Future of historic treasures now secure as National Trust opens doors to new conservation studio at Knole

  • The charity’s conservation specialists will work on precious paintings, furniture and decorative objects in front of visitors 
  • State of the art conservation studio is part of largest building and conservation  project in National Trust’s history 
  • Historic rooms at Knole re-open following work to transform the interiors and bring collections to life 
  • Supported by a major National Lottery grant of £7.75m

A new state of the art conservation studio has opened its doors for the first time at one of the country’s largest and most famous stately homes, securing the future of hundreds of historic objects for the nation. Continue reading


Tragic past of Powis Castle remembered for Somme anniversary

One hundred years after the Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916, visitors to the National Trust’s Powis Castle in Wales are being transported back in time to experience life in the trenches during the First World War.

An installation, which has transformed the castle’s empty basement rooms into a full-scale replica trench and officers’ mess, tells the story of Viscount Percy Clive, the eldest son and heir of the 4th Earl of Powis. As an officer in the Welsh Guard, he was fatally wounded during the Battle of the Somme.

Powis Castle trench view. Credit National Trust, Steve Rawlin

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National Trust launches new online land map

Huw Davies, Head of Conservation Information for the National Trust, tells us about the launch of a new website, Land Map.

In 1899 the National Trust acquired its first nature reserve with the purchase of two acres of Wicken Fen, near Cambridge. Credit National Trust Images, Robert Morris.


There’s a fantastic new online resource for anyone who’s interested in our history – a searchable map called Land Map that shows all the places in our care.

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Weekly Witter: The Behrends and art of the First World War

The National Trust has a varied and stimulating schedule of events planned for the commemoration of World War I. It has given me the opportunity to look at our painting collections and their relevance to the Great War, although actually we have very little Modern British art in our properties. This is mainly because the families who donated or bequeathed their estates to the Trust simply weren’t in a position to commission avant-garde works of art at a time when everyone was living in straightened circumstances. Houses had been requisitioned as hospitals, servants were laid off and rationing was in force. Moreover, these aristocratic families were compelled to prioritise maintaining the fabric of their vast houses over the commissioning of works of art.

There is one stellar exception in Trust collections, which is arguably one of the greatest glories of art in Northern Europe, and one of the most magnificent examples of Modern British mural painting. Sandham Memorial Chapel was painted by Stanley Spencer, and records his personal wartime experiences, which are notable for their domestic rather than combative emphasis. The paintings will play a major role in the Trust’s events schedule later this year (watch the press for further announcements!).

“The chapel was described as ‘one of the most enlightened acts of patronage that ever happened to an artist’.”

The chapel was funded by John Louis (1881-1972) and Mary (1883-1977) Behrend, who did not hail from an aristocratic pile, but were distinctly ‘non-Establishment’. They are the forgotten heroes of the Modern British art scene and played a huge role in nurturing creative genius in all the arts, from music, to literature, to painting. The chapel was described as ‘one of the most enlightened acts of patronage that ever happened to an artist’, and yet the Behrends have been largely forgotten in the mists of time, in favour of some of the more self-publicising patrons. They are important because they had the money, the taste and the courage, which was a powerful combination.

Spencer at Burghclere

Spencer at Burghclere

“It was indeed an exceptional partnership and atypical of the usual patron/artist dynamic; for example, Mary insisted that they did not commission the chapel – rather it was all Stanley’s idea.”

John Louis came from a rich Jewish family, which had made its money from dealing in cotton seed in Egypt, chartering ships on the Baltic exchange in London, and milling rice, which was sold in large Hessian sacks stamped with the name BEHREND. He and his wife Mary built up a considerable collection of pictures of diverse subject-matter and style, many of which were by Spencer himself. They also owned works by Henry Lamb, Walter Sickert, Victor Pasmore, Edward Burra and Augustus John, to name to few. Many of their pictures now hang on the walls of national museums. Their main residence was the Grey House at Burghclere, the same village which houses the memorial chapel. This became a convening point for the many artistically-minded friends, of diverse disciplines, that they had made. Set against a backdrop of walls densely-packed with paintings, they hosted the likes of Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Henry Lamb, Marie Rambert, Eric Newton, as well – of course – Stanley Spencer.

