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Thu 1 Oct 2020
Restoring Burton Constable's Ballroom
Philippa Wood // Curator
Philippa Wood
Our Curator explores the project to restore Burton Constable's historic Great Drawing Room and Ballroom
This great room that hosted glittering balls at Burton Constable in the 19th and early 20th Centuries knew hard times in more recent years as money to maintain this staggering space ran short.

The Charitable Foundation that now runs the Hall received a grant after purchasing the Hall, enabling the restoration of Lightoler's elegant and elevating Grand Drawing Room. The Curator explores the story of the project.
Drawings for Mirrors by James Wyatt
Wyatt's Drawings for the Drawing Room Mirrors, Altered by Chippendale during Completion c. 1777
William Constable's Great Drawing Room

William Constable dithered rather when it came to the creation of Burton Constable's Great Drawing Room.

Designs for a Dining Room in this space were commissioned from both Thomas Atkinson and Timothy Lightoler, but William then appears to have changed his mind. Instead, a design was submitted by Lightoler for a museum to house William's Cabinet of Curiosities with an 'experiment room' attached. Given that William did at one point nearly kill himself experimenting with electricity (presumably putting the Hall at some risk of burning down too), it is perhaps fortunate that this design was superceded by another! In 1775 William married Catherine Langdale, who presumably took William's indecision in hand and requested the room now finally created - a Great Drawing Room commissioned from James Wyatt.

Although Wyatt did some work on the Great Hall (we have receipts of £246-6s-0d for supplying French glass for the mirrors), his notorious unreliability soon led William to employ the firm of Chippendale to complete the work. Chippendale's supplied the completed mirrors, a pair of pier tables to support Italian marble slabs brought back from William's Grand Tour, a large suite of furniture and a pair of window pelmets. Their bill alone came to £1,100, the equivalent of £86,000 today.

Other craftsmen were also employed on this grandest of projects. Jeremiah Hargreaves carved the three doorcases and added girandoles, decorative gilt-wood wall decorations, John Bacon carved a stone chimneypiece and Giuseppe Cortese completed the ceiling. Cortese's ceiling still provides something of a talking point among staff and volunteers -while it was described as being painted in a 19th Century book on the history of Holderness*, analysis has found no trace of paint remaining. 

The walls of the Drawing Room were papered with green verditer, and would have looked quite dark to our modern eyes; besides the gilded mirrors, pelmets and girandoles there was little other embellishment.

Burton Constable's Ballroom in the 19th Century
Victorian Vivacity

After the Clifford Constable's moved here from Tixall, they clearly decided that the Great Drawing Room was badly in need of a breath of fresh air.

In 1840 they commissioned painters to pick out details of wood and plasterwork in strong colours, and covered the walls in bright yellow silk (showing, I suppose, that the green verditer didn't only look dark to modern eyes). The mirrors were repaired and regilded, and the furniture re-upholstered, while a new carpet incorporating the family's crest was woven and a huge palm-tree ottoman added.

Finally, four enormous portraits were moved into the room from the family's house in Cumberland Place, London, meaning that the characters who transformed this space still look down on the room's visitors today. At last, the family had a grand, airy space in which to indulge in their favourite pastime - entertaining. Musical nights, card evenings and parties were hosted for visitors from across the country in accordance with the family's love of art, dance, music and singing.

Raleigh Chichester Constable's 21st Birthday Party, c. 1911
Change, Change Again

In c. 1900 the carpet was removed and the furniture cleared to transform the room into a ballroom to host social events such as the prestigious Hunt Ball - riotous events that saw huge numbers of visitors and ran into the early hours of the morning with all the local gentry dressed in their best. Family events such as birthday parties would also have been grand affairs, as pictured in this photograph from c. 1910.

The room remained as a ballroom for the next century - quite a record, for a room which from its creation had already seen so many changes. As the Constable family tried to raise funds to maintain the Hall and its grounds, a wider and wider variety of events such as weddings and pop concerts were held here! Following 1992 when the family was forced to sell the hall to the Burton Constable Foundation, ife became distinctly quieter for this room - until 2001, when an ambitious project began to restore it to all its former glory of the Victorian age.

