Behind Closed Doors

PUBLISHED: 15:30 04 December 2008 | UPDATED: 15:38 20 February 2013

Cleaning the Pope's Cabinet

Cleaning the Pope's Cabinet

When Stourhead House shuts for winter a lot goes on behind the scenes that visitors never see. Words and pictures by Peter Booton

Situated in the small village of Stourton, near the South Wiltshire border, Stourhead Landscape Garden is one of the National Trust's most visited properties. This magnificent 18th-century garden, with its ornamental lakes, stately classical temples and wealth of exotic trees and flowering shrubs, was largely created by Henry Hoare II (1705-85), a grandson of the founder of Hoare's Bank in London. He was known by his family as Henry 'The Magnificent' to differentiate him from his father, also named Henry, whom they called 'Good' Henry because of his charitable works. In 1717 'Good' Henry purchased the manor of Stourton and demolished the existing house, replacing it with a grand Palladian-style country villa which he named Stourhead.

Various alterations have been made to the house by successive generations of the Hoare family. The most significant of these was the rebuilding of the west front by Henry 'The Magnificent' to make room for the saloon, and the addition of two wings to house the picture gallery and library by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 2nd Bt (1758-1838), a renowned antiquarian and historian, who published The Ancient History of Wiltshire. In 1902, fire ravaged the central part of the house, destroying all the furniture on the upper floors. Fortunately, the picture gallery and library escaped unscathed and staff saved most of the furniture and paintings on the ground floor. Its then owner, Sir Henry Hoare, 6th Bt, restored the house and continued to live there until his death in 1947. His wife, Alda, had long feared being left alone and died six hours later, unaware that Henry had predeceased her. Their only son was killed during the First World War, and in 1946 Sir Henry gifted 3,000 acres of the Stourhead Estate, together with the house and pleasure grounds, to the National Trust.

Sir Henry's 'Memorandum of Wishes' requested that a member of the Hoare family be permitted to live in the house whilst it is in the care of the National Trust. Audrey Hoare lived there with her parents until 1956, when she was eight years old, and returned to Stourhead 12 years ago. She now lives in a private apartment there, part of which used to be her old school room. Audrey explains her family connection. 'My great-great-great-great-great grandmother was Jane Hoare, daughter of 'Good' Henry and sister of Henry 'The Magnificent'. Jane married her first cousin William Hoare (son of 'Naughty' Richard), so I'm directly descended from both Good and Naughty!'

Although Audrey's parents were not living at Stourhead, they continued to host parties in the house, including Audrey's debutante ball in 1966. She fondly remembers the occasion. 'All the rooms on the ground floor were used. The library had been set up for my parents' friends to play bridge but ended up with some of my friends playing poker. which my shocked father had to stop. We danced to Alexis Korner in the picture gallery. The nightclub was in the column room and breakfast was served at midnight in the saloon.'

During 2008, 60,000 visitors passed through the house. Considerably more visit only the gardens. Does this affect your privacy very much? I asked Audrey. 'It does a bit but then 'twas ever thus, although not in such great numbers,' she replied. 'When I was a child our butler used to wait until enough people had congregated in the hall and then take them round. It's very different now, with stewards in every room. And I love walking around the gardens, which I do early in the morning or at dusk when there are fewer people around.'

In common with other houses in the care of the National Trust, Stourhead closes its doors to visitors during the winter and the house is 'put to bed'. However, this certainly doesn't mean that the staff can enjoy a long Christmas holiday and then return in the spring to remove the dust sheets and put up the 'open' sign. Emily Blanshard is the House and Collections Manager at Stourhead. Putting the house to bed is just one of her many important responsibilities during the year. Emily explains, 'Every day is different. I could be talking to a chimney sweep or journalist, greeting visitors and volunteers, or planning a programme of events for the following year. This summer we had to deal with floodwater in the basement. When the house is closed there is a great deal to do. If the house was open every day of the year it wouldn't survive. Closing it during the winter gives us time to care for the collections.'

Emily continues, 'The conservation team are mainly part-time staff and volunteers. They focus on the collections, all of which have to be protected with dust sheets and fitted covers made by volunteers. All the conservation assistants take a great pride in what they do and are trained in different aspects of the work, which could involve anything from cleaning books in the library to helping out with photography projects. Every room has to be cleaned from floor to ceiling. When an object is being cleaned it is at its most vulnerable and so we look carefully at each item initially to decide if it needs cleaning and, if so, to what extent. Conservation work is either remedial, which is repairing damage, or preventive, which is a sort of insurance policy taking into account an object's environment and how clean it is.'

A recent major restoration project of a remedial nature involved the 'Pope's Cabinet', a unique piece of furniture with 150 drawers and inlaid with marble and precious stones, which is said to have belonged to Pope Sixtus V. The conservation work took ten months to complete. Audrey Hoare remembers playing hide and seek beneath the cabinet with her brother and opening each of the drawers to see if they contained any hidden treasure. On an earlier occasion, she recounts, Henry and Alda Hoare had invited a party of schoolchildren to the house who then 'dismantled' the cabinet so thoroughly that a specialist had to reassemble it.

Stourhead House reopens on 14 March 2009. Opening times are 11am-5pm, Friday to Tuesday. Stourhead Landscape Garden is open every day of the year, except Christmas Day, between 9am and 6pm (or dusk, if earlier) and around 4pm in winter. For more details, telephone Stourhead Estate Office on (01747) 841152 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

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