Return to Grandeur

Interior Conservation at Tyntesfield

Sarah Schmitz


  Wide-angle view from the hall gallery showing gothic arched doorways, family portraits
  The hall at Tyntesfield after reinstatement (All photos by Steve Young unless otherwise stated)  

Tyntesfield lies tucked into a hillside in north east Somerset, seven miles west of Bristol. Since the high-profile campaign that saw it rescued and purchased for the nation in 2002, the estate, with its great Victorian house, gardens, park, farmland, woodland and outbuildings, has been slowly regaining its former grandeur. The transformation has been made possible by the hard work of contractors, a National Trust team of staff and dedicated volunteers, and substantial help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other grants and donations.

In part, Tyntesfield is a testament to the affluence generated by developments in agriculture in the mid 19th century. Bought by William Gibbs in 1843, the house was dramatically enlarged and remodelled in the 1860s. Much of the Gibbs family fortune that made this possible came from importing guano (seabird droppings) from South America for the burgeoning fertilizer trade. But the elaborate architectural language of Tyntesfield is an expression of much more than the tremendous wealth required to build it. Religion played a fundamental role in the life of the Gibbs family and William and Blanche Gibbs were ardent supporters of the Tractarian or Oxford Movement (a high-church Anglican movement active between 1833 and 1845). In building Tyntesfield they were consciously creating a Christian household. Not surprisingly, the style they chose in which to express their faith and the identity of the household was Gothic.

Although neither the High Victorian Gothic mansion nor its architects, John Norton, Arthur Blomfield and Henry Woodyer, were widely known, Tyntesfield has long been recognised as one of the most important surviving Victorian country houses that retains its historic contents. Mark Girouard included Tyntesfield in the second edition of his definitive 1970s book The Victorian Country House, and the National Trust had identified it as a high priority for permanent preservation.

Covering some 40,000 square feet of floor space, with 26 bedrooms and a fine private chapel by Blomfield that recalls the gothic splendour of Saint Chapelle in Paris, Tyntesfield reflects the life and changing tastes of four generations of the Gibbs family and its servants. The mansion, garden and estate also house the largest recorded collection in the National Trust’s care, with some 43,000 items inventoried so far, from bedsteads to ostrich feather fans, jelly moulds to furniture by JG Crace and Sons. When the National Trust took over the estate the contents had already been sifted and rearranged by the auctioneers in preparation for the great sale that was only narrowly averted.

  Tyntesfield's High Victorian Gothic exterior, with gardens in bloom in the foreground
  Tyntesfield’s stunning exterior and gardens

The condition of the house in 2001 said much about the struggle by its 20th century owners to deal with financial and staffing issues. Ursula Gibbs, Lady Wraxall, widowed with two small children in 1931, ran the house until her elder son Lord Wraxall reached adulthood. The huge clock tower was demolished in the 1930s on account of dry rot. However, the house had been partially rewired in the 1950s and Richard Gibbs, the second Lord Wraxall, continued to carry out repairs in the years preceding his death in 2001, notably roof repairs, redecoration and a new carpet in the billiard room. Tyntesfield’s charm may have been somewhat faded, then, by the time the trust took it on, but it was far from being in a state of outright decline, even if trust staff needed to be at action stations whenever there was heavy rain on account of the parlous state of the roof.

The major capital works on site since purchase have included repair and conversion of the sawmill to a learning centre, creating accommodation for student placements in an old stable flat, reinstating garden sculpture and urns, and creating a new visitor centre (due to open in February 2011) from the Home Farm buildings. For the house, however, 2009–11 has been a period of upheaval. The building needed to be rewired, re-roofed and re-plumbed. In addition, fire compartmentation had to be introduced, a new biomass boiler conservation heating system was installed to protect the contents, and a lift was installed to improve visitor access to the upper floors. The property team decided that Tyntesfield would remain open to the public, giving visitors a rare insight into the work that goes into keeping historic houses viable for the future. At one point, some 28 miles of scaffolding tubes enveloped the building while staff continued to welcome and engage intrigued visitors.

