by Kate Aughey and Manami Shinagawa
One of the most eagerly awaited and talked about projects currently underway in the Furniture Department is the conservation of an 18th century Italian carved gilt pier table belonging to The Wallace Collection in London. As one of a pair, the project provided an exciting opportunity to collaborate with The City and Guilds of London Art School, with one table undergoing treatment there while its counterpart arrived at West Dean. Hans Thompson, a final year conservation student, took the lead on the City and Guilds table, while Manami Shinagawa is heading up the West Dean project. Jürgen Huber, the senior conservator at The Wallace Collection, is overseeing both projects and liaising with everyone involved to ensure that the tables undergo similar treatment.
One of the most obvious losses detracting from the appearance of the West Dean table was the missing ox skull or bucranium on the proper right side. This absent carving left an unsightly gap in the gilt decorating and it was decided that a replacement should be carved, gilded and toned to match the surviving carvings. Luckily, the central bucranium on the proper left side was in tact and could be used as a reference.
The decorative motifs adorning the table are very typical for its date (approximately 1770), reflecting the neoclassical fashion for imagery derived from Ancient Greece and Rome. These tables originate from Rome and it is therefore likely that they were created to satisfy the demand for classically inspired pieces, created by the influx of young aristocrats embarking on the "Grand Tour". The term bucranium refers to an ox skull, accompanied by festoons or swags and represents the sacrificing of garlanded oxen, ancient practice dating back to the earliest Neolithic settlements. This motif, common in the classical architectural friezes of Doric Temples, was later appropriated and incorporated into the neoclassical style. The acanthus leaves, swags and paterae are also motifs prevalent in 18th century design.
The first step in replicating this carving was the taking of measurements from the surviving bucranium on the opposite side. A scale model could then be sculpted in clay, providing a reference that could be compared to the new carving at each stage of its production. The fragility of the gilded surface meant that handling of any of the original carvings had to be kept to a minimum and so the clay model was used as a reference.
The clay model was then used to mark the outline of the motif onto a block of solid lime wood. A loose bucranium from the proper right front corner provided a glimpse of the timber used for the original carvings, however a thick layer of paint made it very difficult to identify definitively. Although the table is described as having a pine substrate, it is possible that the carvings were made in a different wood and visible grain suggested something finer than pine. It was therefore decided that lime could be chosen as a suitable substitute.
Once the design had been marked out, the outline could be cut out on the band saw and the block glued to a plywood board. Diluted PVA was used to attach the block to the board and keep the piece from moving around during carving; a layer of paper in between the carving and board helped to separate the two when structural work was complete. The plywood board was then screwed to a swivel vice to give a degree of manoeuvrability during the carving process.
First, all square edges had to be taken off with a large carving gouge and mallet, leaving all the high points untouched. Measurements taken from the original carving and the clay model were referred to throughout to ensure that the high and low points were maintained at the correct depths. The majority of the carving work was carried out using three 'U' shaped carving gouges.
The final stage involved sanding back the surface of the wood and paring any areas that needed reducing in height or width. Sanding with a relatively coarse silicon carbide paper removed any tool marks and a finer grit paper could then be used to leave a flawless surface ready to be water gilded. A small 'V' shaped gouge or 'veiner', was used to carve the final details.
The carving was then passed on to Manami Shinagawa for gilding. First the highlights were built up with a gesso putty-a mixture of whiting (calcium carbonate) and rabbit skin glue-and the surface cut back with sandpaper until smooth. Several coats of gesso were applied and polished until smooth.
Coloured boles (clays mixed with animal glue) were applied according to the original gilded decoration. Pink bole all over, then grey bole for the highlights. The bole provides a suitable surface for when the gold is burnished and also provides depth to the gold.
The gold leaf was then applied using a squirrel hair tip. The surface was wetted using gilder's water (water with a small amount of rabbit skin glue size for adhesion and alcohol to improve wetting).
After gilding, the gold leaf was distressed using a piece of silk cloth to wear away the gold.
Finally the gilding was toned to match the original using watercolours, rottenstone and earth pigments. The tone was matched to one of the smaller detached bucranium from the table (left).