Conserving the Past
When the Constable Family was forced by finances to sell the house in 1992, the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) gave £5,417,284 to acquire the site and to establish and endow the Burton Constable Foundation as a charitable trust to own the house, surrounding park and cabinet of curiosities. The rest of the contents were transferred to the ownership of Leeds City Art galleries but retained within the house, in much need of auditing and conservation.

There is a fine line between conservation and restoration. When the Burton Constable Foundation set out to stabilise and preserve the Great Drawing Room, they did it by conserving what remained, rather than by the more destructive method of replacing materials to recreate the space as it would have been when first decorated.

This room was in a particularly poor state. The yellow silk wall coverings were tattered and faded after 150 years of exposure to daylight and damp, and on the external wall had to be removed from the wall entirely before they could be conserved and reinstated - William Constable's insistence on having his rainwater pipes hidden in the walls of the house had taken disastrous effect! Indeed, when the wall-hangings and pier glasses (elaborate gilded mirrors) were taken off the wall the plaster fell away due to the damp and the lathes were found to be full of woodworm. The glass in the mirrors was cracking as the frames, never strong enough, weakened – new frames had to be made and fitted, and a hardy metal backing called Aerolam was placed behind the mirrors to preserve them in the future. The work was done so well that nobody now could pick out the one panel in the room that still sits on its original frame!

Although the mirrors were installed in one piece in the 1700s, they could not be removed the same way as damp issues meant that metal fittings snapped as plates were removed. The gilding on the mirror frames also needed to be restored, with analysis prior to the work being carried out revealing that the 18th Century gilding had been regilded in the 19th Century.

Chippendale’s wonderful pelmets above the windows required conservation too; our House Technician Gary assisted conservator Ian Fraser and David Hudson to remove them, before they could replace the woodworm eaten sections and place additional Aerolam in the arch to strengthen and support it. The textile sections were then conserved by textile conservator Caroline Rendall before the pieces could be proudly reinstated.

Chippendale's exquisite suite of furniture was also showing the wear of the years, with the chairs needed to be covered with a fine net to strengthen the surface of the remaining fabric.

Our fabulous gilded palm tree ottoman also came in for its share of TLC to reverse an earlier ‘operation’ to shorten it, restoring it to its full height.

The Cost of Conservation

The conservation of the pier glasses alone was quoted at £50,000; with the costs to conserve the walls, textiles and other furnishings this quickly became a huge project. In addition to money from the NHMF endowment, the project was supported by a grant of £40,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the mirrors and their frames. The conservation process was long and painstaking, involving three different conservation labs to conserve the glass plates, carve replacements for missing sections of frame and conserve the gilding.

Despite Lottery funding and this was a huge and challenging project for the Foundation which is, at the end of the day, a charity relying on public funding and income from the visiting public. Fortunately, the cost was made more affordable by the presence of skilled members of staff such as Gary our House Technician, who worked on the walls and mirrors alongside conservators. The Burton Constable Foundation’s long-standing partnership with Leeds Museums Service and the expert advice of their conservator Ian Fraser also assisted in making this project affordable. Later, this spectacular room was given additional funding for textile conservation from the Yorkshire Museums Council. Our conservation housekeepers Debbie and Monique received additional training in textile conservation, working alongside conservation-trained volunteers from the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies even after the main project had concluded to help breathe even more of this room’s earlier splendour back into being. Fine netting was placed over textiles such as the Chippendale chair covers, consolidating the surface and ensuring that these objects will better survive to be enjoyed by future generations too.

Today the room once again gives visitors a chance to experience the Victorian Great Drawing Room in all it's (slightly faded) grandeur. Although the very nature of historic buildings means that other issues will inevitably occur, the work of these conservators, staff and volunteers mean that this glittering space remains on show for our visitors today and for future generations to enjoy - giving a little glimpse into a world of splendour and golden extravagance.

*Poulson, G. (1840). The History and Antiquities of the Seigniory of Holderness, in the East-Riding of the County of York.