When you inherit a stately home it’s something of a bonus if your wife happens to be a conservation expert. Sarah Freeman meets Lucinda Compton who is spearheading the restoration of Newby Hall’s historic treasures. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Lucinda Compton isn’t one for throwing things away. In the centre of her workshop at Newby Hall, the historic property which her husband Richard inherited from his father Robin in 1997, there’s an 18th-century Japanese lacquered cabinet that she’s part way through restoring. Lucinda has already removed the discoloured layers of varnish, revealing the delicate pattern beneath and once complete it will take its place alongside the house’s impressive collection of furniture.
The cabinet is historically important, but in one corner of the workshop there’s also an old harp. Lucinda, who trained as a conservationist long before she married Richard, rescued it from their other house in Scotland. Even wrapped in plastic it’s clear that it has seen better days. It may even be beyond repair and, like the pile of books rescued from the nearby church, she’s not quite sure what to do with it.
“I’m not very good at getting rid of anything, I always think that I’ll find a use for whatever it is. Besides there feels something quite wrong about sending books off to the tip, even if they’re books you know no-one will probably read ever again.”
For a while, just along from the shelf lined with artists’ pigments with names like Dragon’s Blood and Mars Orange, there was also a box containing an assortment of broken fingers, toes and noses.
There’s still a few left, but following a seven-year project to clean and repair Newby’s internationally important collection of Roman sculptures, most have since been reunited with their rightful owners.
“When it comes to conservation, everything takes an awfully long time and the various busts and statues hadn’t been touched since they arrived here in the mid 18th century,” says Lucinda. The collection was the result of an extensive shopping trip William Weddell – the Comptons’ ancestor – embarked on during his Grand Tour in 1765. It was designed to impress early guests to the estate near Ripon and he even had architect Robert Adam design a special room to house his various antiquities.
“They were in a bit of a sorry state and the room was incredibly damp,” says Lucinda. “So the first thing we had to do was sort the heating out.”
Radiators are now carefully disguised inside various plinths and while it’s still not exactly balmy in the sculpture room it is now exactly the right temperature for marble and should prevent any further damage to the works. Securing the services of a plumber, however, was the easy bit. On closer inspection, all the statues required extensive repairs and for Lucinda, who studied conservation chemistry at Hammersmith College before embarking on a long apprenticeship, it meant learning a whole raft of new skills.
“We did have some experts from the Liverpool Conservation Centre come across to demonstrate to me the laser technique they have pioneered to clean marble. The results were impressive, but it’s also very expensive and to do it on a large scale just wouldn’t have made financial sense.”
It’s now 15 years since Lucinda and Richard moved into Newby along with their two sons, Orlando and Ludo, and daughter Sasha and, like most owners of country houses, making the estate pay its way has often been an uphill battle. A derelict stable block has been transformed into offices, the hall is now available to hire out for weddings and in a bid to further cut costs all the electricity used by the house comes from a hydroelectric scheme powered by the nearby River Ure.
Even so, the cost of simply maintaining the bricks and mortar can be terrifying. According to a survey by the Historic House Association, of which Richard Compton is president, collectively the 1,500 privately owned estate, castles and gardens currently have a repairs backlog totalling some £390m.
“Changing a lightbulb in a place like Newby costs a fortune,” says Lucinda. “However, we are also the custodians of the property and we have to ensure that we protect what’s here. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Having discounted laser restoration as being too expensive, Lucinda instead opted for a more traditional method. To remove centuries of dirt, she applied chemical poultices to each of the statues and waited for 72 hours as the grime was drawn out. On one she left a small dark grey square untouched to give some idea of what the collection had looked like beforehand.
“It’s hard to believe when you see them now, but honestly they were all like that. Once the poultices were removed suddenly you saw how much other work needed to be done. Resin used to fill in cracks had to be removed along with iron dowels which had rusted, causing the marble to discolour.
“Over the years people had done their best to repair the marble figures, but like everything techniques and expertise move on. It has been incredibly satisfying. Look at this one of Empress Faustina. The back was terrible, it was pitted with pins and old filler and the front wasn’t much better. Dirt had gathered in the folds of her dress and I think the contrast between the before and after is probably at its starkest with her.
“The idea was never to make them look as though they were brand new, but it was about returning them to a more natural state. Incredibly we also discovered that some of the pieces we had thought were 18th-century reproductions were actually the real thing. Once the dirt was gone we could really see just how impressive Weddell’s collection really was.”
Aside from reattaching the various fingers and noses, Lucinda also had to remove a few fig leaves which had been added to a number of nudes during the 19th century when tastes were a little more conservative.
“There’s still a few bits that I’d like to retouch and a couple of the pieces probably need another waxing, but we are just about there. Now I think you really do get a sense of the impact Weddell wanted to make back home when he was travelling across Europe.”
It’s not just in the sculpture room. Across the hallway in the Tapestry Room, also designed by Adam, more Grand Tour treasures have been given the Lucinda treatment.
A series of wall hangings – the only complete set from Paris’s famous Gobelins factory to have survived still in their original setting – have recently been rehung so that should the worse happen and fire break out at Newby they can be removed from the wall in a matter of seconds. A collection of Chippendale chairs, which had accumulated 250 years of dust, have also been restored.
“The chairs were designed with a huge amount of intricate carving,” says Lucinda. “But over the years a large number of the wooden bows and swags had broken off. With any conservation you have to be sure that you are doing the right thing, so initially we cut a design out of cardboard, stuck it to the chairs and decided that after a year if we still thought it was the right thing to do, we would go ahead and make a permanent replacement.
“While I try to do as much of the work as I can myself, there are some things which are beyond my expertise and carving wood is one of them. Thankfully we lucky enough to secure the services of a wonderful wood sculptor called Charlie Gurrey. He did a wonderful job and once the carvings were in place, all that was left for me to do was add the gilding.
“I never get bored in a room like this. Every time you look at a piece of furniture you see something new. It’s the tiny details that I really love, the private jokes that craftsmen had like turning the head of one carved snake in a different direction to all the rest to see if anyone noticed.”
Like most good conservationists Lucinda not only has an eye for detail but also a limitless amount of patience. It was that which came in handy when she set about restoring the hall’s library of 12,000 books.
Some dated back to the early 17th century, many of them were priceless and the vast majority were dusty, dirty and ravaged by time. Drafting in a dozen volunteers from the Hambleton and Thirsk branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Society with a little training from National Trust conservator Caroline Bendix, the group devoted hundreds of hours over seven years to preserving the collection which includes a number of Jane Austen first editions.
“Everywhere you look in Newby there is a conservation project waiting to happen. We try to do as much as we can during the winter when the house is shut, but every time I walk down a corridor I see a piece of furniture or a picture frame that I’d like to get my hands on.
“We all have our skills. If I’d been a writer I would have written books about the house and its collection. I just so happen to be a conservationist, so that’s what I do.”
Newby Hall is open from April to September. The property is closed on Mondays (except Bank Holidays) and in July and August it is open every day. This weekend the estate also plays host to the Yorkshire Game Fair. 01423 322583, www.newbyhall.com