Special Report

OUEEN of Clean

As the caretaker of royal treasures, Kate Frame helps keep the houses of Windsor well-preserved

IAN CRUICKSHANK February 4 2002
Special Report

OUEEN of Clean

As the caretaker of royal treasures, Kate Frame helps keep the houses of Windsor well-preserved

IAN CRUICKSHANK February 4 2002

OUEEN of Clean

Special Report

Royals

As the caretaker of royal treasures, Kate Frame helps keep the houses of Windsor well-preserved

IAN CRUICKSHANK

Kate Frame feels their presence at night, when she is working late and the mist rising off the Thames River shrouds the Tower of London. Restless spectres—perhaps Henry VI, who was murdered in the Tower in 1471, or the tragic Anne Boleyn, whose husband, Henry VIII, had her beheaded there in 1536. As a guardian of the crown jewels and thousands of other priceless artifacts in the Tower, Frame has daily contact with the march of royal history-a saga that will turn another chapter on June 4, when

Queen Elizabeth II makes her way past the crowds on her way to St. Paul's Cathedral for a thanks giving service marking the 50th anniversary of her accession to the throne. Frame will be

watching closely. "It does feel," the Van couver native says, "like you are just part of the continuum of time." Head of Conservation Housekeeping for the Royal Palaces. Frame's title, which in one form or another stretches back three centuries, carries lineage and authority Not to mention responsibility-she's only too aware that as the anniversary celebra tions gather momentum, the Queen's trea sures will be on display as never before. Walking down a long hallway at Kensing ton Palace, fretting over the wear-and-tear hundreds of thousands of extra tourists will inflict on the buildings under her

care (she hates chewing gum and shoe grit), Frame suddenly stops in front of a 314-year-old painting of one of her prede cessors, Katherine Elliot, a middle-aged woman with piercing eyes and strong hands. "I have some of the keys she used too," she says in a voice filled with awe. In earlier times, the head housekeeper possessed the keys to almost any door in the royal households. Today, as well as the Tower of London and Kensington Palace, Frame is responsible for three other his toric royal palaces, all in the greater Lon don area: Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace and the Banqueting House at

Whitehall. The five sites, maintained by the His toric Royal Palaces trust (which employs Frame), have witnessed momen tous events in British his tory and are now home to an important part of

the Queen's spectacular art collection. Palaces still occupied by the Royal family, including Windsor Castle, are run sepa rately by the Queen's household. Frame has the final word on such mun dane tasks as keeping the floors clean and changing the light bulbs; she can work a mop and pail like a deckhand and dis pense tips on everything from removing water marks to choosing the finest furni ture polish. But the housekeeper moniker is misleading. Frame, who admits to be ing in her early 40s, is actually a world class conservator, combining a knowledge of archeology art history chemistry and

computer science to shield the Queen’s possessions—-jewels, paintings by the likes of Bruegel,

Correggio and Titian, priceless antiques—against the ravages of time. “My main job,” says Frame,

“is to stop the things that could put the objects at risk.”

One of six children raised by a stay-at-home mom and a father who was an engineer,

Frame began her journey to the royal treasure trove as a fine arts student at the University of British Columbia in the late 1970s. While at UBC, she took a year off to study French in Paris. Taking an art restoration tour of the Louvre, Frame was bitten by the conservation bug.

“I was curious about art history and I’ve always loved museums,” she says. “I didn’t like working so I couldn’t imagine getting what I classify as a ‘real’ job, where you have real adult things to do. I thought this would be great fun.”

After graduating from UBC in 1981, Frame went on to the University of London to study conservation. She then returned to Canada and, in the mid 1980s, was hired to head up Heritage Toronto’s new conservation department. A decade later, opportunity came calling again when a conservator friend in Vancouver phoned and said, “Have I got a job for you!” It was London: Frame hurried off her application and, after an interview, received the keys to the kingdom in November, 1998. Now overseeing a staff of 12, Frame has offices in Kensington Palace in central London and another on the outskirts of the city at Hampton Court Palace, which for much of the 16th and 17th centuries was one of royalty’s favourite places (three of Henry VIII’s six honeymoons were spent there).

Although she works in palaces, Frame rarely meets any royalty. Instead, much of her day is spent in meetings, with architectural surveyors, curators, cleaners and the like. Her expertise is wide-ranging: one minute she can be approving the correct adhesives for stabilizing the cracking on gilt wood furniture, the next, planning a computer program to monitor humidity or writing procedures to ensure that guests

attending banquets don’t spill red wine on 16th-century tapestries (under an edict issued by Frame, red wine can now only be served at banquets to people who are seated). “I’d have to say it’s become an allconsuming job,” she says in a tone of both resignation and pride.

Part of her challenge is visitors—millions of them, tracking in dirt, leaving behind chewing gum, as they wind their way through the buildings almost every day of the week. Many are no longer content to stand reverentially behind a velvet rope, she points out; instead, they can be careless around priceless objects. “People are quite informal,” says Frame, momentarily taking on the role of a stern schoolmistress. “They now carry knapsacks and strollers and can knock things over very easily.” Then she laughs, and adds, “But we are happy to have them.”

Her most high-profile annual assignment is assisting in cleaning the crown jewels, which have been on public display in the Tower of London since the 17th century. But one of Frame’s most important projects is the upcoming review of the legendary ceiling canvasses at the Banqueting House—the building is all that remains of the Palace of Whitehall complex affer a fire in 1698. It was the site of a pivotal moment in British history: on

the afternoon of Jan. 30, 1649, King Charles I was led through the Banqueting House to where a window had been removed on the north staircase. With a thou sand subjects looking on from below, the King quietly laid his head on the block and a masked executioner, with one blow of his axe, severed his head, ending the Civil War and temporarily halting the rule of the British monarchy. Today, Banqueting House is remembered not only for Charles's bloody death but also for the ceiling paintings that, in 1630, he commissioned Sir Peter Paul Rubens to paint. "They are some of the most im portant paintings in England," Frame says simply. The nine can vasses-two ofthe largest measure nine by six metres-celebrate the life of James I, Charles's father. Painted in Antwerp be tween 1630 and 1634, they were finally installed in Banqueting

House in March, 1636.

But now there are problems. “The unfortunate thing about these paintings is that they were actually laminated onto plywood in the 1970s,” reveals Frame with a shudder in her voice, explaining that the adhesive material in the plywood might cause rotting over time. But now, removing the paintings could damage them even more. Time—and outdated techniques—are not the only enemy of the royal treasures, says Frame, pointing to moth holes in a pair of floor-to-ceiling drapes at Kensington Palace. “We have a war on pests,” she says, admitting that she prefers mice to moths. “The mice are more controllable.”

Frame says she has regular meetings with the London Fire Brigade—one result of the major blazes that broke out at Hampton Court Palace in 1986 and Windsor Casde in 1992. If a fire were to strike Kensington Palace now, Frame says she has already been given orders about what is to be rescued first. With so much to worry about, it’s perhaps not surprising that Frame, who is single, admits that her own home wouldn’t pass royal muster. “Oh no—I’m a slob and I don't collect any objects,” she says. “I live in a 20th-century flat and am quite happy not working at home.” With five palaces to look after, who can blame her? ED