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The grand tour

13 May 2019

Spencer House is London's only great 18th century aristocratic palace to survive intact. Catherine Hackett was taken on a private tour by Prime Clean to find out how this hidden gem and its many treasures are kept in perfect shape

In 1772, celebrated writer Arthur Young said of Spencer House: "I know not a more beautiful piece of architecture ... all in richness, elegance and taste, superior to any house I have seen."

Built a few years prior for John, 1st Earl Spencer – an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales – Spencer House in St James's was recognised as one of the most ambitious and splendid private palaces ever built in London and of particular importance in the history of English architecture, with its neo-classical interiors among Europe's first. 

Home to the Spencer family for more than a century, the house was well known for entertaining a long list of royals, artists, poets, writers and politicians.  

Today, part of the building is let as offices, while the grand state rooms are in the main only open to the public for guided tours or to hire for private events. 

Those who do visit Spencer House, though, are greeted by an interior that is every bit as grand as in its heyday and containing many priceless artefacts. For those responsible for cleaning and maintaining it, that makes for a sizeable task.

Upstairs, downstairs

I arrive at 7am to be met by Karen O'Connor, operations manager at contract cleaning provider Prime Clean. Located in a quiet road behind the Ritz and backing onto Green Park, Spencer House is the finest surviving eighteenth-century town house in London thanks to an ambitious ten-year project to restore it to its original splendour by J. Rothschild Holdings plc and RIT Capital Partners plc, which took up the lease in 1985.

Missing original features, including the chimneypieces, doors, chair rails, skirting mouldings and architraves, have been carefully copied from the originals. These are complemented by a magnificent collection of paintings, sculptures and furniture borrowed from various sources, including The Royal Collection, The Royal Academy and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Inside the five-storey mansion, the state rooms are spread over two-and-a-half floors, and the rest of the space is comprised of offices, meeting rooms, kitchen and washrooms.

Prime Clean won the contract to carry out early morning part-time office cleaning for the whole estate – which includes Spencer House and nearby office buildings – in November 2017, followed by the eight state rooms in February 2018. 

While offices make up the majority of the estate, even here there are objects, art and antique furniture that belong to the collections team and must be cleaned carefully.

Seventeen people clean the estate from 5am to 8am: two members of staff and a supervisor are dedicated to cleaning the state rooms, while the rest clean the offices. 

For the latter, each staff member is assigned to one building and one task: either cleaning of the toilets or kitchens, dusting or vacuuming, or collecting rubbish. The offices also have a finesse cleaner who starts at the top of each building and works her way down, paying attention to detail such as marks on the walls, before moving onto the next house. 

During the day, two housekeepers set up meeting rooms, clear up, load and unload dishwashers, spot-check toilets, and carry out any other ad hoc requests. 

Some of the staff were TUPE'd over to Prime Clean at the start of the contract and, having been in their positions for some time, have accrued a lot of knowledge, which O'Connor says makes the responsibility of cleaning such a prestigious place less daunting. 

In state

The state rooms that are open to the public at Spencer House – the Ante Room, Library, Dining Room, Palm Room, Lady Spencer's Room, Music Room, Great Room and Staircase Hall – each have their own identity and charm.

Although Spencer House was conceived as a showcase of classical design, it was also designed for pleasure, and a festive theme runs through the decoration of all the state rooms that were used for receptions and family gatherings. Daily cleaning predominantly consists of cleaning floors and surfaces. 

"There are some surfaces that we can clean like glass-top tables, window ledges, the floors, the detail cleaning – but we don't touch any of the artefacts," O'Connor says.

The collections team at Spencer House arranged for Prime Clean's staff to undergo specialist training last year on how to clean certain things outside the norm, such as intricate dado rails. 

However, O'Connor explains: "Our team are trained in cleaning but not in conservation, so if it was removing some dust from a gilded picture frame they could probably do that, but if it was restoring something then that's more specialist – either the curator would do it herself or someone would come in."

But even the most straightforward cleaning tasks require special care and attention to detail.

"You certainly don't use the same methods and you don't clean as extensively as you would in a normal space because even something as simple as moving a regular chair isn't the way you'd move an antique chair because you're likely to damage it," she says. 

"When the team are moving and touching anything, they will always wear gloves because of dust, dirt and sweat off your hands – even if it is just to plump a cushion on a sofa," she adds.

Temperature, light and relative humidity are essential elements of collections care. Mould, pests, deterioration and warping are just a few of the problems that can happen if these elements are not stable and controlled.

The conditions at Spencer House must therefore be kept ambient, which means the cleaning team make sure to not inadvertently change any of them.

"We can't air the room so we don't open windows, blinds or use any room sprays. If the front doors are open, that's the only air that's moving around. Once the rooms have been cleaned and they're not in use, the lights are off and the doors are closed," O'Connor says. 

