiece
to stun and amaze every visitor and he certainly got it.
Being in here you feel as if you've been plunged
into a spaghetti bolognese of allegory.
One wall even includes the Proud Duke's missus,
Elizabeth Percy, chasing evil from the world.
Well, everyone needs a hobby(!)
As visitors gaze at these arresting images,
they steady themselves by gripping the oak banisters.
Tens of thousands of mucky mitts create a housekeeping chore
that's not for the squeamish.
All these black lines you see here are actually dirt marks.
This isn't in the grain of wood, it's on the surface of the banister.
If I very gently just scratch...
that is actually a mixture of old wax, dirt and people's sweaty palms.
To get this lot off, the conservationist's usual mix of water
and gentle detergent won't be strong enough.
It's time for some paraffin-based solvent.
Using the cotton wool with the white spirit, rub it.
You can see how much dirt I'm getting off.
And then, using this cloth, rubbing it off.
And in actual fact you can see a difference straight away.
There you go.
The white spirit is taken off so quickly,
there's no danger of it damaging the wood.
Which is a good thing, since this balustrade
was designed in 1827 by no less a man than Charles Barry,
who went on to build the Houses of Parliament.
I had no idea until I took on this task
quite how filthy the visitors were.
This is why we don't want people to touch objects in the house.
After a few hours, any last trace of white spirit has evaporated,
so conservation assistant Anna Ward
starts working down the banisters all over again,
this time rubbing in natural beeswax.
Wood is still like a living thing
and the white spirit has left it very dry
and we don't want it to dry out cos it'll crack
and the surface will be quite rough.
So we feed it with this wax which soaks in to the wood
and the colours are different just because it's been moisturised.
And then we're going to buff it off with a some of this cotton cloth
and that should give it a nice...
Cleaning the banisters
is probably the most satisfying job I've done this winter
which sounds rather sad, cos I don't think anyone will notice except me.
The grandness of the Proud Duke's vision
has bequeathed 42 brass stair rods. Which all need polishing.
So the conservation team have enlisted some extra help
from amongst the vast army of National Trust volunteers.
When the house is open, they're the main people who guide the public.
I think you'll find a lot of them are stained, damaged and so on.
Some of us avoid housework like the plague
but these people are actually are giving up their free time
to do someone else's.
If you have visitors to your own home you do a spick-and-span job.
It's the same - this is the way to look at it.
We're just cleaning up the house for our visitors.
It's very important work,
an awful lot to be done so all hands to the pump.
It starts off something like... if you compare the two...
-See, that's absolutely filthy.
-This has gone the whole season.
Vast difference, isn't it?
It's preserving something that's been here for years.
-Do you not think so, Betty?
-Yes, I do.
And it's lovely at the beginning of the season
when everything is bright and shiny and sparkling.
You're very aware of all the hands who took this stair rod down
and cleaned it years ago.
I think one's very aware of all the people who've trod here before.
Some of my family worked here.
I had a great aunt. She was in the laundry and her husband
used to deliver vegetables to the kitchens.
I think that's probably why I come here to do this.
I think Petworth's the place that I have to come and help.
Although the west front of the house
still looks the way the Proud Duke intended,
the parkland around it has changed.
The Duke's successor, the 2nd Earl of Egremont,
hired Capability Brown to landscape Petworth in the 1750s.
Some 700 acres are now looked after by the National Trust.
Over the winter, there's as much conservation work to be done out here
as there is inside the house.
It's not a bad view.
It's absolutely glorious.
-The technical term for it, I think, is a panorama.
-It certainly is, yes.
It really puts into perspective what Brown wanted to achieve.
When you look at it at first sight
you think what a beautiful piece of untamed nature
but this is actually very tamed nature, isn't it?
It's very contrived, yes.
It looks natural, like a pristine part of the English countryside
but there's a lot of man-made influence in here.
This landscape is, in a sense, a work of art
like all the works in the house.
It is, yes, and from my point of view
it's somewhat better, as that's my field of expertise.
Tell me about the water features.
Is that lake natural or did he put it here?
It's man made.
Brown built both the lakes in the park by massive excavation.
It equated to 7,000 lorry loads - that's 20 tonne lorry loads.
It wasn't only the grand old Duke of York who marched an army up and down.
It certainly wasn't. Huge, huge landscaping works.
It's a pretty unusual job, your job.
You've been given care of this planted painting
and yet you've somehow got to keep that 200-year-old project going
and then add to it for the future.
I pretty much consider myself the custodian of it, while I'm here,
and I'll hand it on to whoever follows in my footsteps
in the best possible condition that I can.
Many of the gardening team's tasks are informed
by this immensely long-term perspective.
Some of their winter's work
takes place in copses planted after the great storm of 1987.
The sweet chestnuts here,
intended to replace the hundreds of trees destroyed by that hurricane,
now, in turn, have to be guarded from the deer.
If the trunks can be protected from the damage antlers can do,
they'll carry on growing for several centuries.
But even when your goal is conservation,
not every aspect of the past can be saved.
This is 150 years old, approximately. It's a beech tree.
We've noticed, recently, that it had a particularly nasty fungus
and this could make the tree very unstable.
So unfortunately - it's a very sad occasion -
this tree is will have to come down.
Only an expert eye would spot evidence of the Meripilus fungus
but underground it devours the tree's roots,
which means this 120-foot-tall beech is in danger of falling at any time.
