42 Annual Meeting-Joint Session: Paintings and Wooden Artifacts, May 31st, "Modern Materials and Practice in Gilding Conservation", Hubert Baija

Hubert Baija, Senior Conservator of Frames and Gilding, has been responsible for overseeing the conservation of the frame collection at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam since 1990. Numbering over 7000 frames that are now accessioned and inventoried as works of art in their own right, Baija has had the opportunity to treat frames of different styles and condition issues. During his presentation, he discussed three treatments. He emphasized the need for close study and observation of the original materials, understanding the appearance and intended effect created by the frames in their original lighting situations, and choosing reversible materials in a creative way. He noted that a treatment need not be overly involved to successfully reintegrate the gilding.
His first case study was the treatment of a Louis XVI oval frame (1777-89) that was original to the portrait it framed. The discussion addressed the past practice of covering worn gilding with bronze paint, that later had been retoned with a dark glue/pigment layer to match the discolored bronze. These layers significantly altered the intended appearance of the frame, by negating the play of dark, light, and reflectance across the complex surface. Baija demonstrated that by removing the glue and bronze paint layers (using simple solvent mixtures), only a minimal amount of inpainting was necessary to reintegrate the gilded surface. While the improvement to the frame was impressive, the appearance of the painting when displayed in the frame was also significantly improved by the intervention.
Baija’s second example demonstrated his skill as an artisan, his keen observation, and his determined investigation of a little know technique that had previously been overlooked. He stylistically identified a pair of auricular frames carved from lindenwood to c.1660-1665. Both frames had significant worm damage, had lost smaller portions of carved decoration, and were overpainted and overgilded. Only small areas of the original gilding remained intact–between 5 and 30%.
The original gilding was done using a type of mordant gilding that is not known from historical texts and has not been identified before. Using SEM-EDX imaging of cross sections, the technique was characterized: the bare wood was prepared for gilding using a thick glue layer (1 mm Th), followed by a pigmented emulsion layer, to which the gilding was applied.
Noting that the tradition of gilding in the Netherlands had been lost since the 1580s, and that more traditional (and stable) gilding techniques would not be reintroduced to the Netherlands until later in the 17th century by French Huguenots, Baija surmised that this unusual technique was in use—only in the Netherlands–for a relatively short period of time. After his initial characterization of the technique on these frames, he has since identified other examples on Dutch frames and furniture that are stylistically dated to 1650-1680. Because the technique was inherently unstable given the response of the thick glue layer to changes in humidity, many pieces gilded using this technique have subsequently been overgilded.
After cleaning the frames of non-original layers, the carved losses to the wood were reconstructed using paper mâché /methyl cellulose mixture, mixed with water. The material can be handled like clay to buildup the appropriate forms. The paper mâché shrinks slightly, allowing for application of Modostuc finishing layer. Because an isolating layer of Paraloid B-72 had been applied to the original wood surface, the paper mâché fill remains easily reversible. Shallower losses were also filled with Modostuc.
Most creative was Baija’s approach to inpainting to create the illusion of distressed gilding. Noting that the original thick glue layer would only be very slowly soluble in water, gouache was chosen to provide a brown base tone over areas of lost gilding and structural reconstruction. Islands of worn gilding were recreated using mica pigments mixed with Schminke watercolors, masterfully creating the illusion of a worn gilded surface. Final toning was done using ethanol soluble dyes in Mowilith 20. Toning could also be done using Gamblin Conservation Colors, PVA, etc. Coincidently, the dating of the frames was confirmed and the paintings and frames temporarily reunited, when an early 20thC. photograph of the frames paired with their original paintings was identified. The paintings are signed and dated 1661.
In his final example, Baija described an approach to reintegrating an area of loss in the gilding on a panel painting by Lorenzo Monaco, Stigmata of St Francis, c.1420. The area of damage was on a stepped join that was filled using Modostuc and prepared for gilding with acrylic bole from the Kolner system. Baija emphasized the importance of selecting a gold that was the correct color, but lighter in tone than the final appearance needed. He noted that any toning layers/coatings would take away from the intended appearance of the gilding—imitation of solid gold. By simply inscribing the cracks in the newly gilded loss, using horizontal lines to disrupt the vertical disruption of the loss, the gilding was effectively knocked back to the correct tone. Minor glazes to create the effect of dirt in the cracks were then applied.
Each of these treatments demonstrated issues that are common to conservation of gilded objects. Gilded surfaces are often overgilded or painted with bronze paint to recreate the impression of gold. Alternatively, gilded surfaces tend to be toned dark, either to reintegrate corroded bronze paint or to tone back gold that may seem too garish or is disrupted in other ways.
Baija’s approach is one that brings back the appreciation of frames as works of art, rather than as just accessories to paintings. It emphasizes the need to understand the original and aged appearance of the gilding, and to recover what is left of the original. His approach is one that acknowledges the frames—like objects and paintings–should be treated in reversible ways, using conservation materials distinguishable from the original materials. It thereby breaks from the traditional approach of regilding frames using traditional materials and techniques. He encourages the exploration of new materials, the use of reversible layering systems, and acknowledging the patina of time and use. An overall theme of the talk was one of reintegrating the gilding only to the level of the best-preserved area of original gilding.
For those interested in furthering their understanding of gilding and approaches to gilding restoration, Baija teaches two workshops at the Campbell Center in Mt Carroll, Illinois. “Traditional Gilding” and “Gilding Restoration” combine lecture and practical work in the studio. I attended both workshops over the last two summers, and as a result have improved my treatment approach for gilded frames. I highly recommend them.

