£3 million gift to National Trust secures conservation of over a hundred historic artworks

Conservation of some of the National Trust’s most significant collections has been given a huge boost thanks to a gift of £3 million from the Royal Oak Foundation

The Royal Oak Foundation is an American charity, founded in 1973 by the National Trust, whose mission is to raise awareness and advance the work of the Trust by inspiring support from the United States.  

The gift, which will support collections conservation for the next five years, has been made in honour of the Trust’s 125th anniversary and will fund major work mainly based at the charity’s specialist Conservation Studio at Knole in Kent. 

As Europe’s largest conservation charity, the National Trust is home to more than one million objects at over 200 historic properties ranging from fine and decorative art works and furniture, to textiles, dress, books and ceramics. 

Dr Tarnya Cooper, the Trust’s Curation and Conservation Director said: 
“Looking after such a deep and varied collection of fine art and heritage objects for visitors to enjoy requires specialist expertise and considerable funding. Sadly, the Trust does not have sufficient resources to address the treatment, repair and conservation of every item that urgently requires it. The Covid pandemic has presented even greater funding challenges.

“Our collections need conservation and repair for a multitude of reasons. They risk deterioration from the effects of ageing, light and damp to potential damage from insect pests such as silverfish and moths. Many of these objects survive in the original domestic settings for which they were acquired or commissioned, rather than in bespoke museum environments with specialist storage facilities, which presents us with many challenges. Our house staff employ rigorous checks and monitoring of the objects in their care to identify those most in need of conservation treatment.”

Tarnya continued: “We depend greatly on the support of our members and other supporters who share our commitment to protecting this art and heritage, and we are enormously grateful to the Royal Oak Foundation for this incredibly generous gift. This funding will provide some of the critical investment we need to care for our world-class collection to the standard it deserves and will enable us to tackle many significant and high-profile objects over the next five years so they can be enjoyed and better understood by our visitors.”

Among the first objects that will benefit from the conservation funding is a set of 9 early seventeenth-century carved, painted and partly gilded ‘sgabello’ chairs from Petworth House, which were directly influenced by Italian style and designed to impress and furnish a grand chamber or gallery. They now need structural treatment and conservation of their highly decorative surfaces. Through this treatment the Trust hopes to learn more about the materials and techniques used in the 1600s. 

Also on the list for specialist treatment is a suit of Japanese Samurai armour, one of a set of 27 purchased for the quality of their craftsmanship by avid collector Charles Paget Wade for his home at Snowshill. The beautifully decorated armour needs conservation cleaning and stabilisation treatments on the metal work and textiles, and investigation into other elements, before the conservators work with property staff to consider the opportunities for re-display once the armour returns. 

The funding will also help the Trust to conduct technical research, acquire extra equipment and develop facilities at the Conservation Studio to offer further expertise in conservation of paintings. 

Among the first of the Trust’s pictures in line for conservation treatment and technical research is an oil painting of Sir John Maitland, from Ham House, by an as yet unknown Anglo Dutch artist, which is in need of structural work on its oak panel support, consolidation of the paint layers, and careful removal of varnish and overpaint. The painting came to public attention in 2017 when X-ray analysis revealed what is believed to be an unfinished portrait of Mary Queen of Scots hidden beneath it. Trust conservators now hope to learn even more about the painting through technical art historical investigations.   

Tarnya added: “The Royal Oak Foundation and its members have been supporting many Trust projects since 1973 with gifts totalling millions of pounds. This latest grant is their largest single donation to us. In recognition of this, and for their far-sighted vision in supporting heritage conservation, I am delighted that we are re-naming the studio The Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio. 

“As we said in our five-year strategy last January, we are committed to investing in the nations’ treasures and taking care of the places people value, as well as giving them greater access to the conservation work that we do.

“We are looking forward to starting on the next phase of our collections conservation work and over the next five years we expect to improve the condition and appearance of over a hundred highly significant works of art, and items of historic furniture, books and textiles.”

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Royal Oak Foundation said: “We are excited to  provide a significant gift that will impact the entire Trust with the conservation of many of its collection objects at the Knole studio.  A gift of this size would not have been possible without the generous support of our donors, especially those who provided legacy gifts in their estate plans.”

Lynne Rickabaugh, Chairman of the Royal Oak Foundation Board, said that the Board is thrilled to support the National Trust’s Conservation Studio at Knole. “The Board has a special relationship with Knole, helping to raise monies for the restoration in 2012. We feel that  many properties at the Trust will benefit from this gift at the Studio and members will be able to learn about the objects being conserved. It is a privilege to celebrate the National Trust’s 125th anniversary.” 
 
Conservation of the first objects to benefit from the funding will begin in March. Once the studio at Knole has re-opened to the public following the end of Covid restrictions, visitors will be able to see specialists at work on the collections and be able to learn more about the techniques used.

The National Trust has many great works of fine art and heritage objects identified for conservation, and an ongoing duty of care to its collections, and is continuing to invite support and funding from organisations and individuals to help with these. 

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