Less is more

The extra caution required means cleaning is more periodic. Peeking inside the cleaning cupboard, O'Connor shows me an example from the cleaning schedule: in the main staircase hall where we currently stand, the floors are vacuumed daily along with flat surfaces, banister railings and glass; but the stone stairs are dry mopped and buffed as and when required; the doors, frames and lamp bases are cleaned weekly; the skirting boards, dado rails and marble plinths are monthly; and the lampshades are cleaned quarterly.

While normal cleaning products are used in the washrooms, throughout the rest of Spencer House, Prime Clean uses equipment that isn't used anywhere else on the estate and which is bought from a conservation cleaning specialist.

"As you can see, we use things like white spirit, wax polish and metal polish, but we also have special conservation microfibre cloths that are lint-free and a box of paint brushes of different sizes for dusting," she says.

To preserve the delicate interiors in the state rooms, simple and traditional cleaning methods are favoured over new technologies. The team spray-buff and wax the wooden floors, and rugs are vacuumed in situ.

Pipe lagging is fitted around the extension tube of the tub vacuum cleaners and felt placed around the nozzles so that, if they bump a table or skirting board, they're not going to damage it.

A combination of paint brushes and the vacuum's suction are used for delicate work – such as removing dust from skirting boards and the crevices in the gilded plasterboard. 

O'Connor says: "If you've got an intricate skirting board or dado rail, you've got to take much more care and much more time to clean than you would in a normal environment because if you damage something the costs are expensive – a lot of it is irreplaceable."

In the music room we find Conceicao, who has worked in the state rooms for three years, carrying out this technique to carefully remove dust from the table and then the gilding along the wall – she starts at one end with the vacuum cleaner and brushes as she goes. It's quite labour-intensive but Conceicao says she enjoys working in such a nice place where the rooms are all different.  

Every August, Spencer House closes and the state rooms undergo a deep clean. Anything that needs restoring or is damaged is also fixed. 

The tasks vary from year to year, with specialists brought in to clean ceilings or chandeliers, drapes or rugs, or even the gilding on the paintings, depending on what is deemed necessary by the collections team.

"This year the collections team are talking about having all the rugs rolled up, and then getting our team to clean the floors underneath," O'Connor says.

While the cleaning team are not involved in all the conservation work, they often see it in action.

"There is a huge lantern over the main staircase which had to be taken down to clean," O'Connor recalls. “A scaffold was built over the sculpture underneath the lantern, and the lantern was then connected to a winch through the floor in one of the offices on the third floor. It was then lowered just above the scaffold and cleaned in situ.”

Open house

Challenges such as these only come around once a year but protecting the state rooms from the wear and tear of public tours and private events is a daily challenge.

The summer gets particularly busy with lots of events, including open days that combine tours of the house with the gardens. Last year, Spencer House also hosted an exhibition of Princess Diana's dresses for several weeks.

The house is cleaned five days a week and weekends are on a request basis. Some events may not finish until midnight and the house still has to be cleaned and ready for 9am the following morning.

As we enter the library, O'Connor points to the doors that open onto the terrace. "It's a nightmare in the summer when we have functions on the terrace as people are coming in and out, and it gets very messy, with dust and debris," she says. "The minute you open a door or window, you're letting in dust and you're changing the temperature of the room."

In Lady Spencer's room – a private drawing room where Lady Spencer received her guests, and which features an elaborate ceiling based on the Baths of Augustus in Rome – O'Connor highlights a section of the wooden floor near the fireplace that was stained with red wine, which represents one of the biggest cleaning challenges.

"It depends how much it is and how long it's been there but we just have to try and polish it out," O'Connor says.

We continue through to The Great Room, the largest and most imposing of the state rooms, intended as a setting for receptions and balls.

"The skewers you get party food on – we find them everywhere in the summer," she adds. "But all the tables have got glass tops so it's not so bad in terms of ring marks. We would use a damp cloth on glass-topped tables – no chemicals."

We walk downstairs to enter the state room ladies' washrooms, where an elaborate antique doll's house sits at the centre.

"We had a lady last year who had kissed the wallpaper with their red lipstick," she says, showing me the toilet cubicle where a faint but unmistakable red pout marks the wall. "Our lady got most of it out with a cotton bud and just trying to blot it out." 

Surprisingly, though, it isn't the specialist care of the state rooms that presents the biggest challenge of cleaning the estate.

"There's no manager based here – there's only two supervisors in the morning as it's only a part-time clean, so it's kind of managing the client's expectations and that is more in the offices really because people are in there all the time," O'Connor says. "Once the state rooms are cleaned and once the tour goes round, nobody's in there constantly using things."

Working in such a grand house may prove demanding at times but it certainly has its rewards. 

"It's a lovely environment to work in even though you've got to be very careful," O'Connor says. "It's just so different to anything else we do."

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