In the summer of 2016, frames conservators, Gerry Alabone and Mark Searle started treatment on prioritised items in the Knole Collection. While the Conservation Studio planned to be created within the outer shell of Knole’s 15th century Barn was not yet operational, Gerry and Mark worked together with easel paintings conservators in a unique space: the Old Kitchen Lobby, set up as a temporary work space. This was next to another temporary set-up: a temperature- and humidity-controlled paintings storage space. Gerry and Mark took time out of their busy schedules to speak about this experience, so different from working in a museum or gallery context.
Gerry Alabone and Mark Searle, frames conservators in 2016
Frames conservators, Inspired by Knole project (2013-2019)
Interviewed by Veronica Walker-Smith in 2016
The Old Kitchen Lobby; most challenging aspect (Mark)
Mark “Quite unusual. I’ve had some experience in the past. I’ve worked with Gerry before, at Westminster in the Houses of Parliament doing a similar thing: a pop-up studio. And I think if you do think of it as on-site work, make the best of it, it’s really worked incredibly well.
Some of the frames are in severely degraded condition. And I would say consolidation of the flaking gilding has been particularly challenging, just because of the sheer extent of the decay of the decorative scheme.”
Treating losses and flaking on frames (Gerry)
Gerry: “With the history of the house and its fluctuating, very damp environment, the multiple layers that the frames have been decorated with typically have detached from the timber substrate and are flaking off and in some cases, area of gilding the size of postage stamps are coming off as one huge flake. This is extreme and unusual flaking and instability. That’s not what we’ve been dealing with. Typically, normally, the flakes are much more standard size. Many of the frames have got extensive craquelure, with large areas that require treatment. So, typically we’ve been using protein sizes and we’ve been relaxing the flakes and consolidating them within a one day – working day – and then returning to the store and continue the next day. And we’ve been coordinating that work with the paintings conservators’ treatment. So we’ve been trying to finish frames and return them to their paintings as efficiently as possible, because the store’s a finite size and we can’t have the amount of objects in here being largely unfitted because that requires twice as much room.
Documenting treatment; understanding the collection (Mark)
Mark: “We have a detailed condition report, before, during and after treatment, with photography. And yes, we do document the later schemes and stylistically, when this could have been – often, also, it seems to be an original scheme, which is also noted, because sometimes that’s surprising. A bunch-leafed frame that I was working on, I could see that underneath the gold leaf gilded scheme, there was actually silver. So, again that was documented.”
“I think part of being a conservator as well is, I think moving away from the star pieces and thinking of the whole collection at Knole. It’s got such a wonderful collection, which aren’t the star pieces, which aren’t a priority. Even just walking around, seeing those which I will be working on in the second half [of the showrooms] I’m excited about. It’s an exploration of both good conservation and just understanding an incredible collection.”
Historical changes to frames are part of Knole's story (Gerry)
Interviewer: Do you share Mark’s view about how interesting it is to find out that the collection hasn’t been untouched? That it’s had loads of interventions over the years. Has that been an interesting aspect for you?
Gerry: Absolutely. Very surprising how much radical, wholesale changes have been made to many pieces in the collection and working in a historic house where that is all valued information I find very interesting, having come from many years working in galleries that sort of historical context is not what’s predominantly valued. And working in a house like this I think that is one of the most interesting aspects of the work – how all of these changes are valued as part of the story of the property.