Tourists' polish adds lustre to the history of Hampton Court: Oliver Gillie finds visitors to a royal palace being taught to take a shine to court life above and below stairs
Some 200 yards of oak panelling in the Orangery, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is looking brighter than it has for a long time. Eager visitors have brought a high sheen to the oak, which was installed for William and Mary.
Caroline Allington, housekeeper to Hampton Court and four other royal palaces, is in charge of the public polishing in the Orangery. Under her supervision, cleaning reaches its highest form and becomes conservation.
Visitors who used to be told not to touch can now caress the woodwork at their leisure.
'People can spend half a day polishing if they want to,' she said. 'They are very interested in how we do it but most have had enough after five minutes.'
Dusting and polishing of the royal panels, or the wooden legs of chairs, is not done in the ordinary way with a soft duster. First, dust is removed using a soft brush with natural bristles and a vacuum cleaner. Then polish is put on with one brush and polished with another - the same method that is used for cleaning shoes. Finally the wood is buffed up with a soft duster.
'People are fascinated to learn how we do it. The brush gets into all the cracks and does a much better job,' said Ms Allington. 'The light is reflected off the marble floor of the Orangery and on to the panelling, giving a wonderful effect.'
The public have proved to be extraordinarily keen to learn about the higher reaches of domestic cleaning. At regular demonstrations they are shown how best to polish silver - first flick off dust with a hog's hair brush; how to conserve rusty iron - use grade 20 or 40 wire wool; and how to black-lead grates - wear a mask to stop any inhalation of poisonous lead fumes. After this demonstration the final secret is revealed: the metal must be covered with a thin layer of wax to maintain the bright finish.
While these below-stairs skills are demonstrated in the kitchen, visitors upstairs in the state rooms are shown by guides in period costume how to pose as 18th-century ladies and gentlemen. The men must hold themselves with one leg at right angles to the other - quite different from the square stance of the Tudor gentleman.
Jane Malcolm-Davies, director of Past Pleasures, the company that organises these period guides, is herself dressed as a 'necessary woman', later called housemaids.
She explains how these women, who were very well paid, would curtsy to gentleman with eyes lowered. To look while curtsying was considered flirtatious.
Nicholas Law, dressed as a gentleman of the time of William and Mary (1689-1694), scarcely deigned to notice the necessary woman.
However his ambition as a courtier of that period, he explained, was to become groom to the stool - this very necessary position was the highest position in the palace because it brought the office holder closest to the King. It involved attending the King while he sat on his commode and disposing of the stool.
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