Saturday, 1 January 2011

Putting the House to Bed: Charleston House

Charleston House was bought in 1916 by artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, it became the stomping ground for their friends: artists and writers who belonged to the Bloomsbury Group. The house was transformed by Bell and Grant as they decorated walls and furniture in their unique hand painted style.

I was taken up to Vanessa Bell’s Studio, at the top of Charleston House by Maggie the conservationist. She was at the head of operations, instructing volunteers in the art of cleaning and dusting old textiles and other precious objects in the house. This time of year is when all National Trust Houses are, what is called in the business, “put to bed”. An opportunity to clean everything in the house before it is re-opened in the new year. Things that had been cleaned were covered in tissue paper and white cotton sheets, leaving the sense of a ghost house: haunted objects lined the corridors and staircase. The dim lighting adding to the sense of an uninhabited cottage, filled with veiled memories and history but not too much dust.

The eager volunteers hadn’t got to Vanessa Bell’s studio yet so I was hoping for the dust of some “bright young things”. I came equipped with my own dust busting kit but Maggie had the best sable brushes for the job and proceeded to dust up cobwebs, decapitated fly’s and lace wings. We moved downstairs into the dinning room, Maggie opened the curtain to this medium sized square room. The winter sun streamed into the dark room revealing a large round table at its centre, which had been hand decorated by Vanessa Bell. Maggie delicately removed dust from the table with a red velvet cloth, she had been collecting dust herself from this room. There was a piece of plastic on the table that had been attracting dust for weeks, Maggie needed to get it analysed as there were some conservation issues in the room that may have their answers lying in this pile of dust.

The National Trust is very concerned with dust, conservationists in general are. Dust is the bane of the art conservators life, one mustn’t clean too much but one mustn’t let dust settle for too long. If you do, it can stick to objects like a thin film of glue, causing a lot more damage than a regular gentle dusting.

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