Blog & Projects

Cleaning Alabaster - Eton College Chapel

A few month’s ago we had the great pleasure of cleaning two beautifully carved effigies in the chapel at Eton College. Both of the effigies are part alabaster, so we thought we'd take the opportunity to talk a little about how to care for this special stone.

Although alabaster resembles marble in many ways, it is actually much more fragile. (One of the distinguishing characteristics of alabaster is its traslucence.)

The most important vulnerability to be aware of is that alabaster is water-soluble. Steam cleaning (a common method for cleaning marble) would devastate an alabaster statue. So firstly, and most importantly, never use water (or water based solutions) to clean alabaster.

Alabaster is also soft. This softness, along with the stone’s appealing aesthetic properties, have made it attractive to stone carvers for centuries, however it also makes it vulnerable to scratching. Some types of alabaster are so soft they can be scratched with a fingernail. It is therefore very important to never use anything abrasive. 

Dusting alabaster regularly is essential to prevent dirt becoming engrained. Dusting should be carried out using a soft brush. (Do not dust with a cloth, as this can push the dirt into the stone.)

More intense cleaning can be carried out using conservation foam erasers and certain solvents. Intense cleaning should only be carried out by conservation trained persons. It is all too easy to cause inadvertent damage, particularly to carved areas. 

(All these photos are from our project at Eton College chapel. Some pictures show alabaster and some other types of stone. The large upright statue above is made of marble, hence the steam cleaning!)

As you can see from these photographs Eton College Chapel is a very special place; full of beautiful objects and wonderful history. If you are ever offered the opportunity to visit, don't pass it up! 


The House of St Barnabas, Soho

Working in conservation naturally means a great deal of the objects and interiors we clean are old. But not all. Contemporary works of art require the same care as older pieces if they are to look their best and be preserved.


Inner Temple Library







We’ve recently finished a very interesting and enjoyable project for the Inner Temple Library, cleaning a collection of 25,000 books in the library’s archive.


Eltham Palace - Re-opening

You may have heard that Eltham Palace is about to re-open to the public after a major £1.7m refurbishment.

This stunning historic property, located in Eltham near Greenwich, has a rich and varied history, and English Heritage’s new exhibitions and visitor experiences are set to really bring the site to life.


Preparing Dog Collars for Exhibition at Leeds Castle

Last year we were very pleased to assist in preparing part of Leeds Castle’s famous dog collar collection for exhibition. Their collection spans five centuries and contains over 130 dog collars – ranging from the extremely ornate and beautiful, to the down right fearsome. The sixteenth-century German spiked iron collars are truly something to behold!


Royal Academy of Music - Picture Frame Cleaning

Recently we had the privilege of cleaning 26 beautifully carved gilt frames at The Royal Academy of Music near Regents Park in London.   


Cleaning the Great Halls at Audley End & Eltham Palace

Earlier this year we were asked to carry out a couple of cleaning projects at two of the south of England's most notable historic houses; Audley End in Essex and Eltham Palace in Greenwich. 


Cleaning a Marble Statue of Dr Hunter

We were very honoured recently to be asked to clean the statue of Dr Hunter at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The statue is much loved, being of Dr John Hunter - the famous 18th century scientist and surgeon for whom the Hunterian Museum and the Hunterian Society are named.








Helping to care for Kenwood House

If you've ever had building works at your home, then you'll know that builders = dust. Of course, building dust occurs wherever works have been going on, including beautiful and historically significant properties which have been undergoing restoration work.


Training Museum Volunteers

We have recently started providing training in Preventive Conservation (conservation cleaning & housekeeping) for museum volunteers and facilities staff working in historic buildings .

(This is Christopher training volunteers at Hall Place, near Bexleyheath.) 



Decorative Plasterwork: Dust, Dirt & Stain Removal

If you've ever cleaned the top of cupboard, or high bookshelf, you'll know that just because things are high off the ground, doesn't mean they don't get dirty. Anything with a surface horizontal enough to stop a particle of dust or pollution from falling, will, over time, build up a layer of dirt. Decorative plasterwork is a case in point. 


Beautiful mouldings in plaster have been used for centuries to decorate the interiors of rooms - particularly on high walls and ceilings - however just like surfaces closer to the ground, plasterwork needs to be cleaned to remain looking its best.