At the heart of the house lies the hall, a central hub that has been the scene of many changes. A cross-section drawing of the hall from the time of the 1860s programme of remodelling at Tyntesfield shows Norton’s proposed design for the space. A huge T-shaped staircase lit by gasoliers on the newel posts dominated the room’s centre, and a heavily carved screen separated the hall from the entrance vestibule, while other doors led off to the music room, ante room and other adjoining rooms. William Gibbs’ son, Antony, had the staircase reconfigured by Henry Woodyer in the 1880s, letting in more light from the glazed lantern in the roof, and turning the ground floor into a more functional space. Antony also installed electricity and a service lift. George Gibbs, Antony’s son, then rehung the larger family paintings here in 1910, including the full length portrait of his grandfather William (by Sir William Boxall).


  A vast and complex scaffolding array occupies the main stairwell  
  Internal scaffolding tower erected in the hall  

After the second world war, Lady Wraxall was apparently unsuccessful in gaining funding from the government to repair damage to the hall caused by a bomb that had fallen close to the house. As a consequence, water entered the lantern area at various points, damaging the painted wall surfaces below. To allow roofers to repair the structure safely, a scaffold had to be erected inside as well as outside. This provided opportunities for further work beneath the lantern while the scaffold was in place: a team was brought in from The Perry Lithgow Partnership to consolidate the wall paintwork, extra fire detection was installed, and the lantern was thoroughly cleaned.

Research carried out by architectural paint analyst Lisa Oestreicher identified three principal phases of decoration in the public rooms and spaces. There was evidence that the green-stencilled decoration which dominates the main circulation routes in Tyntesfield was almost certainly applied as part of the third decorative cycle undertaken in 1887–90. However, rather than being a dramatic break from the past it was found to be a reproduction of an earlier 1860s scheme employing the same colours and motifs.

Once the history of the interiors was properly understood, the focus for work was on the consolidation and repair of the decorated surfaces, rather than replacing fabric so that it would look ‘as new’ or returning to an earlier scheme. As a result there are still signs of water damage on some surfaces, and staff at Tyntesfield are often asked whether the house is going to be restored. In fact, the most damaged areas have been carefully consolidated and new work has been toned in to match the old but without always replicating lost detail. The result is a testament to the excellent colour matching skills of the conservators involved; green is said to be particularly difficult to get right.


Not just water damage, but also guano from indoor bird activity had damaged a number of framed oil paintings in the hall. William Gibbs was a keen collector of Spanish works, having been born in Spain. It seems an irony that a man who made his fortune in the guano fertilizer trade should have his pictures damaged in this way. An important example is the 17th century painting of St Lawrence attributed to Zambrano, which sits in the centre of one wall of the hall. This very large canvas and its frame were cleaned by art conservators Bush and Berry, who happen to work from a chapel built by William Gibbs in the nearby village of Flax Bourton.


Antony Gibbs is said to have spent a whole night in 1890 checking that his newly installed electrical system worked safely and well before moving his family into the house. It is with a similar sense of delight that staff are now able to switch on the newly reinstated lion’s-head lights that lurk beneath the stair gallery, and use the rise and fall mechanisms newly installed to facilitate the changing of lamps in the hall chandeliers.

  Series of illuminated lion's-head light fittings at the junction of the wall and the stair gallery Lion's-head light fitting with the bulb mounted in the lion's mouth
  Above: The lion’s-head lights in action and, above right, one of the lights with typical stencilled wall decoration

The rewiring carried out by Haysham Limited often required working within the confined areas of access that could be provided for them beneath floors and in cupboards, using the difficult medium of mineral insulated copper cable in many places to provide a high level of fire safety for the building. Generally, fittings were wired where they were as the existing lighting levels are part of the historic character of the house. However, the lion’s-head lights proved too tempting and so a route into each mouth had to be located. Wires were then drawn through and tests carried out to find fittings and lamps that would do the job well. They now allow the hall to be illuminated much more effectively, with the lamps providing a suitable yellow Victorian glow. The rise and fall fittings are now electrified too, although historically a member of the house staff would have wound a similar contraption by hand (the handles are recorded on the inventory).


