Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mount Stewart, Co. Down | Restoration in action

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The Gardens >

Early in this summer (2014) I was given charge of the Chapples Minor for the day and the instruction ‘you might like to take them to Mount Stewart’. Now the history bit: Mount Stewart [Website | Facebook | Twitter] is an 18th century house and decorative gardens on the Ards peninsula, Co. Down. The estate, then known as Mount Pleasant, was purchased by Alexander Stewart (1699–1781) in 1744. In 1789 Alexander’s son, Robert Stewart (1939-1821), was created Baron Londonderry, eventually being elevated to Marquess of Londonderry in 1816. On his death, the estate passed to Charles William Stuart (1778–1854), the 3rd Marquess. Aided by the significant wealth of his second wife Lady Frances Anne Vane-Tempest (1800-1865) they set about refurbishing and enlarging the house – by now known as Mount Stewart. Those works essentially created the exterior of the house as it appears today. After a period of neglect by the family, the house became the permanent residence of Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart (1879-1949), the 7th Marquess, and his wife Edith Helen Chaplin (1878-1959). Inspired by her ancestral home, Dunrobin Castle in Scotland, Lady Edith set about redesigning the rather plain and uninspiring gardens, along with a campaign of interior redesign and redecoration. The gardens were gifted to the National Trust by Lady Edith in 1977 and the house and most of its contents were also transferred by her last surviving daughter, Lady Mairi Bury (1921–2009), in 1977.

Mount Stewart’s north-eastern façade
We’ve visited the house and gardens on several occasions, turned up for National Trust special events, brought friends and relatives to see the place … and yet, I was surprised at my wife making this specific recommendation. What she knew – and I did not – was that Mount Stewart is in the middle of a rather large restoration project. Although some remedial repair work had been undertaken in the 1980s, soon after the house passed to the National Trust, much more was required. However, as Lady Mairi Bury remained in residence at Mount Stewart, her failing health meant that large-scale disruptions were not practical, even though necessary to secure the structure. With her passing in 2009, a wide-ranging plan was devised to address significant structural issues, along with bringing the interior back to what it would have looked like during Lady Edith’s tenure. As Denis Wright, the senior project manager, said in a blog post about the restoration works: ‘the drainage system is failing, there is serious cracking to walls, ceilings and archways and the house requires a new conservation heating system and complete rewiring’. The project began in 2014 and will continue until April 2015, the whole costing some £7 million. The project will bring together large numbers of specialists and crafts people, managed by H&J Martin, the lead contractor.

Introduction to the conservation work in the foyer
Rather than simply close down the house to allow these essential works to proceed in peace and quiet, the National Trust kept it open and allowed visitors to come inside. I think that if you went along expecting the National Trust standard display of ‘house perfectly preserved and presented’, you may have been disappointed. Instead, what we got was something really special – an insight into the practicalities and aesthetic approaches of how Mount Stuart is being conserved and cared for. The house is now closed until April 2015. By the time it opens again all the work will be complete and everything will be put back as it should have been. I’m certainly looking forward to it. From everything I’ve seen, it is clear that the building will be structurally stable and beautifully presented for the enjoyment of visitors for many years to come. If anything, this underlines how rare and unusual getting to see the house in the process of restoration actually is.

Renovation of windows and doors
I’ve divided my photographs into two sections. This post contains images of the house under restoration, while the wonderful gardens – designed by Lady Edith – are in an accompanying post (coming soon). As with all of these types of posts, I hope that readers like the images, but more than that, I hope they act as inspiration to come to Northern Ireland and see some of these places for yourselves!

Repairs to the decorative paving in progress
The south-western entrance, overlooking the gardens, getting some care and attention
Work in progress
Lots of scaffolding
Paintings and mirrors are placed in protective casings
The Central Hall, usually a bright airy space, has been transformed
into a temporary storage facility for the house contents
Wrapped up couches sit alongside pottery vessels
Stripped down chairs, labelled so the go back to the correct
places in the right rooms
Pots under an occasional table – space is at a premium!
New balustrades for the balcony – not previously open to the public
Everything carefully stacked
Chests of drawers
Couches
Trophy head carefully wrapped up & waiting
Inside the Chapel

The Wikipedia article on Mount Stewart notes: ‘One of the most stunning rooms at Mount Stewart is that of the private 'Chapel'. This hidden gem is a double-height room with stained glass windows and Italian paintings on its walls’.  You would not know that when we visited, as it had been transformed into a two-level storage space to house fabrics and paintings. The really remarkable thing about this construction is that it is a self-supporting room-within-a-room – it has been completely built inside the Chapel, but without touching the sides, damaging the walls, or in any way compromising the fabric of the building. When the restoration is complete, it will simply be disassembled and removed, leaving the Chapel as before.

Conserved and packaged fabrics with
all the necessary details attached to return
them to their original locations
Stacks of oil paintings
Paintings waiting to be rehung when conservation is complete
Chapples Minor were given the loan of high
visibility vests and hard hats for their
trip around the house - a nice touch!
Demonstration of upholstery conservation with prints in storage behind
Two conservators working on one remarkably intricate door
Door in the process of conservation
Still so much to be done, but it was time to sit on the lawn & have lunch!

The Gardens >

Notes:
The house may be closed, but the gardens are open all year round – Go! Explore! Enjoy!
Opening times: here.

I’d also like to mention all the National Trust staff and volunteers, along with the various craftspeople, builders, restorers etc. we encountered on our trip, all of whom were delightful, eager to explain, and enlighten. Thank you all!

Resources:
You can keep up to date with all the restoration and renovation activity on their Mount Stewart – House & Restoration blog