At Petworth House, Andrew Graham-Dixon discovers an ingenious approach to caring for crumbling wood carvings and sets sail across an 18th-century water feature.
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In an idyllic Sussex landscape, created by master gardener
"Capability" Brown, sits one of Britain's finest stately homes.
Thanks to the National Trust, it's now open to us all -
except during winter,
when, like most of 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 during 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 get to see things up close that people don't see.'
It's amazing - no-one 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 can see that I've made a difference.
-Have you waxed it?
'It's a rare chance to get hands-on with history.'
'And glimpse the secret life of a great country house.
'On this visit, I set sail across an 18th-century water feature.
'Take on Turner with a hoover.
'And care for some crumbling carvings.
'I'm joining perhaps the biggest spring clean in the world -
'which all takes place during the freezing months of winter.'
In the depths of winter, the weather at Petworth is inhospitable,
and the house too is unwelcoming to visitors.
It's now the private domain of Petworth's six-strong conservation team.
They're giving each of the ten grand state rooms their annual MOT,
scrutinising and cleaning them thoroughly from floor to ceiling.
Next on their schedule is the Carved Room -
perhaps the most spectacular space in the whole house.
At its heart,
are some late 17th-century creations by Grinling Gibbons.
Miraculously lifelike evocations of nature, in delicate lime wood.
Gibbons is quite simply the greatest wood carver Britain has ever known,
and what he achieved here at Petworth
is rated even more highly than his work at Windsor Castle
or St Paul's Cathedral.
There's one big difference, however,
if you want to see it at this time of year.
"In the bleak midwinter", it gets very, very dark at Petworth!
It's a shame, because this is such a great, great room.
Does it really have to be kept this dark?
It does, yes, because this time of year it's not for us to enjoy,
it's the protection of the collection,
and by keeping the light levels low
it's better for the objects in the room.
If there's one thing I've learnt about the work that you do here, it's that you remove dust.
This looks to me like the biggest challenge to dusting known to man -
I mean, all these amazing Grinling Gibbons carvings.
How are you going to go about it?
Well, basically we're NOT any more. We stopped about two years ago.
Even with the lightest brush?
The carvings are too fragile.
Over the years,
with the woodworm damage and so on, the wood has broken down.
It's like a honeycomb inside the actual wood, in lots of places.
They are incredibly fragile.
I've actually got some pieces here....
These are bits of Grinling Gibbons?
-Yeah. In actual fact, you can see a lighter piece of wood...
..actually fell off. When they fall off, they shatter to dust.
This is wood dust.
We've been looking into new ways
of how we can clean these carvings without actually touching them.
I've got a few invisible men doing sort of untouchable cleaning(!)
Because you CAN see the dust - you know, visitors comment.
And it's not good enough just to say, "It's too delicate to touch
"so we'll leave it",
because leaving the dust itself is harmful - it attracts moisture -
and once you get the moisture there it'll attract insects,
and it will eventually cement itself on.
This machine, improbably, CAN clean without touching.
The Petworth team hope it might mean they can dust Gibbons's work again.
It's about to have its first trial on the Carved Room's walls.
In the war against dust, this is their most advanced weapon yet.
It's a pretty high-spec compressor, and it basically
fires air through this conventional airbrush.
So the idea is we use the airbrush to blow away dust from the carvings,
and the reason that we're trialling this one
is that it is oil-free,
and it takes the moisture out of the air that it's blowing out.
It's not discharging anything harmful. It's very clean air.
The compressor alone won't do the job.
The team need something else, which is still at prototype stage.
Jacky is constructing a very specialised nozzle,
for her vacuum cleaner.
When we're blowing the dust off the carvings,
we don't want the dust going everywhere, so the idea is
that we'll hold this in front of the carvings,
and the dust will all come down into here. We hope(!)
Because the curtains will stay drawn until mid-March,
the team will be working as ever under conservation lights.
