A country seat like Ickworth House doesn’t clean itself, more’s the pity. Steven Russell puts his dust allergy and vertigo on the line (ah, diddums) to join the team keeping it and its 5,383 contents spick and span
IF the thought of regular domestic chores like tidying and vacuuming leaves you feeling gloomy, spare a thought for staff at one of Suffolk’s most iconic landmarks. Ickworth House is not your average three-bed semi. The neoclassical National Trust property is big: home to – deep breath now – 947 items of furniture, 865 ceramics, 845 pieces of silver, 571 paintings and drawings, 357 textiles, 153 items of glassware (including four chandeliers) and 106 sculptures. We mustn’t forget the clocks, armour or toys, either. Little wonder a team (which you can pretty much count on the fingers of one hand) beavers away from breakfast-time up until the moment the first visitors arrive at about 11am to ensure the former ancestral seat of the Hervey family is sparkling.
The list of daily chores is daunting for those of us who dread a simple once-a-week dash around the house with a spray-bottle of Pledge. All floors trodden by members of the public have to be vacuumed in a kind of housekeeping version of Cluedo: from the library and drawing room to the East and West Corridors and Pompeian Room. After vacuuming, which is always the number-one priority, floors are dry-mopped with cloths on a stick: using paraffin and vinegar on the wooden floors.
All flat surfaces must see a duster, banister brush or glass cloth – but don’t touch the fragile baize on the card table! Sticky fingermarks have to be removed from glass cabinets, door edges, doorknobs and handrails. (It’s not uncommon to find nose and mouth prints, too, left by children trying to peer over the cases!)
Mind you, house steward Kate Hill reckons adults are generally worse than youngsters. She can understand why. “Everything looks so tactile; you want to feel the marble or fabric.
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“Is it Verona that’s got that statue of (Shakespeare’s) Juliet and it’s worn because of people touching her . . . or one of her appendages?” she laughs. (Spot on. Her right breast and arm are much shinier than the rest of the statue.)
“We’ve got a very nice marble bust of the fourth earl, and I know there’s one in the National Portrait Gallery, but, when you look at that one, it’s lost its hard edges where it’s obviously been handled over the years, whereas ours looks really crisp and almost new.”
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There are several things to beware of when tending to Ickworth. If you ever find yourself there, cloth in hand, remember that the sides and windows of the sedan chairs are too fragile to dust daily, some of the inlaid woods on the drawing-room marquetry table are lifting, and that the inlaid commode in the smoking room has lots of loose stringing that can snag on dusters. Tackled only during “deep” or winter cleaning, when the house is closed to visitors, is the gilded and Japanned furniture (a form of lacquering), most of the ceramics, textiles and clocks.
That out-of-season schedule can be “interesting”. The house gets very cold – particularly during winters like the one we’ve just endured. “I think I had seven layers at one point; rolling in like the Michelin woman!” smiles assistant house steward Chloe Woodrow, who’s been at Ickworth for eight months after studying art history at university and spending time as a volunteer at Blickling Hall in Norfolk.
Today, in Suffolk, she and Kate have grand ambitions. It being a Wednesday, and the house itself closed to the public, they’ve constructed a scaffolding tower and have set their sights on tricky items such as the chandelier in the rotunda’s echoing entrance hall. “We’re girls of many skills!” quips Kate, house steward at Ickworth.
She climbs the tower, selects a brush, and gets to work. “You’re going to be horrified by the amount of dust coming off this,” she says of a light-fitting roughly 150 years old and which, before being converted to electricity, burned oil.
Staff don white gloves, and hold a paintbrush in one hand and a vacuum hose in the other. The machine itself is strapped on like a backpack, making them look much like the ghoul-chasers in Ghostbusters!
The scaffolding platform is only about two metres off the ground today. Sometimes the heights are much greater: rooms such as the library have 33ft ceilings, so cleaning the pelmets requires steady nerves.
A light like this would generally receive some TLC during the winter closure period, when staff aim to clean the house from cornice to floor, but they’re trying to do more at other times. Partly that’s because Ickworth saw quite a leap in visitor numbers last year, after moving the opening time forward to 11am – “about 10,000 more, I think, and the conservation team said it was noticeably dirtier having that number of people”. (Kate thinks the house had 50,000-odd visitors last year, with 175,000 enjoying the grounds. A free-entry weekend last March attracted about 1,500 people in one day and staff really noticed the extra dirt!)
