Kate Frame may be the only Canadian ever locked in the Tower of London. Unlike Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Guy Fawkes, Sir Walter Raleigh and Rudolf Hess, Frame’s incarceration was temporary and voluntary. Frame was, and is, periodically locked in The Jewel House with The Crown Jeweller, to oversee the care and preservation of The Crown Jewels. She isn’t permitted to touch the jewels – that is reserved for The Sovereign and Crown Jeweller – but she does survey the environmental conditions under which they are kept.
Frame is Head of Conservation and Collection Care at the Historic Royal Palaces. Her original title was Head of Conservation Housekeeping. She is responsible for the care and conservation of all interiors and collections – the paintings, murals, sculpture, furniture, giltwood and tapestries – at The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, Banqueting House and Hillsborough Castle. She also oversees the Royal Academy of Needlework, which is responsible for historic and ceremonial garments.
Frame’s job is to straddle the centuries in the utilization of science to preserve history.
Aside from maintenance of the actual palaces is the care of the collections which comprise hundreds of thousands of objects on display in over 700 rooms visited by four-and-a-half million people each year. Those numbers create real concerns about damage caused by moisture, airborne particles and dust.
Adding pressure to the position, 95 per cent of the items on display are the property of Her Majesty, The Queen. Frame has regular meetings with The Queen’s Surveyors, the experts who advise Her Majesty about her collections. “Essentially anything here is in trust to us to preserve. We meet with Her surveyors quarterly. I do a whole series of reports on activities, and we get their support in agreeing to the balance between active use and preservation. So there is a lot of liaison, a lot of permissions, a lot of layers to go through.” Pointing to a chair in a gallery at Hampton Court she said it took 10 weeks to get permission to move it so the sun wouldn’t fade the fabric.
Traditionally, the Sovereign has always had a housekeeper to manage their palaces. Frame’s title carries the conservation moniker because her job involves “all those good housekeeping things that protect collections from physical or environmental damage.”
In frame’s world every action triggers a reaction, whether its the vibration caused by running students on fragile 500-year old tapestries purchased by Henry VIII to keys scraping against wooden doors to dust. Dust, surprisingly, is one of her biggest challenges. She smiles when she explains that after serious consultation with experts they determined the best way to clean giltwood is with a small brush made of the tummy hair of German goats. “Given that these (objects) are hundreds of years old and they’re touched every day by hundreds of bristles we have to minimize that erosion from cleaning by selecting what is determined to be safest.”
Minimizing cleaning damage also extends to studier objects, like brass door knobs. “We could polish them everyday, but we would have no brass knobs left after 100 years. So we just do a light wiping, de-greasing and light waxing. We try to avoid polishing as much as possible.” So five days a week four staffers spend four hours a day gently wiping down thousands of door knobs. And then there’s the issue of how to unlock a door. “We have huge key rings – mine is this big (she positions her hands as if catching a beach ball) – and all the keys bash against (the door). Those are the types of procedures we negotiate with staff. It’s hard for people to be careful. They have to understand what the repercussions are.”
While this seems a bit fanciful and extreme, it’s this attention to detail and long-term vision that landed Frame one of the top three conservation positions in Britain (the National Trust and English Heritage round out the triumvirate). Prior to working for the Historic Royal Palaces, Frame was the head of conservation for Heritage Toronto, responsible for 70,000 artifacts in 17 buildings.
Her pinch-me position came about as sort of a lark. She applied for the position without any real expectation of being considered for it. Toronto conservation colleague and friend, Sandra Lougheed, recalls, “I thought she had a very good chance of getting it. She’s a smart woman, she’s very organized, she works hard, she can manage many things concurrently, she speaks very well, and she can relate information to other people in a really clear easy to understand format.”
That was 20 years ago. First Frame spent a decade working for Heritage Toronto. Her career path which lead Frame to an attic office above the Tudor kitchens at Hampton Court began as a fine art student at the University of British Columbia. During a year studying French at the Sorbonne she was shown the Louvre’s restoration gallery. “There I realized you can actually touch these things. So I then went on this mad campaign to find out how I could get to the point that I was going to be sitting in the Louvre.”
Told the best courses were in Britain, Frame managed to gain admission to the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology. “It was a general object conservation science-based course. We either went to museums and worked on the collections, or we went to archaeology. I did both because it was exciting to do archeology in Greece and Italy, and as the winter came,” she smiles wryly, “I moved more towards museum work” – out of the weather.
Hers is a complex mission because she has to convince layers of bureaucracy to agree to adopting new procedures in ancient settings. The bureaucracy includes the Historic Royal Palaces trustees, English Heritage (which represents the British government’s interests), The Queen’s on-site supervisor, plus Her other surveyors, and the government department which insures the collection. Diplomat is another aspect of her job.
For all the worries of her job, the comic relief comes from those evenings locked in the Tower of London. She does it less now, but early on, once the Crown Jeweller removed the jewels from their display cases Frame has squeezed into a narrow case to clean the interior which is the closest this housekeeper has come to doing windows.