42nd Annual Meeting- WAG Session, May 31, “Lost for One Hundred Years: The Conservation of a Unique Polychrome Neoclassical Pulpit in Upstate New York” by Alexander M. Carlisle

Alex Carlisle presented a fascinating and detailed treatment of the pulpit in Fort Herkimer Church, German Flatts, New York (http://fortherkimerchurch.org/7.html). The church has a long history; the current structure dates to 1767, with many additions and expansion in war and peacetime.  The pulpit was added in the early 19th century, and seems to be completely unique; it is made from white pine, but nothing is known about the workshop.

Pulpit image: http://www.mohawkvalleymuseums.com/fortherkimerchurch.html
Pulpit image: http://www.mohawkvalleymuseums.com/fortherkimerchurch.html

During a recent, major renovation of the church, white paint coating the pulpit was partially sanded off and discovered to be covering polychrome decoration. At this point, Carlisle was asked to work on the project, to remove the remaining white overpaint and preserve the original polychrome layer. At least one coat of white paint was lead-based, and very intractable; the majority of this was mechanically removed. Fortunately an older resin coating layer was present, and the lead white paint tended to cleave off at the interface.
Once the white overpaint was removed, the remaining original surfaces were consolidated and coated with a barrier layer. Losses in the polychrome ornament were inpainted to re-create the original decorative effect.  So far the base and main section of the pulpit have successfully been treated; the canopy awaits funding to complete the project (keep an eye out for part 3!)

42nd Annual Meeting- WAG Session, May 29, “What Lay Beneath – Revealing the Original Exuberant Painted Decoration of an 18th century Painted Pennsylvania German Shrank” by Scott Nolley and Kathy Gillis

