With the house almost empty there is a clear view of all the painted surfaces and of course all the fretwork, so the measuring and cataloguing of this can start in earnest.
Stephen Massil, book cataloguer, describes 575 as a house in which we can sense ‘the overwhelming personality of one occupant’. All the books and records in the house belonged to its creator-owner, Khadambi Asalache, and Stephen has therefore gained unique insight into the artist’s cultural interests and possible influences on his work.
Stephen has been making his way through glossy art books, English and American literature, modern poetry and a collection of East African literature, of which he has catalogued more here than at any other property. Khadambi, a poet, kept copies of publications in which he was interviewed or his poetry was published. Stephen explains that one gets knowledge not only of his career but also of his contacts and friends, as, for example, there are books containing dedications from poets with whom Khadambi was clearly acquainted.
Stephen has also been cataloguing vinyl and 78 records, including a lot of jazz and African music, as well as Beethoven, Bach, Handel and Mozart. One item he recently came across that caught his interest was a vinyl record of Beethoven’s Mass in C, a record he owns himself, which contains inside the sleeve a Christmas concert programme of the choir of the Treasury, Khadambi’s employer, which one can assume he attended.
Adeline is working to make all wood in the house stable and safe, fixing items at their current state without adding any new wood. She describes a previous job in which she had to conserve a table whose legs were facing every-which-way – so frustrating not to be able to put them straight, but to have to make the table stand firm in its dilapidated state! However, such is the nature of conservation: Adeline understands the importance of 575 and all its contents looking as they did when Khadambi Asalache left the house to the Trust.
During my visit, she was working on fixing this chair, which was losing paint. The wood was covered with several porous layers which gave the ‘weathered’ effect; they included animal glue and whiting, red clay, gilding and silver powder. After testing several possible fixing substances, she chose a very light ratio of fish glue to water.
Adeline has been working on just the furniture so far, which she describes as ‘not so scary’ in comparison with what is to come! She must also remove all the floorboards and replace them with plywood so that the ceilings can be easily accessed for their restoration. The fretwork on the walls will have to be protected, using polycarbonate sheets, while the conservation work is taking place. When the Perspex that is currently keeping parts of the ceiling in place is removed, some fretwork will come down with it, so Adeline must record exactly where each part was and test glues with which to put it back when the ceiling work is finished.
Having assisted with the inventory process, Fern has recently been working on the plan for the storage of items – where they will be put, how they are to be recorded, the materials needed and the organisation and practicalities of moving them. She has planned out on paper what will be going on each shelf in the store and facilitated the recent removal of furniture.
As Fern explains, working at 575 is unique and hard to compare with experiences at other properties. In her previous position at Tyntesfield, she was part of a very large team with hundreds of volunteers, whereas at 575, the team at the house has usually consisted of three people. She says that it is lucky that the team has got on so well, considering they have been working in such a confined space! Fern has had to get used to working in a house that is so much smaller, rather than properties with fifty or so bedrooms. Setting up a photography table for the inventory or finding a place for packing crates has been a challenge: ‘Every time you do a job, you take up space’, she comments ruefully.
Alex Solomon and Geoff Lowsley, who have been working together on the inventory along with Project House Steward Fern Ryan, share some of their experiences. See the Team page for more information on their roles.
A Mountain of Work
Alex had high expectations of 575, and had lobbied to work on the property after hearing all about it from other Trust staff. Her expectations were exceeded upon entering the house, and she explains it was quite overwhelming, both in terms of its beauty and the sheer amount of work to be done.
Geoff explains that working on the inventory has been ‘like a hike – it has its false peaks, and you gain a better perspective as you go through’. He says his first impression was that ‘there really was not that much stuff’. However, on his second visit to the property, he opened a kitchen drawer and, finding it brim-full of cutlery, promptly asked for another batch of inventory tags!
On a surreal note, Geoff describes sitting in the bathroom on a chair with his laptop perched on top of a boxed printer, in turn stacked on top of the toilet seat (his makeshift desk), while holding a painted ostrich egg, thinking, ‘How did I get here?’
Alex and Geoff agree that each time you enter the house, you notice something new. A moment neither will forget was finding a Victorian kaleidoscope in the living room and discovering the magical effect it has on the fretwork.
Alex is grateful for the privilege of gaining ‘such an intimate view of what one person worked so diligently at’, Geoff concluding that ‘it never leaves you, the feeling that this is my job, my office’.