The Behrends found creativity exciting and alluring. How else would they have otherwise dealt with what was a fairly complicated relationship with Stanley? They had no formal contract, and endured the ups-and-downs of the process with unfailing good grace. I have recently found some letters written by Mary towards the end of her life in which she comments on the longevity of her relationship with Spencer. It was indeed an exceptional partnership and atypical of the usual patron/artist dynamic; for example, Mary insisted that they did not commission the chapel – rather it was all Stanley’s idea. What has become clear during my research on the Behrends is that by the time the chapel was being created, they were not nearly so well-off as they had been. On the death of his father and uncle, John Louis only inherited one third of the family business. The family were smarting from his conversion to Christianity when he married Mary. In light of this, both ideologically and financially, the chapel was doubly courageous. After the war, the Behrend rice mills were sold and the Behrends lived in considerably straightened circumstances. The chapel became increasingly expensive to maintain, and it was given, with an endowment, to the National Trust in 1947. Their fortune may have dwindled, but they left a far richer legacy in the brave, outlandish and beautiful ‘Holy Box’ that is Sandham.

  •  Amanda Bradley, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Malta: The hospital of The Knights of St. John

The National Trust of Malta- Din l-Art Helwa

When I finally got around to thinking of this blog I read the theme: “The heritage of education” – and was trying to mentally go through the 17-18 odd sites that Din L-Art Helwa (The National Trust of Malta and an INTO member) manages and the 20 other sites and monuments – and could not immediately think of one that had a direct link to education. Then I looked up at a sign in the building I was about to enter– at the Mediterranean conference center – formerly the hospital of The Knights of St. John. The plaque reads in Maltese “The anatomy and surgery school was started in this building by Grand Master Cotoner 19th December 1676”. So, I decided to write this short blog on this building.

malta1The Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitallers or Knights of Malta were set up primarily to provide care for the sick. They came to Malta in 1530 after they had been driven out of Rhodes by Suleiman the Magnificent. Following the Great Siege of Malta (1565) which, though a decisive victory of the knights over the Ottomans saw them almost driven out of Malta, Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Valletta set the wheels in motion for the building of a fortified city. He laid the first stone in Our Lady of Victory Church in 1566 (Incidentally that same church is now being lovingly restored to its former glory by our organisation). Sadly he was not to see the city built as he died in 1568 and was buried in that same church and later moved to the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral  (completed in 1577).

That city was called Valletta in his honour and became the capital city of our country. It was built on a hilly peninsula at the tip of which was Fort St. Elmo. This was land the Ottomans had used to attack the opposite side of Grand harbour, where the Knights were posted during the Great Siege.  The city was built with wide, straight streets, palaces and fortifications (some as high as 47m).

Getting back to our hospital, that hospital was built right there across from Fort St. Elmo at the lower end of Valletta. The first building was started in 1574 but the hospital was extended several times. The main ward was extended during the rule of the Cotoners (1660-66) to an amazing 155m in length – at the time “one of the grandest interiors in the world”. The hospital was also considered to be one of the best in Europe and could accommodate over 900 patients in an emergency.

malta2One of those same Grand Masters founded the School of Anatomy and Medicine in this building in 1676 which was the forerunner of the Medical School at the University of Malta. This same hospital was used by the British Military forces 1800-1920 and Sir David Bruce discovered the germ responsible for Brucellosis here. During World War about a third of the building was destroyed. Finally in 1979 it was reborn as a state of the art conference center which it remains today.  It is open to the public and right across from it one can visit the War Museum, The Malta Experience, and soon, Fort St. Elmo which is being restored. But in Valletta one can barely walk 50m without encountering a historical site, church or monument. The city still feels like the city of the knights in spite of all the offices and shops.

For more information on our organization, Valletta, Malta or this site please visit:





Czech Republic: Casanova, Cottages and a new hope for heritage

The Friends of Czech Historic Buildings, Gardens and Parks

The Friends of Czech Historic Buildings, Gardens and Parks are looking forward to becoming a full member of INTO later this year when the Czech National Trust will have been established. We hope to launch it in the Autumn 2013. In the meantime we are concentrating on raising money to complete the restoration of Giacomo Casanova’s room at the Chateau Duchcov in Northern Bohemia where the notorious libertine wrote his memoirs. A new, full original version is published in France in April 2013 (Laffont, 4 vols) revealing Casanova as a ‘much more complex character than the cliché he has become,’ according to the publisher. Greatly admired by Stendhal, it is believed his last words were: “I have lived as a philosopher; I die as a Christian.” No doubt Casanova’s fans will keep coming to pay their respects and see the place where his adventurous life was quietly, and at the expense of a Bohemian noble, recorded for posterity.


