I can hardly believe that it is two years since I began work at Derngate. In some ways the time has just flown, in others it seems as if I have worked here forever!
When Rob Kendall asked me to write the usual up-date for the Newsletter I thought it would be a good opportunity to review the activities of the past two years. This will set the events of the past few months in their proper context and help understand our plans for the future.
There had been years of hard work and planning before I came on the scene in January 2002. Although hidden, the wonderful interiors were never entirely lost of forgotten. People like Tom Osborne Robinson cared about 78 Derngate and kept its memory alive. A number of people were concerned for its future when the High School bought it in 1964, and in the following year it was listed as a building of Grade II* importance. The race to save it really began when the High School decided to sell the Derngate site in 1995. Many people, near and far, were galvanised into action. Within a short space of time, the Borough Council were able to take a 999-year lease on the property, thanks to the generosity of Keith and Maggie Barwell; a charitable Trust was formed in 1998 to manage the project and took a 99-year sublease from the Council; this body of Friends was set up; money and awareness were raised; plans were drawn up and approved. The original vision encompassed a restored 78, 80 as circulation and explanation space, and 82 as a vibrant centre for displaying and encouraging modern design. The plans for 82 also included a cafe, a shop and offices. A grant of £999,000 from the Heritage Lottery fund in October 2001 brought enough money to begin Phase One, the careful restoration of 78 and the transformation of 80 into a display gallery, allowing access to 78 literally and metaphorically. Number 82 will have to wait until another £ ¾ million is raised.
That is the point at which I became involved. The architects, John McAslan and Partners had been appointed in 1998 and had drawn up the original plans. They also co-ordinated the initial research into the physical state of the building and the documentary research, undertaken by Perilla Kinchin. One of my first tasks was to do more research into the history of 78, before and after the Macintosh ‘make-over’ and into the life and times of W. J. Bassett-Lowke. In March 2002 the Trust appointed the main building contractors, William Anelay Ltd. of York. This old-established firm has a great deal of experience in doing sensitive restoration work. They and the architects then assembled a team of specialist sub-contractors and suppliers. Whenever possible, local firms were used, but if particular skills were required they were sought the length and breadth of the country, even as far afield as Bombay, in the case of the material for the lounge hall curtains.
The next few months were rather frustrating. There was a lot of investigative work that was necessary before work could begin in earnest. The state of the plaster, woodwork, chimneys and roof had all to be assessed. The asbestos lining in the 1916 boiler in the basement had to be carefully removed. Final plans had to be drawn up and approval sought from various bodies. Eventually, on 9 September 2002, Anelay’s took control of the three properties and the work began. It was really a project in two halves: the careful conservation and restoration of 78 and the dismantling and rebuilding of 80 as a modern gallery, the two aspects separated only by a nine-inch brick wall. The monthly Gant charts produced for the project meetings, showing the order in which every little part of the work had to be done, in order for the whole to succeed, were a wonder to behold. The daily management of this was done by Phil Sharp, site foreman, from the office in 82, which is now my office and reception area.
The very first task was to protect all the original features in 78. The front door had already been removed for safekeeping to Abington Museum store. The swing-door in the screen was taken down, carefully packed and went to join its companion in Abington. The screen and fireplaces were protected by polystyrene, bubble wrap and chipboard. The Kohler bath was similarly encased and looked like a coffin. Only once everything was protected could the scaffolding be put up, an enormous construction, entirely covering numbers 78 and 80, including a large projecting platform at the back to form a loading bay and work area. Then began the work of dismantling 80, brick by brick saving the original Georgian flat front. New sash windows were made, with the traditional cords and weights but with each pane being double-glazed. This work and all the specialist joinery, including the replica front door was done by Bridgend Joinery of Kendal. Both 78 and 80 were completely re-roofed, using salvaged slates.
As the steel skeleton went up inside 80, carrying the new staircase, lift and glass case, so work went on making 78 sound, replacing all the services, installing an air-handling system to prevent air stagnating, sensors to monitor temperature and humidity, setting up security alarms. As with any building work, it had to get worse before it could get better, and sometimes I did wonder whether we were ever going to get round to the restoration.
When all the basic building work was going on, much more detailed research was being conducted into how the various finishes and fittings should be recreated. This aspect was co-ordinated by Sarah Jackson of John McAslan’s. The key people involved were Mary Schoeser, independent fabric researcher, and Allyson McDermott, wallpaper conservator. They had regular meetings together, sometimes with Helen Hughes, English Heritage’s expert on historic paint, and also consulted widely. Pamela Robertson of the Hunterian was generous with her time and advice, as was Pat Dillon of the University of Wolverhampton, whose help with the replication of the carpets was invaluable. Perilla Kinchin has also been very helpful. Then came the making. The replica furniture for the hall lounge and guest bedroom has been the work of Professor Jake Kaner and his postgraduate students. Allyson herself oversaw the production of the wallpapers and made the stencilled wall coverings for the hall lounge. The wonderful light fitting for the lounge was the work of Barrett and Jarvis. The fabrics were made up by Chapman’s. If I attempt to make a comprehensive list, I will miss someone out, which would be invidious. So many people have put so much knowledge, skill and effort into the restoration. It has been a truly rewarding process.
And what was I doing while all of this was going on? I was involved with the discussions with experts and architects about the interiors. I was working with Perilla Kinchin to produce the display panels in number 80 and 82. These were designed by James Wells Graphics and manufactured by Designs and Interiors Ltd. of Wellingborough. The same firm did the fitting-out of 82. Quite a lot of time was spent on finding objects for the display in the glass case and I am very grateful to everyone who has lent us things. All the items have to be carefully recorded. Advice on all these aspects was given by Rosemary Bower, an independent museum professional appointed by the Heritage Lottery Fund to monitor our ‘interpretation’ of the property. A very important part of the interpretation is, of course, the guidebook, and I am glad that Perilla Kinchin has been able to write this for us. We had to wait until the project was finished to get the photographs of all of the restored rooms, so preparing the book has taken longer than I would have liked. It should be with us for Easter. By then we should have videos and DVDs of the Discovery Channel documentary about the restoration for sale in the bookshop. I have been very grateful for the help and advice of many people, especially Shirley Curtis of the Friends, with setting up the shop. Then there has been the work of recruiting and training the volunteers, without whom none of this would work. There was an established core of members of the Friends who had been trained as guides, and that original twenty has now expanded to nearly one hundred volunteers. There is still room for more. As we need at least six people on duty at a time, four guides, one in the shop and one in reception, six days a week, forty weeks a year, that is a lot of volunteer hours. So if you are interested in helping in any way, including with tidying the garden, spring-cleaning or whatever, please do get in touch.
All of these things came together for the middle of November, and after our opening ceremony on 11 November and various press and trade previews, we had a month of public opening before Christmas. Much to my relief, everything went pretty smoothly and more or less as planned. Not everything was quite ready, but it was an extremely worthwhile experience, trying everything out. We had over 2,000 visitors and have had very encouraging comments from many of them. January and February are being spent in addressing a few teething problems with the building and installing some other items of furniture, such as the replica cloaks cupboard for the lounge hall. I am also busy trying to get all my paperwork up to date, restock the shop, preparing the guide book, training new volunteers and, and, and … All for 1st March! I am very glad to say that Barbara Floyer has been appointed part-time Assistant Curator and I am sure that she will be a great help in what will, I am sure, be a very exciting first year of operation. And, oh yes, we will also be trying to raise the money to begin the work on 82 next winter!
First published in February 2004 in The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 28.
Author: Dr Sylvia Pinches
Transcribed 2018: Barbara Floyer