Ever tried to touch up damaged areas of an ornate gilded frame using papier mâché and a pot of gold paint? I have, and can confirm that it isn’t worth the effort. Not only does it fail to replicate the character of carved ornament and the surface texture and sheen of true gilding, but it can do further physical damage. And it looks terrible.
The process by which objects, such as mirror frames, architectural detailing, furniture, heraldry and inscribed panels are carved and gilded requires highly specialised skills. One firm that has built up a considerable reputation in these two closely allied crafts is Carvers and Gilders, which was founded by four art-school graduates in 1979. Based in London, the workshop carries out mostly conservation work, treating highly carved and decorated fine furniture and mirror frames, many of which have suffered deterioration due to modern environmental conditions. Overheating causes timber to shrink and glue to become brittle so that carved detail breaks off and gilding delaminates.
Conservation projects range from stabilising and securing original fabric with minimal intervention, to carrying out structural repairs, adding missing elements or replacing previous badly carved repairs, removing later layers to reveal original detail and restoring gilded surfaces. Where necessary, timber affected by woodworm and other damage is also treated. Carvers and Gilders investigates and researches historical pieces, carries out condition surveys and provides general advice. The firm also designs, carves and gilds new pieces, sometimes in collaboration with a client perhaps using an historic example as a model (although rarely copying something outright) or producing something entirely original.
Lucy Bunning joined the workshop in 2002, having specialised in conservation of carving and gilding at the City and Guilds of London Art School. ‘When replacing lost detail,’ she says, ‘it is important to recapture the virtuosity of the original; as a restorer, I’ve got to be able to turn my hand to the individual styles of former carvers.’ Where possible, the material used matches the original ‘pine or limewood is most common for wood carving. We work less in composition, but when restoring a piece this material we cast from an original detail, or, if later layers have obscured the crispness, we take a mould from a newly carved replica.’
The workshop specialises in the two main techniques of water gilding and oil gilding, as was practised in ancient Egypt. The former requires greater preparation and is more difficult and labour intensive, but can produce a superior, livelier finish. It involves applying several layers of gesso to give a smooth base, followed by a layer of gold size. Then come one or two thin coats of bole (coloured clay mixed with size) to provide a soft cushion for the burnishing and subtly contribute to the final tone of the gilding. Loose gold leaf is applied to the surface with
a very weak size in water and, when dry, the surface is selectively burnished.
Oil gilding cannot be burnished, so it tends to give an overall more matte effect, but is quicker and more economical to do, and can be applied to larger areas at a time. An oil based size is applied to the gesso and, when almost dry but still tacky, the gold leaves are dropped onto it. Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, Uppark and Harewood House are among the historic buildings for which Carvers and Gilders has done significant work.
Recent projects include Queen Charlotte’s state bed, the font from a parish church, and a boldly carved 18th-century mirror from a private collection, which is being consolidated and repaired. Lucy is designing and carving a replacement for its missing crest.
Carvers and Gilders Ltd 020?8870 7047; www.carversandgilders.com
Do not subject gilded work to fluctuations in temperature/humidity. Keep it away from radiators and direct sunlight
Clean as little as possible using only an extremely soft brush, if necessary. Water gilding in particular will be removed by damp or wet cloths
Wear protective gloves when touching gilding, to avoid handling marks and damaging the surface
Hare & Humphreys: 020?7833 8806; www.hare-humphreys.co.uk
Judy Wetherall: 01293 775024
Arnold Wiggins (picture frames):020?7925 0195;www.arnoldwiggins.com
W. Thomas Restorations, Gloucestershire: (020?7627 4001; www.thomasrestorations.com)
Curtis Bran, Warwickshire: 01789 459276; www.curtisbran.com