WADDESDON, England — “She’s in desperate need of a clean. Such dirty feet and hair!” says Patsy Knappet, casting an eye over a white marble figurine of a young girl at Waddesdon Manor, where she is collection housekeeper.
It’s that time of year, when Lord Jacob Rothschild’s French Renaissance-style chateau closes its doors for winter and the staff prepares to clean countless clocks, steam glasses and polish the porcelain.
Each year, there’s a one-day event called “Putting the House to Bed” when the curatorial and housekeeping teams show the public how they care for the manor in the winter months until March, when Waddesdon, which is now part of the National Trust, opens once again.
But Knappet isn’t the only one keeping watch over the family treasures.
There have been sightings of the ghost of Lady Alice de Rothschild, the younger sister of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, who built Waddesdon in 1874. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as her stringent housekeeping regime, known as “Miss Alice’s Rules,” remains partially in place today.
“When cleaning porcelain, you do not talk and always use two hands,” is one of them and one Knappet still demands that her 18-strong team follow. Yet, while the porcelain may be ultraelegant, the cleaning methods are relatively simple: cotton buds and toothpicks are used on finer details, while a hog’s-hair brush is used to dust down the surface.
The house’s eerily dim lighting also stems from Alice’s reign, and throughout the year, blinds are kept low to prevent light from damaging the silk-covered walls and antique wooden furniture. Indeed, when Edward VII visited Waddesdon in the late 19th century, he asked for the blinds to be raised so he could see the paintings — but Alice refused.
Knappet is clearly proud of Waddesdon’s stringent standards. “I visited the German Embassy in France and was quite horrified at how they look after their own collection,” she said, proudly adding that she and members of Waddesdon’s staff have in the past been asked to advise the U.S. State Department on how to care for their ambassadorial residencies around the world.
This story first appeared in the December 28, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In the dining room, one member of the staff demonstrated the benefits of chamois leather, a tool also known as the household’s “faithful friend” because it can be used to clean almost anything. However, as she set about to clean a crystal chandelier with the cloth, she added: “Being on the scaffolding and having a swaying chandelier in front of you can make you feel quite seasick.”
Gloves are worn at all times, apart from when handling books, as this damages the leather. So the team has introduced its own rule. “It’s clean hands and short nails with rocks and diamonds left at home,” joked Annie White, a house guide.
Each book — many have a royal provenance — is propped upon a worktable with felt blocks to protect the tome, which is then wiped down with disinfectant-infused dusting cloths. “We check outside the blocks for furry mold, and if we find any, we summon security immediately to escort us outside to brush them down,” said White.
As for the manor’s carpets, it takes at least three people to synchronize the rolling of one. It’s then wrapped in tissue paper and stood up “to rest” in a wooden stand. All curtains are released from their tiebacks and wrapped in tissue paper and cloth covers. “There are sighs of relief as the fabrics relax,” said Jane Finch, the collection steward. Even the stone statues on Waddesdon’s grounds are shrouded in plastic covers for the winter period.
In case of emergency, there’s obviously a lot to account for, so the most valuable pieces of porcelain are boxed and placed in fireplaces to show they are top of the pecking order of escape. These would include the Royal Copenhagen vases, which are packed in cases lined with chamois leather and lamb’s wool.
When handling the collection, staff prefer not to think of its history. “We don’t talk about anything in monetary terms here,” said Knappet. “If we did, we’d all be nervous wrecks.”