40 years on from the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition

Originally posted on The Country Seat:

Many was the time I stood in that exhibition watching the tears stream down the visitors’ faces as they battled to come to terms with all that had gone.’ – Sir Roy Strong [Diaries, 1974]

'Destruction of the Country House' exhibition, 1975 - V&A

‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition, 1975 – V&A

In October 1974, one of the most influential exhibitions ever staged by a UK museum opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  The ‘Destruction of the Country House‘ laid bare the scale and depth of the losses the UK had suffered, showing how four centuries of architectural tradition and achievement in country houses had been severely damaged by the depredations of the 20th-Century. It was conceived as a dramatic display to waken the nation to the threat faced by country houses and the danger faced by all aspects of heritage.  This was in an age with weak legal protection and which seemed to be growing ever more…

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‘…A Harrowing experience…’

The Carriage Museum courtyard was a hive of activity recently. Arlington’s newest recruit Barbara, is the Equine Ranger for the property and brought in her horse Tyler. She is a 13 year old coloured cob and had been brought in for a day of working demonstrations. The plan was to have a harnessing demonstration, followed by a harrowing demonstration, followed by a harrowing demonstration in the field behind the stables, followed by an un-harnessing demonstration and a wash down. One of our stables volunteers Ann had also been recruited to fill the magician’s assistant role, so with many a rope and stanchion used, the stage was set for Tyler’s big day.

(The lightshow was cancelled due to unexpected sunshine and the smoke machine had been double booked, so it remained a low key affair.)

A working harness differs from a carriage harness as the weight to be pulled rests mainly on the shoulders of the horse. Mixtures of Scandinavian and Canadian harness were thrown in for good measure to demonstrate the differences. Tyler seemed more than happy to oblige, standing perfectly still for harnessing and responding to commands when needed. Having made some lovely patterns in the gravel in the courtyard it was time for some work. To the Field! With a sound not unlike cufflinks going up a vacuum cleaner the thankfully short trip to the field was met with some questionable looks from some sleepy sheep.
The chain harrow can be used with different settings depending of the type of surface you need to rake and to what degree. It is a great way to manage a field as it gently rakes the surface of the ground while preventing the soil becoming
compacted, allowing water and nutrients to be taken up by plants more effectively. It can also be used for weeding and is a great way to (how can one put it) Re-distribute naturally produced fertiliser. (muck spreading to you & me)

‘A bug’s life…’

The Carriage Museum gallery here at Arlington has been in constant occupation in recent months, from storage to exhibitions, to muddy Rangers, to more exhibitions. The space is in constant demand it seems. The recent tenant could not be more fitting as it forms a central part of Arlington’s ‘Simply the Pests’ property wide exhibition. The pests theme follows each department with a focus on which little critters we have to deal with in our daily conservation work. Unfortunate in some ways but good for the exhibition, is the amount of pest damage that we have evidence of.

From mice to moths, the exhibition gives details of each pest we have to deal with and the damage that they leave behind. This is all helpfully illustrated by textiles and objects on display including a coachman’s cloak, a child’s Maltese costume and a fox stole, as well as other items with pest damage. It’s an opportunity to show from a conservation perspective, what we do and why we need do it.

Good housekeeping will keep a certain amount at bay but with organic materials in historic collections it’s a bug banquet. As they like to feed undisturbed, as do most people, the pests look for the area that has the most nutritious elements but are mostly hidden. Woodworm like to feed on certain woods but will leave other types relatively untouched. Specific textiles will be grazed upon by clothes moth, like wool and silk. Animal furs are also serve as a special of the day.

The Carriage Museum exhibition has been the brain child and nemesis of our trainee Hannah. As there is a matter of weeks left before the end of her course, she’s been keen to leave a legacy and lasting impression on Arlington. Not only has Hannah had our new conservation store as her pet project, she’s worked tirelessly (except for the tea and cake breaks) in the pursuit of exhibition perfection, with an almost worryingly enthusiastic approach to the project!

‘Dining Room re-shuffle…’

Arlington has another new portrait on display in the dining room. Thanks to a recent loan agreement, a portrait of ‘Henry Chichester of Marwood’ (1578-1661) painted by an unkown artist, has made a perfect addition to the collection. He now sits proudly (with full wig and armour) in a re-jigged dining room in a who’s who of the Chichester family. The choice was made to move the other portraits around to create a more athletically pleasing display. There can be many a problem when picture hanging, so to minimise this, a cunning plan was hatched. The mission was to hang the new acquisition, and to move three other paintings to fit a visual flow of the room. So with a crack team of House & Carriage Museum Manager, House Steward, Assistant House Steward, Senior Conservation Assistant and PTYF Trainee, we were given our respective roles and put to task. With ladders positioned (correctly ‘footed’ of course) the re-hang began. Having already moved the shoulder height pictures to their new spots (always do the easy bit first) we prepped the area with ropes, moved the silverware, got the biggest ladder we could find and had a procedural run-through before we set to it.

Another recently acquired painting, that of Catherine Chichester (1765-91) was to take pride of place above the side board so she went first. Lowering her down involved one person atop a ladder and one person to take the weight. Before going up, she was put out of harm’s way. Henry now needed to go in the space so with a quick re-position of the picture hanging chains he was hoisted up.

There is an optimum handling position when one is holding and moving paintings but this can change depending on circumstances. With the mover facing the painted canvas, a right hand is placed to the upper right side of the frame and the left hand is placed on the lower left. This is the best way a painting can be supported, but care also has to be taken that the frame isn’t compromised as it can easily be damaged if heavily decorated. If you’re not careful you can hold the painting too close to your face and this can result in a ‘canvas kiss’ if you’re not careful. If two people are carrying the painting the holding pattern is similar but held at the edges of the frame.

So, there are many considerations when deciding who should go where, be it a historical family connection, or size of picture, or size and appearance of the frame. It also makes a dramatic impact on the rest of the collection in the room according to your line of sight and a natural order of objects in the collection. As a simple addition to the room would look out of place, the Romney portrait of Catherine Chichester now fits perfectly between the portrait of Robert Chichester of Hall, and a portrait of a young Sir Bruce Chichester who had the 1823 house built here at Arlington Court.

All these shenanigans were under the watchful eye of the portrait of Mary Macdonald Chichester (1738-1815) who’s portrait still sits proudly over the fireplace opposite the portrait of her two daughters Elizabeth and Mary. This used to hang to the left of the window and was once above the fireplace in the boudoir.

Confused? Why not visit and see for yourself!