So woodsman Martin Sadler is taking a pre-emptive strike.
This is highly-skilled work
and a rather more dangerous side of conservation than hoovering statues.
Martin has to make sure the tree falls onto open ground
rather than onto other healthy foliage, or himself.
Well, that went well.
What we can see now we've felled it,
it was critical that this tree came down when it did.
We have a section of rot here which would have weakened the tree.
And what you can see here where the trunk has shattered -
the tissue there, which was holding up several tonnes of branch,
is just falling to pieces.
I'm very happy now that this tree is on the ground
and not posing a threat to any of our visitors.
Most of the tree will be recycled as building materials.
It's just the brushwood that's burnt on site.
Although a little bit of history has been lost,
it's necessary in the service of a greater goal -
keeping alive gardens planted centuries ago
and preserving them for future generations to enjoy.
In the house, too, conservation work is gathering pace.
Next on the schedule is Petworth's very own place of worship.
Here you get glimpses of what the house would have been
when it began life in the Middle Ages.
What I really love about the chapel, is how it puts you in direct touch
with the different layers of history that make up Petworth House.
The structure of the building is entirely Gothic, early 14th century.
And yet, into that medieval skeleton
has been shoehorned one of the great baroque interiors.
Perhaps the most complete baroque interior in all of England.
And it was all done at the behest of the Proud Duke.
Pride of place is given to the Proud Duke's coat of arms.
The angels hover above the very spot
from which his Lordship would survey proceedings.
Standing here, dead centre,
you can see why they called him the Proud Duke. You can feel it.
There's something fantastically theatrical and swaggerish about it.
Look at those painted curtains.
I think the chapel itself is a kind of microcosm
of what the Proud Duke wanted Petworth House itself to be -
a stage set for his own glorification.
But for the modern custodians of Petworth House,
the chapel's yet another dust trap.
After eight months without a scrub,
these really are angels with dirty faces.
But they won't be once the conservation team has done its duty.
-And there's your brush.
-That's my brush.
Just putting it to the chin test.
This is softer than the brush I was using before.
Yes, it is. This is a pony-hair brush
and the brush you used in the Marble Hall was a hogs-hair brush.
You're going to use it on this surface cos it's much more delicate,
so you want to be very careful with the paintwork.
OK, I will be careful.
I feel slightly sacrilegious
buffing up an angel.
This is probably another creation of John Selden,
the unfortunate woodcarver who died in the fire here at Petworth.
It's actually a really beautiful piece of carving.
I think they're very sweet. I like the finish - that gilding effect.
They've got quite a strong sense of real life about them.
They're angels but maybe they were modelled on the artist's children.
I feel like I'm in the presence of a real little boy.
Everything needs protection until the spring.
Even the altar must be shrouded.
To wrap around the corner,
the team first needs to lower the flag which hangs there.
This standard was a gift from the Life Guards, the regiment in which
several generations of Petworth's family served.
Sewn on here you've got the names of the various battles.
They fought at the Battle Of The Somme!
You've got Waterloo, South Africa, France and Flanders here.
-So why do you have to take it down?
-To give it a rest.
It hangs for about 7 or 8 months at an angle and it's folded
and the longer it stays in one position, folded,
it'll start cracking and falling apart.
It's the most amazing bit of needlework.
They lay a thread down and then little tiny stitches are sewn over.
So you go over and under and over
so you held down with what's called couching stitches.
So you end up with a lion that's got almost a hide of stitching.
They've done it so that it follows the haunch of the lion.
-And he's got such a sweet face.
It strikes me this is a very good example
of the kind of object that you only really, really see
and appreciate when you are taking it down and cleaning it.
-It really is a piece of history.
-Yes, very, very definitely.
-And such a beautiful one.
The delicate silk is vacuumed through fine mesh
to ensure none of its fibres are sucked up.
The flag will rest flat for the remainder of the winter,
covered in tissue paper - like everything else in here.
It's quite a big thing to wrap, an entire baroque chapel.
-It is, but it looks so Christmassy.
-Yes, just in time for Christmas.
As usual at Petworth, the paper used is conservation grade,
which means it won't release acids, chemicals or gasses
which could tarnish or stain the wood.
You slip it over the top like a little hat,
then if you tuck the side bits around the back of the urn
and then we'll stop any dust.
You've turned it into a Christo -
you know that artist who wraps everything up?
It looks just like one.
Having spent so much time cleaning, wrapping, dusting and hoovering
the grand baroque spaces of Petworth, I've really been struck
by the sheer force of the Proud Duke's personality.
I mean, he left his mark on this place.
But there's one other person who has come back to life for me
and that's John Selden, the heroic woodcarver.
And that makes me think about the sheer amount of labour
that went into creating the great opera of the Proud Duke's house.
For every Proud Duke there are a thousand John Seldens.
The great irony is that if the Proud Duke could come to the house today
and he could watch all of us beavering away,
I think he'd be rather horrified - all of that labour for what?
So that ordinary people, people like you and me -
commoners - could enjoy the great spectacle that he created.
I think he'd be horrified.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Andrew Graham-Dixon uncovers the history of Petworth House, as he learns how to vacuum-clean sculptures, perfectly polish banisters, preserve Capability Brown's immense parkland and buff-up baroque angels in the chapel.