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Retro: Keeping house in the grand manner (May 1982)

In the many hours I spend looking through the News Letter’s from bygone days there are many times my eye is caught by a fascinating snippet of the news from yesteryear.

And this week has been no different, while doing picture research for May 1982 I came across a interesting old story penned by News Letter correspondent Nikki Hill on the life and times of Myrtle and Sydney Watson who looked after the National Trust’s Mount Stewart, Sydney being the custodian of the property.

Alongside the story ran a beautiful old photograph of Myrtle Watson with Nikki standing in front of one of the property’s fine marble statue, one of which I have often walked past in my visits down to Mount Stewart.

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So I am quite sure that Nikki won’t mind be re-publishing her story some 40 years almost to the day (it appeared in the News Letter of Monday, May 17, 1982).

Myrtle Watson shows the News Letter’s Nikki Hill the marble statues at the Natrional Trust’s Mount Stewart in May 1982. Mrytle was the wife of the custodian of the house Sydney Watson. She told the News Letter: “The dusting is done very carefully and well. We do have other ways of dusting of course. The marble statues are dusted with a rather special soft bristle brush which gets into the crevices and layers of the sculpture.” Meanwhile, polishing was done once a year only with a special National Trust beeswax polish. Picture: News Letter archives

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With 26,000 people tramping in and out of the house between April and October, the time for a grand spring clean at the National Trust house Mount Stewart, is when the doors close in the autumn on the last visitor - “then” Myrtle Watson, wife of the custodian, Sydney - “is when the big job start.”

You may have found yourself in recent weeks cleaning out your rooms, doing a bit of repainting and refurbishing of your home.

For Myrtle and Sydney it is a question of “spring cleaning” five main reception rooms, and 12 bedrooms plus a lot of ancillary rooms, all of which are full of priceless furniture, Aubusson carpets, Ch’ien Lung China, the embroidered seated Congress of Vienna chairs, the marble statues.

Mount Stewart pictured in July 2015

If it sounds like housework on a grand scale, it is, but in a rather special way.

“Much of the way things are cared for is simply conservation,” Sydney told me. “The main problem is dust. And you could be dusting all day.”

A team of three ladies set out just after eight o’clock each day, during the season, to dust. None of your fancy feather dusters for this brigade, solely the yellow fabric ones.

“The dusting is done very carefully and well,” Myrtle told me. “We do have other ways of dusting of course. The marble statues are dusted with a rather special soft bristle brush which gets into the crevices and layers of sculpture.”

Polishing is done once a year only with a special National Trust beeswax polish. Spray polish is anathema. And there are other small details like for example brass handles on some furniture. These are polished only sparingly since if they were too bright they would appear out of keeping with the fine finish on the furniture. Some of the tapestry chairs – the older ones need specialist care – are dusted by being covered first with a layer of net then gently swatted with a fly swat.

The Chi’Ien Lung plates and dishes of varying sizes, China that is 200 years old, is carefully washed in a special mixture called fondly “supersonic” at Mount Stewart, in reality Synperonic NDB Detergent. “Just a drop in lukewarm water, and it does them all.”

Mount Stewart House started more than 200 years ago, and birthplace of Lord Castlereagh who was Foreign Minister during the Napoleonic Wars, sits in extensive and intriguing gardens on the shores of Strangford Lough, indeed you are very aware of those gardens from the elegant reception rooms of the house, where the narrow glazing bars of the large windows enhance the green view.

Those windows only get a gentle warm water wash once in a while since they have been specially coated to keep out the ultraviolet rays which could damage the furniture and paintings inside. So hours are not spent polishing the windows in the way that a normal housewife does.

Background to all the work is the Trust’s Housekeeping Manual, which they hope to publish soon. At the moment it is a bulky file of information on all manner of things – like when washing the China; each piece is washed individually, since you would crack two pieces if you put them in together.

And never stack them on the draining board: each piece when washed must be carefully dried and then removed. The horrors of breakages loom large when the plate in your hand is quite so old and valuable.

Major repairs and renovations are the job of experts so that any woodworm, dry rot, or deterioration becomes a specialist task.

The floors that get tramped on by those thousands of pairs of feet each year are polished with electric polishers, though the carpets rarely get walked upon. Treatment for them is very gently brushing, never a vacuum cleaner.

“This furniture is supposed to last for ever,” Myrtle told me. “The furniture in your own home is not really like that except for a few odd pieces. If you want the good pieces to last, clean them sparingly.”