Knole’s House and Collections Manager, Helen Fawbert, gives an insight into the careful curatorial practice the HLF-funded Inspired by Knole Project will engender, as both the fabric of the house and its priceless collection are conserved for future generations.
House and Collections Manager, Knole, 2006-2018
Interviewed by Christine Nevard and Veronica Walker-Smith
What differences will visitors see at Knole at the end of the five-year conservation project?
H.F: I’m comfortable that we’re doing what we can with the resources that we have. We’re doing the best we can and we should be able to achieve it. I think with the building we will always get surprises. It’s a six-hundred-year-old building and we will always find things – like we’ve lately found there’s not enough in the footings of the barn so there’s going to have to be some underpinning work there, but that’s normal for a building of this age and you expect it.
What difference do you think visitors will see in the end in the showrooms? Are they going to be better lit? Are they going to be a little bit warmer?
H.F: They will be a little bit warmer, or rather less damp, so the feeling of the cold will be less sort of…
H.F: Less penetrating into your bones. It will be better lit. It will be not windy, although obviously the work on the windows now has helped that. The items will be better displayed, they will be hopefully a little brighter, and we hope the narrative will work better. We are looking, Emma and I have been looking at the curatorial presentation of Knole. I mean, curatorial practice is very different now: it’s based a lot on empirical evidence. It used to be based very much on feel, but I’m afraid feel isn’t good enough, so there’s been a lot of shifting around of things in the showrooms that, I think, has diluted that narrative that the family were trying to present. I mean, Knole had its first guide book in 1817; it was written about – for three hundred years the family have very definite ideas. It was a very conscious level of display in those showrooms: the family showing what they wanted people to see about the Sackville dynasty. With Emma, I’ve done a lot of work and thinking about it. We’re both great believers in using the empirical evidence to inform what we do. We’ve got access to inventories, archives, photographs that, to be fair, in the 60s and 70s, they didn’t have. So this isn’t a criticism of the work that was done in the past; and our principles are now quite different in terms of conservation and curatorial practice. Things are reversible; we make things to be reversible. We wouldn’t do another James II bed in the way that was done in 1959-1960. We are much more careful about the approach that we take now. We’re custodians, we’re not directors of this place.
Some exciting prospects in store as the interpretation of the showrooms is developed
I think from the work on the show rooms, I think the possibilities for understanding the building better when we take floorboards up when the rooms are cleared – ’cause sometimes it’s hard to get a full understanding of the room when it’s covered in paintings – will be very very exciting. I think the idea of having a conservation studio on site is fantastic and the opportunities that that will have, and actually just from a practical point of view having a tea-room that will work, you know, and the staff do an amazing job down there given the tiny footprint that they have got to work in in the kitchen, so that will be nice, seeing my colleagues have space to work, and a tea-room that hopefully we can be quite proud of.
And I suppose, you know, a legacy for the contents that – we will do what we can, and that will be a lot, and then a plan for the future.
What I wouldn’t want the project to do and hopefully what it won’t do is make Knole into something it was not intended to be. It was never sparkly, hasn’t been sparkly for a very long time. You know, Robert has a nice way of putting it across, that it smoulders, it doesn’t sparkle: there is evidence of age. It wears its age on its sleeve: it’s not Kedleston, it’s not bright and shiny, and that’s not part of its beauty. And the family had a very definite sort of understanding of the antiquarian nature of the house from very early times, so we want to respect that. That’s what they wanted to show.