AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Wooden Artifacts Session, Thursday, “Hello Walls Revisited: Conservation Treatment of Eighteenth Century Chinese Lacquer Panels at The Elms –An Update” by Jeff Moore, et. al.

“Hello Walls Revisited: Conservation Treatment of Eighteenth Century Chinese Lacquer Panels at The Elms –An Update”
Talk given by Jeff Moore, Chief Conservator, The Preservation Society of Newport County

Jeff Moore gave a fascinating talk about the conservation project at The Elms to treat three Asian lacquered and one European japanned panels in one room of the mansion in Newport, installed in 1900. The panels have had a long history between their pre-twentieth-century beginnings. They have traveled the world to arrive in Rhode Island, suffered degradation from light, had detached lacquer nailed down (what a sight!), had Western varnishes applied, and suffered degradation anew. Even Urushi repairs were added around the time of the 1900 installation.

The target conservation philosophy was to restore the panels to their 1900 state. A variety of analyses were performed before treatment. More information is available on the website:

A complicated rigging system was designed and implemented to de-install the panels from the walls, the panels were faced, and sleeved cushions were put on the corners for removal and moving to the basement of The Elms. The climate conditions of the original room at different seasons were mimicked during conservation.

Hide glue was selected to adhere the lifting flakes, and moisture and heat were applied to manipulate the lacquer.

One of the challenges of the project was that the panels were 83 inches across, therefore clamping tables with beams spanning the panels were built and the panels laid horizontally. Several shimbari materials were tested, and Moore and his team came up with an ingenious tool: modified quick-grip clamps turned into spreader jacks with a compression spring. Another clever tip: They used copper tubes to surround the syringes in hot water to keep them warm. I confess I’m not sure how this helped, but some polyvinyl alcohol was added to the glue to help it travel further.

Varnish was removed due its jarring blanched appearance. A Pemulen gel with a mixture of solvents (I missed which ones!) were used to remove some of the gel, and was cleared with water at pH 8.5.

Moore’s public outreach is truly impressive. The treatment is part of the “behind-the-scenes” tour at the house museum, and a whopping 10,000 people visit each year. I highly recommend you try to get there before it’s over.