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Review of 'Gilding: Approaches to Treatment' UKIC Gilding Section Conference

Sophy Wills
Metalwork Conservator, Metals Conservation

A sizeable contingent of conservators from the V&A joined a large audience at the Scientific Societies Lecture Theatre for this conference on 27th September 2000. After a brief introduction by Pam Alexander, Chief Executive of English Heritage, Julius Bryant, Director of Museums and Collections at English Heritage (EH), gave the first talk, looking both at the cultural significance of gilded finishes, and the approaches which EH have taken towards the wide variety of gilded objects in its care. He used the Chiswick tables as an example, discussing how their treatment was affected by aesthetic as well as conservation factors.

Glynis Edwards, Head of Archaeological Conservation at EH followed, with a look at historic treatments of archaeological gilded material, and how the interventive 'cleaning' methods of the 60s and 70s, gave way to much less interventive 'investigation' in the 1990s.  The main reason for this change was that valuable evidence, such as textile remains preserved within corrosion product layers, was being lost when the objects were 'cleaned'.

Andy Mitchell, sculptor and conservator, looked at different approaches to two gilding projects, the figure of Prince Albert from the Albert memorial, and a reproduction of the Tara figure from the oriental collection at the British Museum.  Of particular interest was the preparation of the figures for gilding.  The statue of Prince Albert was coated with several layers of a highly resistant priming paint, so that subsequent weathering would be minimised, while the Tara figure was patinated in order to achieve as exact a colour match as possible to the original's aged appearance.

Paul Tear, Head of Conservation of the Wallace Collection, discussed historical treatments of the decorative balustrade of the main staircase at Hertford House, and how more recent treatments have been developed from past experience. The architect Duncan Wilson returned to the Albert Memorial project, where different corrosion problems associated with gilded areas meant that a variety of treatments were used.  He also talked about the aesthetic factors which came into play, where some originally gilded areas were not re-gilded, in order that the Memorial should present a united and harmonious picture. 

Helen Hughes, Architectural Paint Researcher at EH discussed the significance and status of gilded architectural elements, illustrated with examples from several EH houses. She showed how gilded layers within the strata of a paint sample can be useful as they were usually a top layer, and how gilded elements were generally preserved while surrounding areas were redecorated several times, with the exception of Royal Palaces, where re-gilding was routine. Colin Schlapobersky, a private conservator, discussed his approach using examples from Eltham Palace and two churches.  He stressed the importance of thorough examination of the gilded areas to determine what is the original finish and what is later deterioration, and/or restoration, and the need to accommodate both the client's wishes with personal aesthetic preferences.

Alexandra Kosinova discussed the variety of gilded surfaces encountered by sculpture  conservators at the V&A, including  past treatment approaches and the development of current treatments, including a return to the use of 'traditional' materials, such as isinglass as a consolidant, as well as more 'modern' materials.

Frames conservation was discussed by Louisa Davey from the National Gallery, Sarah Staniforth Advisor on Painting Conservation and Environmental Control at the National Trust (NT) and John Anderson, Head of Frames Conservation at the Tate. All three agreed on the importance of the frame, both as a protective surrounding to the artwork, and as an object in its own right. John Anderson and Laura Davey described studies which illustrated the conservation and curatorial objectives of their respective institutions. 

Sarah Staniforth focussed on the importance of preventative measures, and also on documentation, which is being used by the NT to develop an overall conservation strategy. Christine Powell of the V&A also talked about time constraints related to the conservation of gilded objects for the new British Galleries. She emphasised the collaborative approach necessary for this large project, where as photography deadlines and reinstallation schedules are balanced against curatorial and conservation priorities.

The last two papers returned to more specific conservation challenges. Dave Gribbin of EH described the analysis and research undertaken prior to conservation of the Chiswick tables, although budget and time factors were also mentioned as a factor in the choice of treatment regime. Finally Jill Dunkerton of the National Gallery dealt with the problems of gilded areas on panel paintings, their deterioration and treatment methods.

The audience heard many speakers from different institutions and private practice, and it was very interesting to compare the 'approaches to treatment' and find both differences and similarities in attitude and practice.  The post-prints to this excellent conference are available next year.