Nolley and Gillis treated a 17th century Pennsylvania German shrank which is a rare example with surviving original painted finish including faux burl wood graining and colorful decorative ornaments.
Shrank is a German word for wardrobe; many such cabinets were made in America by immigrants, using locally available woods. As with other types of furniture, these would sometimes have been faux painted to imitate a fancier wood with more elaborate carving or decoration; grain painting was a common decorative technique. Due to their utilitarian nature, original finishes on early examples seldom survive.
Cross-section analysis showed that the Chipstone shrank did have original paint, but with large areas compromised by fire damage and wear from use. This led to the initial overpainting in the early 19th century, followed by several consecutive paint treatments over the years, including an opaque, gray-blue colored casein based paint. This gray-blue layer proved to be very intractable, particularly over areas that were burned or highly worn. Cleaning solutions with chelators were able to remove the majority; agar gel was used for local cleaning around sensitive areas. Older oil-based coating layers actually acted as a resist to prevent the cleaning from going too far.
Completed with varnishing, waxing, and selective inpainting, the treatment was able to successfully expose original decoration and give a sense of the shrank’s intended appearance.

42nd Annual Meeting- WAG Session, May 29, “Roccoco Drama – Dry Ice Cleaning the Ormolu Mounts of the Augustus Rex Writing Cabinet” by Catherine Coueignoux

Catherine Coueignoux presented an exciting treatment of the Augustus Rex (c.1750) writing cabinet in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum (W.63-1977 http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O74665/writing-cabinet-kimmel-michael/# )
The elaborate ormolu mounts had been previously re-gilded. Before treatment were coated with a thick layer of dirt and dust over a shoe polish-like wax treatment, which was possibly added to dull the appearance of the bright new gilding.  All other metal components were corroded, and the wood and marquetry had all been stripped and refinished. Curators wished the treatment to result in a bright, nearly-new appearance as it may have looked when newly restored (the previous refinishing and regilding probably occurred while owned by the Rothschild family).

The Augustus Rex writing cabinet was made c.1750 for Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, possibly by Michael Kümmel, based in Dresden. The Victoria & Albert Museum acquired the cabinet in 1977.
The Augustus Rex writing cabinet was made c.1750 for Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, possibly by Michael Kümmel, based in Dresden. The Victoria & Albert Museum acquired the cabinet in 1977.

Spotty corrosion on metal components that could not be removed was treated locally where possible. EDTA gel and BCA gels were tested but unsatisfactory- cleaning not enough, or too well. Coueignoux was able to use rottenstone to spot clean dark areas, leaving a layer of light corrosion sympathetic to surrounding areas. In some places, the corrosion spots were left untreated.
The removable ormolu mounts were cleaned using dry ice pellets, a new method for the lab. Their system uses a block of CO2 dry ice which is shaved into pellets and sprayed onto the surface of the object using an air compressor with a custom nozzle. The CO2 pellets expand on contact, providing a gentle mechanical cleaning. By moving quickly along the surface, they were able to avoid excessive cooling that would result in condensation. Acetone and a hairdryer were on hand to remove any condensation that did form. Other labs using CO2 cleaning include the Getty and the Smithsonian.
In the case of the ormolu mounts, CO2 cleaning was fast, safe and effective and removing the unwanted wax and dirt- 150 mounts were cleaned in only seven hours! Obviously this method is not appropriate for many objects and materials, but may be a convenient choice for more conservators in the future.

AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Changing Attitudes Towards Musical Instrument Conservation in Russia

Laurence Libin gave an overview of his impressions of the current state of musical instrument conservation in Russia. He visited St. Petersburg numerous times in the past 15-years and his interactions with museum staff and his knowledge of the history of the region have allowed him to come to some conclusions about musical instrument conservation in Russia.

Musical instruments are made to function and create music, and he sets this function as a rationale for the continued use of the instruments which may lead to their destruction.

He also cites the philosophical doctrine of fatalism, applied to musical instruments, means that the instruments, like people, are resigned to their fate and conservation is a lost cause. There is very little funding in Russian museums and many museum staff hold second or third jobs to make ends meet.

Even with these setbacks, there is a growing interest in musical instrument conservation in Russia and there is respect amongst museum professionals at the craft of the conservator. The ICOM International Committee of Musical Instrument Museums and Collections is helpful at creating appreciation and standards for collections. The speaker was generally positive about the future of musical instrument conservation in Russia.