The Mauricovna, or Gardener’s Cottage, at Červený Dvůr has been the focus of our working parties for the past two years but has needed a new roof to secure its future. We have just received a generous donation, which has enabled us to give a grant for the new roof, which should be on within the next few months. This is a tremendous step forward, which will prevent further deterioration and allow the Cottage to have a future as therapy unit for the sanatorium located in the chateau. But there is still a long way to go and further funds are urgently needed.

Ethiopia: Addis Woubet (Beautiful Addis)

Addis Woubet

As a child I had the privilege of growing up in Ethiopia. I was raised in Addis Ababa, which my father often referred to as the jewel of Africa. Over thirty years later I have now returned to Addis to live and work . One of my roles is to provide support to Addis Woubet and to help this charity preserve the familiar architecture and heritage of my own childhood.

Addis Ababa is a thriving metropolis of some 6 million inhabitants and is renown for its diverse mosaic of cultures, religions and traditions. The countries rich and illustrious history has inspired settlers to come from India, Armenia, Greece and Italy and some buildings that remain date back to the time of Emperor Menelik II who founded the city in 1887. This harmoniously balanced mixture of people and heritage has created a vibrant melting pot that makes the city unique.

Addis Woubet is devoted solely to the preservation, conservation and sustainable management of the rich and historical architectural sites contained within the vital capital city of Ethiopia. Addis Woubet was formed in 2005 by Princess Mariam Asfa Wossen and is managed by local and international board members.

photo smallerAddis Ababa still offers both resident and visitor an inspiring sense of history and visually stimulating surroundings. However, sadly, much of the rich architectural history that we took for granted is at stake now. In the name of progress, architecture is constantly changing and is always visible in many forms and shapes. But it is often many years before the true appreciation of what was, has actually already gone and has sometimes been replaced with something more modern. Many architectural wonders have sadly already disappeared from Addis – some were never maintained and crumbled away due to neglect and/or lack of funds to upkeep and maintain during a period of civil unrest in Ethiopia from 1974 until 1991. Others were simply abandoned and left to crumble away and cheaper and more utilitarian buildings replaced them.

Addis Woubet has identified many historically significant buildings in Addis Ababa and has compiled an essential database of Historical Buildings in its determined effort to protect certain historical buildings that are slated for demolition. Ultimately Addis Woubet would like to preserve the Piassa district (one of the oldest parts of the city) and with funding it is possible for some of these old buildings to be restored and revitalized and integrated into modern society, serving the community and educating the young about its past as examples of the cities rich history. However, as Addis continues to rapidly expand, many of these old buildings are being demolished; erecting a new structure on the land is considered more cost effective but with the destruction of an old building, a valuable part of the history of Addis is also disappearing.

photo 1 smallerAddis Woubet is intent on restoring historical buildings to their former magnificence as much as possible and transforming them into modern urban centres highlighting the arts, history and culture for all Ethiopians and visitors to utilise. Although there are many buildings that require funding, current focus is on one specific historical building, which is in dire need of restoration. The Mohammedali House in the Arada (market) district of Addis is a fascinating structure. Built in 1921 for a major Moslem Indian businessman, Mohammad Ali was invited by Emperor Menelik II to come to Ethiopia and establish a salt market and general import and export-trading house. The main house is part of an entire compound of wonderful buildings with exquisite ornamental woodwork and metal work, reflecting traditional architectural elements of India, Harar and Armenia. The architect himself was Armenian. Sadly this unique and historic structure was abandoned in 1975 and suffered severely as a consequence. Upon receipt of vitally needed funding, this renovation project will ultimately become the physical headquarters for Addis Woubet and very importantly provide a concrete example to residents of Addis Ababa, clearly illustrating the value in saving and preserving these historic buildings. The structure should help establish a heightened local awareness of the immeasurable value that there is in preserving its own historic structures.

In order to protect the historical architectural history of Addis, Addis Woubet needs vital and immediate assistance in the way of funding and committed support. There are numerous ways you can help Addis Woubet with critical funding to save many buildings before it is too late. In addition to funding, Addis Woubet would also benefit from the donated services of skilled personnel with specific related experience in preserving and restoring old buildings. Perhaps you are a craftsman such as a stonemason for example and might consider donating your time and services for specific projects based on your particular expertise.

Addis Woubet works with and seeks new partnershis with International and National Organisations such as INTO to promote and preserve not only the architectural history of Addis but its natural history as well.

Please check the website or do email for further information on how to help and receive Addis Woubet information or become a member to support critical and ongoing work.