Chandelier Cleaning

Cleaning chandeliers is one of our very favourite things to do. We do not use sprays - which leave a residue and can be very damaging - but rather each crystal is very gently cleaned by hand. Although it is meticulous and often painstaking work the results are always so lovely and satisfying. A newly cleaned chandelier is not only utterly beautiful itself, but it also completely transforms the look of a whole room.

At Virtu we always clean chandeliers in situ. If a chandelier is not too dirty, then brush vaccing (with a museum brush vac machine) followed by gentle polishing with microfiber gloves is the best and least invasive method of cleaning. Greasy or layered dirt however requires more intense treatments.

We were recently asked to clean a number of lead crystal and blown glass chandeliers which were really quite dirty – a cloudy film of greasy dirt was covering each crystal – so in this case we used de-ionized water mixed with a very small amount of conservation grade detergent to clean off the dirt. Each crystal was cleaned by hand and then polished using microfiber gloves. 



Accessing chandeliers can be challenging. For our recent project we used 'Lift Pods'. These handy machines are great because they allow for such easy movement around the chandelier. 


Some chandeliers can be turned while cleaning, and others cannot. Knowing whether you can turn your chandelier is VERY IMPORTANT. (There are some very unfortunate stories of chandeliers crashing to the ground after being unwound from their fitting by people replacing light bulbs. Always be extremely careful.)


Cleaning a Collection of Marble Busts

No matter how smooth it's appearance, the thing about marble is that it is porous. And those tiny holes mean that dirt can easily become embedded in the stone. This causes discoloration overtime – like in the first photo – and cannot be removed with regular dusting.








One of our recent projects was cleaning a collection of 18th & 19th century marble busts; so in this blog we thought we'd explain a little about how we went about it. 

There are various ways of cleaning marble. 'Wet' methods include the use of detergents, spirits, poultices and steam, but because the stone is porous these all carry risks and are invasive. The use of liquid Latex is also effective, however it widely considered overly invasive because the results often make the marble look too clean and new. 'Dry' cleaning is the least invasive method – and as you can see above the results can still be quite remarkable.


The Hobbit & Caring for Rare Books revived....

As the film The Hobbit continues to pack cinemas around the country, and attention is again focused on JRR Tolkien's extraordinary works, it seems like an apt time to revive one of our first blogs; Caring for Rare & Valuable Books.


In our original blog, we talked about a client of ours who wanted his collection of rare books cleaned and protected, and we explained how we went about this.


In an interesting aside, we actually recently cleaned and boxed a few additions to this client's collection, including two letters from Tolkien himself to a "Mr Jackson" regarding a stage production of The Hobbit. How cool is that! Maybe Peter Jackson would be pleased to know that a namesake and fellow "back-room boy of the drama" actually got to correspond with the great man.


More photos of the letters are on our Facebook page. 


Click here to read the original blog.



Cleaning & Protecting an Original London Underground Sign

Ever wondered just how dirty a London Underground sign becomes after years of hanging on the side of a tunnel? Well let me tell you. Pretty darn dirty.

This original sign (recently purchased by our client at an auction and destined to be displayed outdoors in his garden) arrived looking fairly clean on its front side; but on the reverse– as you can see – there was extremely thick layer of original London Underground grime. (There is grime, and then there is proper Dickensian grime, and this – I can assure you – was proper grime.) Unsurprisingly therefore, our first task in preparing this sign was to clean it thoroughly; and as the sign was enamel, this task was pretty straightforward i.e. mild detergent, warm water and a soft cloth. It took a while – and considerable elbow grease - but it came up a treat!



Why Humidity is so important to Antique Furniture

We have mentioned this subject before on this blog; however as Autumn is now very much upon us - and therefore so is central heating – and knowing the terrible damage which can occur through neglect of this issue, it seems right to revisit it, and impress again on all you owners of antique furniture, the importance of humidity.


This lovely little antique satinwood table used to live in a period property; and did so, very happily, for many years. Last summer the owner moved to a modern house, and by April of this year this is what had happened.


Basically, a combination of better building insulation and central heating conspired to parch the wood of moisture, and caused the warping and cracking you can see in these photographs.



