Conservation in action: Cleaning Horace Walpole's library

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, May 27, 2024

Conservation in action: Cleaning Horace Walpole's library
Strawberry Hill House. Photo: Matt Chung.

TWICKENHAM.- To the untrained eye, it might look like glorified housework - but maintaining the treasures of Strawberry Hill House, requires expert conservation. Now, for the first time ever, visitors to Horace Walpole’s gothic castle in Twickenham can learn how historic books are cared for.

When Horace Walpole (1717-97) acquired Strawberry Hill in 1747 – then a modest cottage – it soon became apparent that he needed a library. A bibliophile, he already owned over 1000 volumes, which were crammed into his study. So, as he set about transforming his property into a gothic fantasy castle, Walpole had his friends, the architect John Chute (1701-76) and designer Richard Bentley (1708-82) assist him with realising a grand design for the ever-burgeoning collection. Indeed, such was his passion that, when he died in 1797, Walpole had amassed around 8,000 volumes of books, manuscripts and prints.

Sadly, the contents of this magnificent library, along with the rest of Strawberry Hill’s artwork, furniture and other contents were sold off in 1842 by the 7th Earl of Waldegrave, a distant relative of the Walpole family and one who was short of money. Thankfully, many of the numerous volumes of prints, literature, history, languages and rare manuscripts that were subsequently distributed around the world after the great auction are now held in public, academic and private collections, rather than being completely lost.

Today, the library at Strawberry Hill House houses a collection of volumes that would have been similar in appearance and content to those that Walpole acquired in the 18th-century. As precious, historic objects themselves, they too require careful conservation and specialist cleaning to preserve them, as Miriam Kleingeltink, Preventive Conservation Intern explains: “When managing historic libraries and their fragile contents, we can be faced with challenges involving contamination from such things as dust and air pollution, fluctuating environmental conditions, damage from pests, incorrect handling and security measures.

As you can imagine, that means that preservation of this particular space and its contents requires specialist measures and techniques, which can be labour-intensive and time-consuming. In particular, the cleaning of dust. During our library clean, we will be looking to monitor the dust that has settled around the room, to inform us of the frequency of appropriate cleaning regimes and understand the need for any potential future conservation treatments.”

Working with a team of local volunteers and students, who are part of the City & Guilds of London Art School Book and Paper Conservation BA programme, Strawberry Hill’s Conservationist Jennifer Dinsmore, and Miriam Kleingeltink, Preventive Conservation Intern* will be demonstrating and teaching specific processes for manual handling of fragile material, specialist cleaning methods, condition assessing and identifying damage or deterioration.

“The decorative fretwork and each individual volume will be cleaned using specialist conservation cleaning techniques that are much more involved and delicate than dusting off your bookshelves at home,” says Miriam Kleingeltink. “First we have to make an assessment of the book’s condition, considering what preventive measures may be required to mitigate any current or future deterioration.”

For the first time, Strawberry Hill will remain open to members of the public throughout the preventive cleaning process of the library, giving visitors a unique opportunity to see these fascinating processes in action, ask questions and even handle some of the books themselves.

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