The trial is taking place on some later carvings, added in the 1820s -
less fragile than the crumbling Gibbons originals,
but still tricky to clean with a conventional brush.
Alarmingly, some of what's first blown off looks too big to be dust.
Can you see what they are?
-Is it wood shavings, from the carving?
The big lumps you saw coming off, they're wood shavings.
They're actually when the carving's has been carved, and you've got the shavings off the carvings basically.
The jet of air has dislodged debris which has been trapped inside the frame since it was first made.
They've been in there for nearly 200 years!
Initial fears allayed,
the team return to airbrushing away more recent signs of ageing.
You can see the dust, Jacky, floating down the mirror...
Although the compressor can clearly get to places a normal brush can't,
at this stage the jury's still out
as to whether it's right for the most fragile carvings.
I think there needs to be more practice, because obviously with a brush it's
much more controlled, and you can direct it into the hoover nozzle.
Whereas blowing the air off, it's ballooning.
'The team feels it needs further testing,
'and advice from a specialist consultant,
'before they'd go ahead and use this on Gibbons's work.
'It's clear that the National Trust takes dust incredibly seriously.
'All of their working practices are backed up by their own scientific research.
'I'm meeting a conservator who's led a decade-long investigation into the subject.'
Some high-tech equipment!
So is this going to contain the key to the mystery of dust that's been perplexing me?
Well, we get a lot of dust in our collections,
and we've been conducting research for the last ten years or so
to try and discover the source of the dust.
-Is this dust actually that you've collected here at Petworth?
-This is Petworth dust?
-This is Petworth dust.
What's it actually made of? What am I looking at?
Well, you're looking at organic materials such as
-skin flakes, little bits of insect, leaves, plants...
..ground up every small,
and inorganic material such as sand and grit, and then coloured
fibres, which have probably come from visitors' clothing.
In National Trust houses,
it is the visitors who bring the dust into the collections.
The Trust has been researching not just what dust IS,
but how quickly it mounts up -
co-funding the creation of the Dust-Bug.
So this is a sort of prototype. Is that actually a camera?
Yes, there's a camera inside, and then around the edge
of the lens here there are little
LED lights which come on, and they highlight the dust on the glass.
We generally tend to take an image every night at midnight,
so that we can get a picture of how much dust is accumulating
on our collections day by day.
I just like the idea of the special dust camera! But what kind
of information do you actually get from it that's, so to speak, useful?
Well, what I can show you here are some images which I've analysed
from the Dust-Bug when it was in use here at Petworth.
So, this is the amount of dust at the end of the first day...
This is when the house is open, full flow, public coming in...
Exactly. And after six days,
-suddenly a very...
-A galaxy of dust!
A super cloud nebula of dust. Amazing.
There was 9.6 percentage coverage,
and we think that after about 2 to 3%, we should be cleaning surfaces
because the dust is becoming too obvious.
Are Petworth visitors more dusty than your average visitor?
-No, it wasn't entirely being flippant...
They have to come in through the park - I was wondering, do they bring bits of it with them?
I think I'm always rather hoping for a stiff northeasterly gale,
-that would blow the dust OFF them before they get into the building.
-You arrange it(!)
Maybe that's the next National Trust...
De-dusting! It could be like the decontamination of a nuclear...
Well, we have thought about putting people through an artificial doorway
-with little jets of air coming off it.
-You really have, haven't you?
You really have. You're not joking.
No, I'm not joking. And we're not the only people that have thought about it.
If the Trust can't get all the dust off its visitors,
it can at least try to control how far their dust spreads.
Helen's demonstrating a standard Trust technique for measuring this.
Dust traps, in the form of sticky slides,
are being placed at 50cm intervals from the path used by visitors.
They'd normally be left down for several weeks,
collecting any airborne particles floating near them.
What we've discovered
is that we get a significant amount
of dust very close to the visitors,
but with every additional half-metre distance
the amount of dust drops off by half.
So by the time we get to a metre and a half or two metres' distance
between the visitor and the object,
the amount of dust is significantly less.