The stair carpet represents one of the finest achievements of the interior conservation project at Tyntesfield. In 2002 the fine runner commissioned by Antony Gibbs for his remodelled staircase remained in place. It ran up the main stairs, around the galleries, into each doorway, across the landing known to the family by the jovial title of Headache Corner (inspired by a figure in a painting that hung there) and onwards via the bedrooms along the Chapel Corridor. The carpet was wool and bore a pattern derived from oriental carpets. It was made using the chenille (from the French word meaning caterpillar) technique and had faded to a lush burnt orange colour through that old enemy of organic fibres, light damage.

  The very badly worn original stair carpet with long strands of the fabric detached from the weave and hanging over the risers
  The original stair carpet (Photo: Andy Mouseley)
  Detail of the replica carpet showing its lush red background and intricate floral details
  Linney Cooper’s replica stair carpet

The carpet had become very weak with age, a problem made worse by the hugely increased footfall from family, auctioneers and advisors visiting to assess the property after Lord Wraxall’s death. The waterfall effect created by its disintegration seemed to symbolise Tyntesfield’s problems when the National Trust first took over its care. In contrast to this rather evocative problem, the Heritage Lottery Fund wanted the trust to find solutions to make the house as accessible as possible. Clearly the fragile condition of the stair carpet would need to be addressed if access to the upper floors were to be improved.

A solution was found with the help of historic carpet specialists and suppliers, Linney Cooper. It was only necessary to bring two samples to site for the National Trust’s historic property coordinator and curator to test colours and appropriate pattern replication, before Linney Cooper’s craftsmen were able to create a replacement runner. The colours became the source of a complex conservation ethics debate. Should we, for example, remodel the runners on the original colours still visible at the base of the pile? Or should the tones be made more muted to reflect the somewhat worn and faded look of the house as a whole? Ultimately, it was decided that the fading and discolouration would not be copied (the carpet would, in any event, fade and discolour further). Instead, the original colours were used and adjusted slightly to take account of the colour balance of the room as it is now.

The chenille technique, still in use in the 1950s, is no longer available, but with great ingenuity Gareth Hughes and his team found a way to replicate the pile in the wool tufts of the new Wilton structure (woven in Kidderminster). The weave rises and falls as though it were made of the typical caterpillar strings of silk fibres: a unique and splendid touch. It should withstand at least 15 years of visitors, which is quite an achievement when one considers that the house is expected to receive around 125,000 visitors per year.

The carpet was fitted in just two days and it now unifies the hall and will hopefully be joined in the future to other areas around the first floor. It is worth noting that half the £45,000 cost for this luxurious but very necessary conservation replica, was raised by raffle ticket sales on site. It is a public carpet for public use and its luxurious feel under foot is very much an interactive part of anyone’s time in the house. In unifying the upper areas of the hall with the principal rooms of the first floor, the carpet represents a landmark in the gradual work of opening up more and more rooms for visitors.


The National Trust has sought to stabilise the building and ensure it is sustainable for the future while incorporating its vision for access throughout all the works wherever health and safety considerations have allowed. But for the odd new roof tile, you might not know so much has been undertaken. Certainly the spiders seem happy enough to return to the newly cleaned lantern: an auspicious sign, perhaps, that things are slowly getting back to normal.



The Building Conservation Directory, 2011


SARAH SCHMITZ is house steward at Tyntesfield, Somerset. She studied undergraduate Medieval and Art History, and postgraduate Museum and Gallery Studies at St Andrews University. Subsequently, volunteering led to paid work for the National Trust at Knighthayes Court, Devon, and Cragside, Northumberland.

Email: sarah.schmitz

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