Helping to clean Eltham Palace: One of London's Greatest Architectural Treasures


Built by the Courtauld family in the 1930s, Eltham Palace is not only an Art Deco architectural masterpiece, but it is built on the grounds of Henry VIII's childhood home, and as such combines original Tudor structures with stunning early 20th century design in a truely dramatic and beautiful mix of the Medieval and Modern.

 From the palace's stunning Rolf Engströmer designed entrance hall and Virginia Courtauld's gold plated bathroom, to the restored Tudor banqueting hall and original moat bridge, this extraordinary place is quite truly a 'one off' and a wonderful place to visit and experience.


Conservation Cleaning at Down House; the Historic Home of Charles Darwin






Just like all homes, historic houses need regular cleaning; and because of the amount of visitors they have (the more foot traffic, the more dirt) keeping interiors and collections clean is a constant concern.

At English Heritage's Down House – Charles Darwin's remarkable Kent home – the challenge is even greater, because not only is it one of the most popular visitor attractions in the South East (i.e. lots of foot traffic), but the Darwins' personal belongings are displayed just as they would have been when the family lived there.



Helping to care for the Werhner Collection (The Magnificent Decorative Art Collection of Julius Werhner - founding member of the De Beers's Diamond Company)


Have you ever taken a tour around Ranger's House in Greenwich? This stunning 18th century Georgian Villa, and magnificent fine art collection - amassed by a founding member of the De Beer's Diamond Company -  is one of London's finest collections of European decorative arts, and a hidden jewell of South London. 


We were very pleased to recently assist in the conservation cleaning of this collection.



Maintaining & Displaying Tapestries and Wall Hangings

All textiles are susceptible to environmental damage, and wall hangings and tapestries are particularly vulnerable because they are often displayed without protection. Pests, UV light and inappropriate hanging are three of the most important things to watch out for.

Pests are attracted to dust and dirt and will eat natural fibres, so keeping tapestries and wall hangings clean is a priority. The best way to clean textiles is with a museum brush vac (MBV) and textile netting, which allows dust and dirt to be gently sucked away without causing damage. Generally this type of conservation cleaning should be carried out every one to two years, depending on the location of the hanging. (If a hanging is located in a high foot traffic area then it should be cleaned more frequently.) Regularly check all tapestries and wall hangings for any signs of pests, and using a museum trap to monitor insect activity is advisable.




Antique Tortoiseshell, Ivory, Bone & Mother of Pearl: Cleaning and Storing

Although tortoiseshell, ivory and many types of bone, are rightly no-longer used in the manufacture of decorative items, for many centuries their beauty and malleability made them highly sought after materials for decorating everything from jewellery to furniture.

Ivory was used to make umbrella handles, piano keys and billiard balls, as well as being carved to make decorative figurines and used as inlays in furniture. Tortoiseshell was popular in the manufacture of hair combs and boxes, but was also more recently used to make guitar picks and glasses frames. Mother of pearl is still used to make jewellery and as an inlay, and some types of bone are still popular in the manufacture of knife handles and other decorative items.


Interview with David Lilly: Founder of Simply Stained Glass


David Lilly is a renowned restorer, designer and manufacturer of stained glass, and the founder of Simply Stained Glass He is an expert in the care and restoration of both historic and modern stained glass, and in this interview provides some invaluable tips regarding conservation and maintenance, as well as discussing a few of his interesting projects. 



Westminster Review Article

 We were recently featured in the Westmister Review. Please click the image below to read the full article. (Image courtesy of


Caring for Silver: Do's and Don'ts

Silver is a soft metal; it is easily dented, scratched or damaged. Always take care when handling it.

Touch your silver pieces as little as possible as fingerprints accelerate tarnishing.

All silver exposed to air will tarnish over time. Sulphur compounds - mainly hydrogen sulphide in the atmosphere – react with the metal and cause the surface to darken. Certain substances, however, cause tarnish to develop more quickly; these include wool, newspaper, rubber, paint, velvet, carpet padding and felt.



Storing Vintage Clothing

London Fashion Week is upon us, and over the coming days we will surely be wowed by the cutting-edge clothes on our capital's catwalks. This week is naturally about what's new in fashion; however, vintage clothing is also a passion for many people, and the desirability and collectability of vintage clothes has grown steadily over recent years.