On the basis of these tests, do you decide where you put your ropes?
Indeed. That's part of the point of them.
It is to keep visitors sufficiently far away from the objects
that we don't have to vacuum more than is good for the object.
'The reason for Helen's lust to control dust
'is clear when you contemplate the most fragile of historic items.'
'This Chippendale bed is now 240 years old,
'and it's easy to see that its silk and velvet hangings,
'woven in Spitalfields, are precariously delicate.'
So when you look at a really fragile piece of textile like this,
I mean, what damage ultimately can dust really do?
Isn't it better just to leave it a bit dusty?
Well, unfortunately the dust attaches itself to the textiles,
and then it becomes much more difficult to get it off.
-How does it DO that?
-If you think of all those particles, some of them are soluble,
so in high humidity they dissolve,
and then in low humidity they harden again,
and they form a little cement between the particles and the textile,
so they're actually bonded together.
So you're in a double bind, really -
you don't want to let dust settle on them
because of the problems associated with that,
and yet on the other hand you don't want to clean them either,
because you might be hoovering away precious strands
that are holding them together. So what do you do?
The point is that we're trying to establish, for each house
and for each fragile material, how often
something needs to be vacuumed,
so that it's vacuumed when necessary but not as a matter of habit.
Which all helps to explain why Grinling Gibbons's work
IS currently in the category of too fragile to be cleaned -
even with an airbrush -
but there are other antiques in the Carved Room
which the conservation team CAN get their hands on.
These marble statues came to Petworth in the 1750s, but they began life in Ancient Rome.
Recently though, one of these busts...got slightly busted.
Here there was a piece of damage that was caused to this bust last winter,
and we're getting in the experts to come and fix that this year.
That's quite a big chip. How did that happen?
When we move busts, the way we move them is to
embrace them like this, so that the weight is fully in our bodies,
and that additional pressure on that edge of the drapery
caused that old repair to fail.
You can see that there's old glue there,
and that is always the weakest point on these things.
So how do you fix something like that?
Is there special marble Polyfilla(?)
Or do you have an extra piece cut?
When something comes off an object, we collect the bit that's fallen off
or been knocked off, and we put it in what's called our "bits box".
-I like that! "Bits box", that's a good name.
'Tucked away back stairs is the stately home equivalent of
'that drawer in your kitchen where
'you keep odds and ends you're not sure what else to do with.'
Oh, open it! I want to see.
As I was saying, every time something
accidentally gets knocked off, we record it...
That's a big bit to get knocked off.
This is a piece of gilded carved decoration off one of the pier tables in the Beauty Room,
and things like the bell calls from Mrs Wyndham's dressing room...
And then this is from the cast-iron Tijou gates out in the park,
so, you know, just as bits come off accidentally we pop them in the box.
-Who dislodged this piece of carving?
-That may have been me!
Sorry, I shouldn't have brought that up. How terribly tactless of me.
These things do happen,
I was cleaning underneath the table,
and I came back out of it and wasn't quite low enough. Again, it's another failed old repair.
I haven't actually contributed to the bits box yet...!
One in five years isn't too bad.
-This is our little bit...
-That's the bit from the sculpture.
So we knew exactly where to find that, rather than it being squirreled away in somebody's desk.
To make the repair, Petworth have called in
the National Trust's expert stone consultant Trevor Proudfoot.
What I'm checking to see is the residue of the old restorer's glue,
which presumably is from the 18th century, when these pieces were put on.
The glue used to fix the bust 250 years ago was pine resin.
Over time it's decayed from marble-matching white
to mucky brown.
The first treatment required for the distressed roman matron is nail varnish remover
to eliminate any grime or grease.
Then it's time for the glue. These days acrylics are used
because they're less likely to degrade over the decades.
So, a small amount of adhesive goes on.
Press them together now.
For what we were after,
which was an invisible repair, I would say that was invisible.
Back in one piece, the bust can convalesce for the rest of the winter.
