MOLA meets Knole Curator, Emma Slocombe

MOLA team

David Sorapure visits the outstanding National Trust property, Knole, set in an atmospheric medieval deer park just outside Sevenoaks, to meet Curator, Emma Slocombe. Emma talks to David about the historical significance of the building, the National Trust’s flagship project to conserve and restore the house and the work that MOLA has been doing to record the structure.

DS Emma, what’s does your role at Knole involve?

ES As curator I work with the property team to identify spirit of place and I am responsible for ensuring that the essence of Knole permeates all our work. It is my job to understand the legacy of the lives of people that have created and occupied this place before we make any changes to it.

DS Why is Knole so unique and important as a building?

ES It is, I understand, the largest private country house in England, in terms of the acreage it covers. Our roof-scape alone is something like 5.7 acres. We have started talking about Knole as a unique piece of cultural heritage rather than one of the great houses because of its long and complex history. Thomas Sackville undertook massive transformation of Knole at the beginning of the 17th century and that is largely what we have today. The legacy of occupation by the Sackvilles adds an important layer to the house.

DS Can you bring me up to date with the Knole conservation and restoration project?
We have two projects: the first is ‘Knole in Flux’, a £2.73 million building conservation programme, which MOLA has been working on. This project is to secure the envelope of the building, ensure the roofs and windows are wind and water tight, because the certainly weren’t. One winter it snowed and melt-water came down the surface of one of our great paintings. We are now half way through this emergency repair work.

The second part of the project is dependent on HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund) funding. Our application has been submitted and we hear in July whether we are successful. If successful, the grant would be augmented by the National Trust and fundraising, enabling us to re-service the showrooms, put in environmental controls and really get people engaged with what Knole has to offer. The work would complete in 2019.

DS MOLA has been recording the historic fabric of the building. Can you tell us why you are having this archaeological work done?

ES So far we have been repairing the east front of Knole; one side of the Archbishop’s Palace. The ground floor is a complex medieval building. We don’t fully understand the phasing of alterations as they can’t be easily read from the stone that we can observe. On top of that are 17th century timber framed rooms with a series of beautiful pitched roofs. The East front was originally covered in lime plaster and then in the 1890s it was concreted over; not the most sensitive material to put on a building that shifts and moves about like Knole. To make that side of the house water tight we had to take a lot of the roof and render off so we wanted that part of the building recorded. What we didn’t anticipate was how many building phases we would have to contend with.

What I have found invaluable is to listen to MOLA’s insight reading the material evidence and then to go back to the archives and start to unpick the phasing; not just of earlier building alterations but also the chronology of later repairs, so that we can make informed decisions as to how we should be repairing the building.

DS How does the work done by MOLA contribute to the overall programme?

ES I can see where your influence has been across the project. In addition to getting very excited about the drawings that you did of the east front, which are beautiful and very informative in terms of what timbers are doing on that elevation, we loved the interpretative drawings that relate to the building phasing.

The bottom line is that we need to be able to articulate what is significant about Knole and the more information we have the better. When you were working on the area adjacent to the chapel we realised that we have a standing medieval structure that endures all the way up to the roof, that’s incredibly important in terms of understanding how this building has survived through time. I had anticipated that most of the roofs would postdate the early 17th century. To have something much earlier sitting at the heart of the building is a special thing.

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