Just like other fragile and delicate objects, clothing will deteriorate if not cared for properly, so below are a few tips on keeping vintage garments in good condition.



Looking after Decorative Ceramics

Our head conservation housekeeper's top three tips for looking after your decorative ceramics.


Firstly, in terms of display, try to avoid placing ceramics in high foot traffic areas, as this increases the likelihood of breakages. Displaying items behind glass will help keep them clean, and using museum wax to secure the base of a piece will stop it moving or sliding on a shelf.

Secondly, in regards to picking up decorative ceramics, if possible, always wear non-slip museum gloves to provide good grip. Remove any separate parts first (such as a lid), and avoid picking up pieces by their handles – which sounds counterintuitive, but handles are often fragile and can be weak. You should always pick up an object up by its most solid part, and of course use two hands.

Finally, when cleaning ceramics, the best way to do this is to dust it gently with a microfiber cloth, using a small soft brush for intricate or detailed areas. Do not use water unless the piece is glazed and you are absolutely sure there are no cracks, as water will seep through and cause damage. If you do use water, gently drying the object with a cool hairdryer is a good way to dry it safely. (If you are not sure how to clean an item, always seek professional help.)


Antique Furniture and Central Heating

When the weather is cold, we all naturally turn up our central heating. We humans may enjoy living in a toasty warm house, but unfortunately your antique furniture probably finds this time of year a bit of a challenge.

Changes in temperature – and the drying effect of central heating – both cause problems for furniture and hasten their general deterioration. Structural weakness in joints occurs because wood glue breaks down faster in dry, warm conditions, and surface cracks become more likely because of changes in humidity.

Putting wooden furniture directly next to a heat source will often cause veneers to lift off, and even lead to wood warping and buckling.

So at this time of year do spare a thought for your furniture and follow the recommendations below.

• Don't put antiques directly up against radiators (or if this is unavoidable, keep the temperature of that radiator as low as possible.)

• Rotate furniture around the room every few weeks.

• Try to maintain as constant a temperature as possible, and avoid fast changes from hot to cold, or vice versa.

Cleaning Antique Furniture: Dust Cementation

Last week we were asked to clean a number of lovely Georgian antiques at a beautiful home in the Oxfordshire countryside. Well looked after, the pieces were in fine condition; however years of simple domestic dusting had allowed dirt to build up in the corners, carvings, and grooves of the pieces, and this had started to concern our client.

                                                      This build up of dust over time is known in the conservation industry as DUST CEMENTATION (seen here as light grey - top, and dark grey/black - bottom). Although it is extremely common, it is an issue that any conscientious antique owner or collector needs to be aware of because not only can it detract from an object's beauty, it can also lead to physical damage over time.

Dust cementation causes physical problems in two main ways. Firstly it attracts moisture - which can lead to damage occurring to the original varnish (and eventually to the wood underneath) - and secondly it provides a perfect breeding environment for pests, such as woodworm; making the likelihood of an infestation much more likely.

With the right equipment and knowledge, removing dust cementation is relatively straightforward, but it is also quite time consuming. The dust is compacted and hard and needs to be gently removed layer-by-layer. Conservation cleaners will either simply use a small hog's-hair brush to gradually brush each layer away, or they will sometimes use Renaissance Museum Wax which helps quicken the removal process. (Conservation cleaners will often use Renaissance Museum Wax in museums, however we do not recommend that it be used by anyone who is not trained in Conservation Housekeeping as it can cause damage if not applied properly.)

Once we had cleaned each of our client's antiques inside and out, we advised them not to use any cleaning products on the         objects in future, and instead provided a museum approved microfiber cloth for them to be dusted with. We also provided a small hog's-hair brush for cleaning those areas where dust cementation had previously occurred, which should prevent further problems.













Caring for Rare and Valuable Books

We were recently asked to have a look at a collection of seven first edition Tolkein books for a client in London. The books were in good condition and were stored adequately well - behind glass and along an internal wall - however the owner was anxious about their exposure to UV light (which passes through ordinary glass) and the possiblity of damage from insects.