Have you heard about the ‘Great Store’ at Knole? The National Trust property based in Sevenoaks? It’s a fantastic temporary exhibition that allows visitors to get close enough to see over 150 pieces of art and furniture in detail. And one of the most amazing things is that the store was never supposed to have existed in the first place.
As far as houses go, very few can compare with the sheer size of Knole. It was built to impress and show off and has been described as looking more like ‘a town rather than an house.’ Since I was a little girl, I’ve known it as the ‘calendar house’ due to its reputed 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards. I’ve recently learnt that this is sadly, just a myth. In the past, Knole has served as an archibishop’s palace and a hunting lodge for King Henry VIII.
With a footprint of over four acres, Knole is the largest private residence in the country and since 1603 it’s been in the custody of the Sackville family. The family has always moved in elevated circles and Knole’s gigantic ‘showrooms’ and galleries have been filled with an amazing array of paintings, furniture and objects, which were once on display in royal palaces, to amaze and amuse the great and the good.
Over time, however, the need for such formal spaces has dwindled, as have the resources to maintain such an extravagant property, and the Sackville family has withdrawn from the large formal ‘showrooms’ and galleries leaving them untouched and preserved in a somewhat Miss Haversham fashion.
Many of these enormous rooms are now managed by the National Trust and the house is in the middle of a five-year, £19.8 million building and conservation project in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The current phase involves the opening of a new conservation studio, where Knole’s treasures can receive some tender loving care under the watchful gaze of visitors, and the conservation of the Reynolds Room, Cartoon Gallery, Ballroom and King’s Room.
Centuries of damp and poor heating have severely damaged both the rooms and their objects and, once the showrooms have been returned to their former glory, the newly conserved objects will be returned to their original settings.
Although running alongside one another, the building of the conservation studio and the conservation of the showrooms are separate projects with their own timelines. The original idea was that the conservation studio would house all the objects removed – or decanted to use the correct terminology – from the showrooms. But the building work didn’t quite go according to plan and the opening of the conservation studio was delayed.
All the objects from the showrooms still needed to be safely re-homed, however, and the idea for a Great Store within the Great Hall was conceived.
It took eight members of staff and twenty-seven volunteers 1,124.5 hours to move all the furniture, paintings, textiles and objects to their new temporary home in the Great Store and place them in the carefully lit, non-reflective cabinets and wall racks.
Hannah Pearson, Knole’s Marketing and Communications Officer, says ‘you walk into a room here and they are massive. With enormous ceilings and huge paintings and it’s easy to overlook things. So, although it wasn’t planned, the Great Store has worked nicely because it’s allowed people to see things up close’.
Past visitors will know that, although it has many treasures, Knole is not the brightest of buildings. Some people take the view that it’s dark and gloomy but I prefer to think of it as being part of the house’s slightly mysterious atmosphere. When the current conservation project is over, and the showrooms are fully re-opened, they ‘will be more environmentally friendly for the collections and the lighting will be better for visitors to see’.
Back within the Great Hall, the furniture and objects are being well cared for. Items range from a crimson velvet close stool – that’s a stool containing a chamber pot – that originated from one of the royal palaces and is likely to have been used by King Charles II or King James II to an incredible silver table that was made for Frances Sackville, Countess of Dorset. Each corner of the table displays her initials and this type of ornate silver furniture was made fashionable in Versailles by King Louis XIV. That is, until the money was needed for military campaigns and every piece in France was melted down. In England, only three sets now survive, two at Windsor Castle and this one at Knole.
Numerous ornate silver and gold objects can be seen shimmering under the spotlights so when I asked Hannah what her two favourite objects would be her answers were a little surprising –
Russia Leather Coffer circa 1668
Her first item was a Russia Leather Coffer or chest made in the 17th century. Hannah says ‘I love this chest. It was in the Cartoon Gallery before and you couldn’t see it up close. When you see things in the rooms, your mind is trying to take in everything but when you are close to the objects, they are all you focus on. I love all the detail, even on the lock itself – all the etchings and designs.’
Russia leather is cattle hide that’s been processed using birch oil to make it hardwearing and water resistant. This one was probably made by Richard Pigg, coffer maker to Charles II and Hannah explains that ‘coffers were usually used for storage as the richer families moved between houses quite a lot. This one is quite a grand one, so it’s ornamental as well as practical.’
Ebony Cabinet made in Paris circa 1650
Moving onto her second object, Hannah is quick to point out this ebony cabinet. A photograph shows that it usually has legs attached but they have been removed for ease of storage. Hannah’s says ‘It’s usually displayed in the King’s Room which is very gold so you walk in and your eye is immediately drawn to the bed’.
This cabinet is also usually closed ‘so you don’t get to see all this beautiful detail which is just really lovely. When they opened it up I was like “Oh, that’s amazing!” It’s got all these little cabinets and storage bits and there are hidden sections behind the mirrors that you have to tuck your hands around to get to.
It’s in this cabinet that they found a note from Vita Sackville-West. Vita was about six when she wrote it and it reads ‘Dada, Mama and Vita looked at this secret drawer on 29th April 1898. It’s still in there, tucked back in the secret drawer.’
Once Hannah has finished telling me about her two favourite pieces I ask her why she chose them, she says ‘I really like that chest and maybe I go for the less blingy sort of objects. We don’t always tell the people stories at Knole, its usually about the collection or showrooms, so it’s amazing when you make a connection between an object and a person who lived here.’
Moving past the lower level of furniture, towards the rear of the Great Hall, you come across a large rack of paintings. Their sheer size is staggering and somewhat intimidating, but being able to peer closely at the textures and detail is amazing. As is the fact that, once you have taken the stairs to the upper level of the store, you can see the plasterwork ceiling at close quarters and admire the detailed carvings adorning the Minstrel’s Gallery.
What strikes me most though is that, if all had gone to plan, then this remarkable experience would never have been available and that, in my opinion, would have been a great shame.
When the conservation studio opens later this year, the furniture and objects within the store will start to be moved over. As an item is removed, another will take its place until on 30 October 2016 the house will close for the winter and the Great Store’s 375 metres of scaffolding will be dismantled.
The Great Hall will then start yet another phase of its life as it takes its turn to be conserved. Until then, Hannah says that it will be ‘such a busy time. The Gatehouse Tower has just opened. It’s part of the conservation project but, as its where Edward (Eddy) Sackville-West lived, it’s the first domestic space to be opened and has a very different feel to showrooms in the main house.’
‘Then there’s the conservation going on in the showrooms, the conservation studio being built and the opening of the Hayloft Learning Centre and the Brewhouse Café. It’s so exciting and busy, people always seem to be moving some incredible object or finding something new’.
It’s also a very exciting time for visitors as a series of behind-the-scene tours and up-close sessions with expert curators and conservators, have been arranged to give an insight into the objects on display and reveal more about the ongoing conservation work. You can find out more by visiting Knole’s events page.
With the opening of several new spaces, this conservation project has also given rise to a range of new opportunities to volunteer at Knole. So, whatever your skills or the amount of time you have available, if you fancy stepping behind-the-scenes to help put the sparkle back in Knole and help visitors find its best bits, take a look at Knole’s volunteering page or pop along to one of its special volunteer coffee mornings.
Full visitor information, including opening times and charges, can also be found at www.nationalrust.org.uk/knole
Knole, Knole Park, Sevenoaks TN15 0RP Tel: Phone: 01732 462100