Natasa Morovic, Conservator of Frames and Gilded Surfaces at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), addressed the conference theme Practical Philosophy, or Making Conservation Work in her presentation of the immense gilding project undertaken over 16 months in an 18th-century period room, the Salon Doré, at the Legion of Honor.
The Salon Doré was designed as a receiving room for guests in the Hôtel de La Trémoille (a family mansion) in Paris, but has since existed in six different locations and seven re-configurations. The Salon was donated to FAMSF in 1959 by the Richard Rheem family (of HVAC fame) and first displayed at the Legion of Honor in 1962. The room was reinstalled in 1996 as a ‘paneled environment’; that is, without its ceiling, window, doors, or floor. The original parquet floor was sold in the 1990s. Indeed, museum period rooms in this era often served as backdrops in which to display French objects and furniture not specifically related to the rooms’ histories. The re-presentation of the Salon Doré in 2012-2014 sought to revise this approach.
The Salon was returned from a rectangular to a square format based on original floor plans. A second 18th-century parquet floor, coved ceiling, windows, furniture, and new lighting were installed. Meanwhile, Natasa’s team was responsible for the conservation of the Salon’s gilt white oak paneling, or boiserie, including five dedo panels, four doors, four cornices with cast plaster ornaments, and high relief linden wood detailing.
Two hundred separate sections of gilt wood were deinstalled and relocated to an adjacent gallery turned temporary conservation lab, in view of the public. Visitors were thrilled to see the work in progress, remarking “you are our favorite exhibit!” iPad didactics introducing the conservation treatment steps and illustrating the Salon’s epic history were available in the galleries (see a preview here and don’t miss the French accent in the Kid’s Corner).
A dozen gilders, conservators, technicians, architects, electricians, and a master carver worked in the open lab daily. Accommodation of all the large paneling, work benches, and people within a tight space was challenging. All treatment steps had to be executed simultaneously due deadlines, with no running water and limited electrical. Gilding efforts were impacted by dust from the adjacent construction area, which quickly settled on the prepared surfaces, and drafts that caused the gold leaf to fly.
The condition of the Salon’s carving and gilding was extensively compromised by the room’s repeated moves, resulting in differing surface finishes as well as mold damage. Two gilding and inpainting campaigns were present: water gilding over orange-red bolle over gesso, water gilding over dark red bolle over new gesso, as well as brass powder and acrylic inpainting.
The treatment objective sought to preserve as much historic surface as possible. No aqueous solutions were used during surface cleaning so as not to interrupt the water gilding. Natasa received several questions after the talk on what materials were used. Here are the particulars: shellac coatings were removed with ethanol poultices, overpaint and soiling were removed with acetone:ethanol mixtures, and paint stripper was sparingly used in tenacious areas of oxidized brass powder paint. Flaking gesso was consolidated with <25% Paraloid B-72 in acetone:ethanol. Flügger was used for small fills, over which traditional gesso and gilding was applied.
Larger wood fills were freshly carved, based off of existing ornaments in the room, and water-gilded so as to replace ‘like with like’ (though it is acknowledged that oil-gilding would have sped up the process). The majority of fills were gilt before attachment; however, in situ re-gilding, or in-gilding, was done where necessary to match adjacent surface conditions.
In total, $22,000 of gold leaf (11,500 leaves) and 27 gallons of acetone were used during the campaign. The result is a glowing re-presentation of the Salon Doré’s opulence, reflecting – quite literally, due to the mirrors, rock-crystal chandeliers, and gleaming gilding- its importance as one of the premier examples of French Neoclassical interior architecture in the United States.
(A quirky review of the Salon project with working images can be found here).