Would you believe it but an academic has apparently produced a formula about where dust settles in relation to the route taken by visitors. “Up on a chandelier like this, you shouldn’t get so much dust,” says Kate, “but what there is will be finer than that found lower down.”
She feels delicate items, including the glass chandelier in the library, present the hardest cleaning challenges at Ickworth. “And getting access to some areas. I’ve been here eight years and we haven’t yet figured how to clean some parts of the stairwell. It would either mean going up scaffolding to a height of 30 or 40 feet or coming down from above.”
Assistant house steward Chloe grins. “I think, jokingly, there have been suggestions of swinging a small person backwards and forwards with a duster!”
The narrow ledge running under the huge painting The Last Communion of Saint Jerome by Jusepe de Ribera, after Domenico Zampieri, is one of those inaccessible places. That ledge continues around the stairwell. There are some large porthole-style apertures above, but you couldn’t hang someone over the edge by their ankles while they dusted . . .
Kate thinks she might have stumbled upon a solution in a weekend newspaper supplement selling handy household gizmos: a long pole with an angled end. “That might do it.”
By the way, do they have to attend to the large skylight that floods the staircase with natural light? “No, we pay someone a lot of money to clean that!”
One task that’s been exercising muscles and brains is the Real Lives project, which aims to tell the “upstairs/downstairs” story of life at Ickworth by opening the kitchens and domestic areas of the rotunda basement and showing them as they would have been as an integral part of a working country estate.
Staff have been cleaning out the basement and disposing of unwanted items, striving to find new homes for old furniture and suchlike. The area should soon be handed over to builders, with the revamped basement due to open by next spring.
The team would like to do more of its everyday cleaning chores when the house is open to the public, though it’s often impractical. People are generally keen to talk about matters domestic; there are frequent queries about how the silver collection is cleaned. Kate and Chloe also remember a woman frustrated by the discontinuance of Johnsons Traffic Wax Paste. Did Ickworth know how she could get anything as good? The house used the liquid form to buff floors, but the lady said it didn’t deliver the way she wanted!
The team has a National Trust “Bible” – a doorstop-proportioned housekeeping manual – it can consult for information about recommended cleaning techniques, what to use and where you can get it from. They do employ some fairly traditional solutions, such as paraffin and vinegar, and strive to avoid synthetic chemicals where possible, adopting a “less is more” approach.
Staff take steps not to “cross-infect” when using brushes to clean objects. Each is restricted to one type of material or artefact so that potentially-harmful substances don’t end up on the wrong thing. “Certain ormolu objects” – gilded, like the hallway chandelier – “we might put a wax finish on. So we wouldn’t want to take a brush used on a wax object and then use it on something that wax might damage,” explains Kate.
The dust she’s dislodging from the light is not a major worry in itself but can prove unhelpful if left. “It looks visually not very nice, but if you combine that with a damp house, which we have, mould can grow. And it can stain, too, if it becomes damp. You’re not just making it look nice; you’re doing it for a purpose. Bad things can happen if you don’t do it . . . On a relative scale, of course – the world doesn’t end – but you can get pests living in it.”
Before the morning is out, Kate comes across a critter in an unusual place: a variegated carpet beetle on the marble hair of the king of Thebes. His torment portrayed in the late 18th Century sculpture by John Flaxman called Fury of Athamas is not because an unwanted visitor has taken up residence in his tresses but because he’s been driven mad and has killed son Learchus.
Still on pests, there might be a problem with silverfish in the library. It’s not certain, since none has yet been seen, but something has been munching a sample of the 8,000 books. Lepisma saccharina, known to eat the starches found in the glue of book-bindings, is definitely in the frame.
Today, as Kate and Chloe clean, colleagues are involved in one of the periodic checks of the house to check for signs of deterioration or damage. To aid them, there are photographs and descriptions of what items should look like. Ickworth has a folder per room.
If any problems are found – and this morning they notice cracking on a sedan chair – specialists can be alerted to make repairs.
Before I leave Kate and Chloe to their toil, I can’t help but ask if their professional perfection extends to their own abodes. The short answer, they laugh, is “no”, though Chloe admits she finds cleaning quite therapeutic. “I have a cat that sheds vast amounts of fur and brings in little dead things!” says Kate. “So it’s hard having a pristine home.”
Web link: www.nationaltrust.org.uk