Before Kedleston Hall reopened this year, Brian Spencer went along to look at the conservation work carried out over the winter by its present owners, the National Trust.
In the mid 1700s Sir Nathaniel Curzon employed the up and coming young architect Robert Adam to design and build Kedleston Hall, his first major commission. What Sir Nathaniel wanted was not a family home, but a showpiece to compete with Chatsworth, home of the Cavendish dynasty, his political rivals. Curzon’s wishes were certainly fulfilled, but what was never envisaged was that by the twenty-first century thousands of visitors would come to see this masterpiece. Inevitably those visitors accidentally leave their mark. Dust settles in every nook and cranny, floors show wear, legs of delicate furniture accidentally kicked cause gilding to flake and inquisitive fingers eventually rub paint away, or result in unexpected shiny patches on venerable woodwork. All of this needs to be put in order during the winter shut-down, together with the continuation of a thirty-year plan to restore special features. The thirty years came to an end during the winter shut-down of 2016-17 along with the restoration of the State Rooms and the magnificent State Bed.
We were given special access to Kedleston recently, specifically to see how work was progressing, especially where restoration work was necessary. Temporarily skipping the ground floor entrance we went straight up to the Marble Hall where formal receptions once took place. Supported from below by stone pillars and oak joists enhanced by brickwork and sand, the patterned marble floor is showing its age. Cracks and movement caused by gradual settlement and thousands of feet are taking their toll, but as yet are not causing much concern and The National Trust has no plans to replace any worn and cracked marble slabs, especially as new sections could not match the aged appearance of older pieces. Heating gullies set between the alabaster side pillars have been opened and cleaned, possibly for the first time ever.
Next to the Marble Hall is the Saloon where balls took place on its sprung wooden floor. It has been re-painted and re-gilded, re-creating an effect that carries the eye up into the dome replicating the rotunda of the Parthenon in Rome. Following Adam’s design, the rosettes and octagonal compartments on the dome have been cleaned and re-painted, fulfilling Adam’s intention to make the room look as though it was lifted from ancient Rome.
Huge mirrors, a sure sign of wealth hang on walls glimpsed through the door leading out of the Saloon. The room they enhance is the Dressing Room, part of the State Rooms. It was built to provide opulent accommodation for royalty who never came. The mirrors have been re-mirrored by specialists, re-gilded and put back into their original position, again making the statement their first owners intended. Behind one of the mirrors is a sketch plan thought to be a quick note made by Robert Adam and which came to light during the restoration.
The State Apartments are the major part of the thirty year restoration work. Chairs from the house predating Adam’s Kedleston have been repaired and line the walls. Damaged claw feet have been repaired and re-gilded with the seating re-covered by the same specially made blue-green silk damask that lines the apartment walls. Made to match the original as near as possible, it shimmers in opulence, a reminder of past glories. The fabric is not stuck on the walls like wallpaper, but held in place by tin tacks top and bottom. Made on narrow jacquard looms, they are invisibly stitched together with the tacks covered by gilded wooden strips. In 1960 an attempt was made to use cotton fabric for the same job, but it didn’t have the shimmering effect as silk.
THE STATE BED
The bed is the main feature of this eye catching part of the hall. Never used as no royals ever came to Kedleston and the room was mostly kept closed. Now fully restored to its former glory, the bed is certainly the most eye catching feature on the upper floor. With blue-green damask hangings and gilded to match the rest of the room, the bed took the efforts of 27 National Trust workers to re-assemble, despite the help of scaffolding.
Outside specialists were used at all levels of restoration at Kedleston, ranging from the mirrors, to the bed where it is fair to say, most of the outside work was used. The four posts that carry the weight of the damask drapes and other items have been repainted and gilded to their original design, removing on the way, sections of ‘hand polish’ made by too many people touching the tree-shaped pillars. These start at floor level in the shape of roots, then rise like the trunks of a tree to waving branches, again covered by masses of gold leaf. Above the branches are sprays of ostrich feathers, some are originals, discovered when the bed was dismantled for restoration.
Of all the amazing glory of the bed it is the bed cover that has to be studied the most closely. Embroidered by a local specialist, it is a mass of fine work produced by a lady who was so determined that this should be her masterpiece that she returned to oversee the bed spread being put in place, so she could make any minor last minute alterations. One thing she had to attend to that had no bearing on her work was the fact that the re-used original mattress was not made to fit round the bed posts.
BEYOND THE STATE ROOMS
The Dining Room is a continuation of the State Rooms, but with different decoration; this is mainly in the shape of pictures. Here the specialist cleaners and restorers have been hard at work. Oil paintings where the paint had turned dark over the centuries are now back with more like the bright original colours the artist wanted us to see.
The dining table is laid out as though ready for a sumptuous meal. Silver shines along the length of the pure white table linen, but not all of it is original. In times past, the family sold off some of the silver, but some of it has been traced and copied in baser metals, but the effect is still stunning.
THE EASTERN MUSEUM
When George Nathaniel Curzon, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy of India returned from the sub-continent, he brought with him what can only be described by the hackneyed phrase ‘All the Wonders of the Orient’. Gifts that had been bestowed on him are set out in the room facing the main entrance. Silver howdahs (elephant seats), to huge trays in the same metal, compete for attention, but it is the fabulous peacock dress that fascinates the most. Made for Lady Curzon from scores of peacock feather ‘eyes’, each with a real shining eye made from cochin beetles. It was embroidered by Indian craftsmen using metal thread and jewels on cloth of gold and she wore it at the Delhi Durbar in 1903.
At one time the peacock dress was the centre piece of the exhibition, the first thing seen on entering the room. Ideally positioned to catch the eye, but people tended to crowd round it, causing a bottleneck. As a result the dress has been moved to a less prominent position that will encourage visitors to enjoy everything else that is in the room.
For a building that is well over two hundred years old, the main structural fabric, including the roof is in reasonably good condition. The only exception is the flat roof over the corridor connecting the main house to the family wing on the east front of the house. Being lead covered, a material prone to movement it let in rain water, and is having to be rebuilt. The corridor’s oak floor has been covered by a breathable membrane and pictures and furniture moved aside for restoring in due course. In a final part of the thirty year plan, the Long Walk round the back of the hall will be re-surfaced once better weather arrives.
Kedleston Hall, a National Trust property is open daily except Friday until the end of October between 12noon and 5:00pm. The park is open every day from 10:00am to 6:00pm until 29 October and then from 10:00am to 4:00pm until 31 December.