Working in the Carved Room brings you face to face with different eras of Petworth's history.
Much of what can be seen today dates back to the early 19th century when
the house was remodelled to the taste of its most memorable owner.
The third Earl of Egremont inherited Petworth in 1763.
He was a true bohemian,
not least in his love life.
He was alleged to have had 43 children by a number of different mothers.
All of whom lived in the house with him.
The third Earl of Egremont would be in charge of the house for 70 years
and he declared open house for creative types of all sorts.
Artists would come and stay here for months, even years,
studying the vast collections and creating works of their own.
One of the most famous of them, John Constable,
simply called this place "The house of art."
So when the third Earl wanted a nice picture of his back garden,
he could call on no less a painter than the greatest Britain has ever produced -
In the 1820s, JMW was a frequent guest at Petworth.
My next task is to look after some of the work he left behind.
You're doing one of my favourite pictures in the house.
Ah, it's one of my favourite paintings too.
So beautiful, isn't it? I just love that burning sun. So you're cleaning the frame?
Yes, but I will also clean the surface of the painting.
You clean the surface of the picture?
With oil painting you get cracks in the surface of the painting and the dust can get in there and settle.
Especially with Turner's slightly experimental technique.
It's called craquelure isn't it? I like that word, craquelure.
To expose any dust in the surface of the painting, the conservation light is shone close by at an angle.
Our other tools are the softest of brushes, badger hair, and another manually modified nozzle.
-We're going to use a crevice head with the net over the top.
-Why the net?
-Just in case a flake of paint
did come off the surface, which we very much hope it wouldn't,
it would not get sucked up the vacuum. We can get it.
Oh, I see. yeah, yeah, yeah. So you look at your vacuum regularly as you do this
to check that there aren't any chunks of paint.
-Great. Thanks a lot.
I was very happy to be doing this job, now I feel apprehensive.
Still, there's no denying that for a lifelong Turner enthusiast like me, this is housework from heaven.
You might wonder why the third Earl
would have had his prize Turners hung at this strange low height.
Well, the reason for that is because he turned this into his dining room.
And so basically the idea was, if I take this steward's chair...
..you'd sit here having your lunch and you'd have Petworth Park, seen from the house,
painted by Turner on that side and looking over there, although I can't see it at the moment
because the curtains are drawn, but over on that side you'd see the very same view that Turner painted.
You'd get the reality and Turner's transformation of the reality in art all in one experience.
Oh, those were the days, eh?
I've never been allowed to get quite this close to a Turner before.
Not actually to touch it.
So I feel a little bit...
Sense of responsibility. But I'm going to touch it so gently
as I've been told.
This really is one of my favourite Turner pictures
and it's very much...
..the third Earl's Petworth. There's a cricket match going on.
He loved cricket and Turner has made sure he's included a cricket match going on.
Pass through the middle stump.
I love this detail here.
I just love that sort of lightly bruised bit of sky.
Really getting close to a Turner sunset...
It is actually...
The hair's on the back of my neck did actually just stand up.
Isn't that extraordinary?
Aristocratic visitors were often rather scandalised by the experience
of coming to Petworth House and sitting at dinner with the third Earl and all his mistresses.
was certainly not shocked.
I think Turner was quite a sexual liberal himself
so I think they had a certain degree of lasciviousness, if you like, in common.
They certainly got on very, very well.
All done. No bits of paint came off I'm glad to say.
It's wonderful getting that close to it and I'm struck
by this sort of seething profusion of deer.
It's as if the deer have somehow run amok
and I think that's how Turner saw the third Earl Petworth,
as a kind of bohemian arcadia.
A kind of paradise where in a sense anything goes
and I just wonder if those deer don't somehow embody that thought.
The Petworth parkland painted by Turner
is pretty much unchanged to this day.
The cricketers might not be here in winter, but the deer are as abundant as ever.
The landscape is largely manmade.
The man who made it being none other than Lancelot "Capability" Brown.
When a view has been fashioned by Capability and painted by Turner,
it's clearly worth preserving.
Making sure the park still looks a picture is now the responsibility of head gardener Gary Liddle.
This is Turner's Petworth House and the park, Dewy Morning. 1810.
It's changed remarkably little, hasn't it?
It has, but as you can see, the willow here
that is possibly being planted in this particular painting
is now a 250-year-old tree,
so that's why the view has changed slightly from this position.
A number of the other ornamental islands however have changed in ways that Brown never intended.
They've been overrun by self-seeding rapidly-growing alder trees.
Is it one of your jobs today
to try and actually, as it were, bring this back to what it was?
In a sense, yes. Obviously things grow and change the scale, but what
we're doing today is removing some of what we call the weed trees.
-The trees that have cluttered the islands.
-That island there, that needs a haircut!
-It does, yes.
You can hardly see the house on that side.
-It's spoiling our Turner.
-Part of our job is to take those off
and restore the islands to their former glory.
-It's quite handy for you that Turner painted it.
-It's a good reference point, yes.
Your boat isn't quite as impressive as that!
No, but our boat is flat bottomed and it's a safe working platform.
Health and safety!
We'd very much love to have something like this on the lake.
I think your boat's a bit of a kitchen sink compared to that!
It is, it's not very glamorous, is it?
Nonetheless this unromantic vessel
is coming to transport me to the island which is being cleared of weed trees today.
The woodsman has to double as skipper.
Can I just hold onto you? Oh, there we go.
I've never rowed into the middle of a Turner painting before.
No? Oh, right. It'll be your first time then!
As water features go, this manmade lake wasn't cheap.
In today's money, it cost over £2.5 million to create
plus a further small fortune to stem regular leaks.
Big old job to do on all these islands, isn't it?
Yes, there are a lot of trees to thin out.
They're quite romantic, all overgrown like this.
They are at the moment, but the trouble is the trees can blow over in high winds
and quite often it takes the root
and the stump and then you get holes
in the islands, so that's the main reason for doing it.
Is this our island?
Yes, that's the one.
Starboard a bit. Land ahoy.
Well, I managed to get my...
foot well and truly down in the lake there.
-Shall I follow you?
We're among the very few ever to have ventured into this West Sussex jungle.
-Which tree are you going to be taking out, this one?
-Yes. I'll attach the rope to it
so we can drag it back to the mainland.
Let's go for it. Have you ever fallen in?
Yes, I have, actually. One winter when it was very icy and snowy and
managed to fall in and get drenched.
That must be very satisfying in a slightly strange destructive way!
It's funny because everyone else I've been in the house with, they've always been
trying to look after things and here you are destroying them!
We do a lot of destruction, yeah!
As the short winter afternoon hurries to its end, Martin has to row quickly round
to pick up the other end of his rope so that he can tow the felled tree
back to the mainland.
At this point, the rest of the gardening team springs into action.
It's time for a tug of war between tractor and tree.
Then as punishment for spoiling Turner's views, the overgrown alder
faces the "Petworth Chainsaw Massacre."
It's easy to track the progress made by the gardening team, but there is a lot more still to be done.
It'll take about two weeks to get that island cleared.
That Capability Brown has got a lot to answer for.
He certainly has, yes.
Back in the Carved Room, cleaning is finally completed for another winter.
It's such a huge space it's taken all of two weeks to get the work done,
but what a place to work, and it's so inspiring.
And I think it goes to the heart of what makes Petworth so special.
In this one space, you've got England's greatest wood carver creating his very finest work.
And you've got England's greatest painter creating some of his finest paintings.
And in both cases they were done FOR Petworth.
The relationship between the art and the house is completely organic
and I think that's ultimately what makes this house so magical.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Andrew Graham-Dixon discovers an ingenious approach to caring for crumbling wood carvings, tackles Turner with a vacuum cleaner, sets sail across an 18th-century water feature and meets a world authority on the science of dust.