Follow our Head of Furniture Conservation, Zoe Allen and Museum Technician, Phil James on their fascinating journey to restore an 18th-century chair made specially for the private apartment of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.
The chair is part of a suite of furniture made for Marie Antoinette, consort to Louis XVI and Queen of France until her death in 1793 during the French Revolution. It was made in 1788 for her private apartment, the Cabinet Particulier, in the Palace of Saint-Cloud near Paris, by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené (1748 – 1803), and was painted and gilded by Louis-François Chatard (about 1749 – 1819). Sené and Chatard were principle chair makers and gilders to Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette, who was well known for her lavish, extravagant tastes.
The chair, one of a pair in our collection, arrived at the Museum in 1956. It had been re-gilded, over-painted in a greyish blue and re-upholstered several times, most recently with a blue swagged fabric in the 1970s. The rest of the suite is held in various locations: one chair is on display at the Louvre, another is in a private collection. A fire screen, a lit de repos (daybed) and a bergère (enclosed armchair), are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where major research into this suite of furniture recently took place. They found evidence that the suite had, in fact, originally been upholstered with hand-embroidered white fabric featuring a floral pattern. It's believed that Marie Antoinette herself embroidered her initials on the fire screen, which also retained the original fabric.
In 2015, in light of the discoveries made in New York and prior to the chair's display in our Europe 1600 – 1815 galleries, we decided to undertake new conservation treatment, mainly to remove the blue over-paint and re-upholster with a more historically accurate fabric.
The gilding on the chair was watergilded, combining both matt and burnished (polished) areas. While not original, the gilding was in good overall condition, with some flaking and surface dirt. The surface needed to be consolidated (laid back in place) with diluted rabbit skin glue, which was applied beneath the flakes and carefully re-stuck. Upholstery tacks had crushed the crisp gilded moulding on the edges adjacent to the upholstery. All damaged areas to the gilded edges were carefully filled and gilded to re-instate the crisp moulded step. Dust, which had become embedded on the surface and detracted from the chair's fine carved detail, was carefully removed in the process.
Replacing the lost cresting
There were several losses to the chair's carving, the most obvious being the missing section in the cresting above Marie Antoinette's initials. With a view to making a copy, we examined the rest of the suite to see if any of the other chairs still had this area intact. The only chair with the cresting still intact was that in the Louvre – however closer inspection revealed that its carving was quite different in style. Each piece in the suite was hand carved, so it couldn't be expected that any two elements would be identical.
We will never know exactly what that missing element looked like, so the most sensible option seemed to be to make a mirror image of the surviving section. A mould and cast was made from the surviving area, this was then scanned, 'reversed', and 3D printed. A mould was made of the printed piece and recast in an inert material, which was finally gilded and toned to match the original.
The chair legs
When we examined the rest of the suite at the Metropolitan Museum of Art we discovered that the bottom of the chair leg originally had a twisted rope ornament above a small bun at the base. This detail was entirely missing on our chair, which had castors fitted at some point, and its carved feet chiselled away. In light of this discovery we were able to remove the castors and make new feet for the chair, recreating the rope ornamentation.
Re-upholstery of the chair arms
We employed Xavier Bonnet of Atelier Saint-Louis, Paris, an authority on historic upholstery, to re-upholster the chair. As well as damaging the gilding, previous re-upholstery had severely damaged the structural wooden frame, so re-introducing new nails at this stage was not an option.
We needed to find a method of upholstering the chair without nailing directly into the wooden frame. The process had to be easily removable and reversible, while allowing the upholsterer to work in a traditional way. While other institutions have come up with different ways of doing this, the methods described here are possibly partly unique to the V&A.
In order to recreate the historically correct upholstery shapes, a firm attachment was needed to withstand the tension of the different stuffed forms. The structures for the arms needed to be made of a flexible material that could be shaped over their compound curved shapes – they had to retain their shape and not deform during upholstery. Resin-bonded carbon fibre, which is durable and has been used elsewhere for similar work, was not suitable here because the arms are slightly pinched-in where the bare wood meets the gilded moulding, and it would have been too stiff to easily remove and put back without risking damage to the wood. The bonding process is also unpleasant, requiring a controlled restricted environment, and you really only have a limited time to get it right.
We experimented with several different materials and found that buckram fabric – a cotton or linen material – saturated with wheat-starch paste (also used for making textile and costume supports), could be easily shaped over the arms. Built up of several layers and clamped tightly in place, once fully dry it would be just flexible enough to be repeatedly removed and replaced without deforming. The process is non-hazardous, is not time-critical, can be done anywhere and, if necessary, the dried structures can be wetted and re-worked.
The arm was prepared with cling film which acts as a separator. The linen fabric was then saturated with wheat starch paste and layered onto the arm. Once fully dry, a flexible form was created that could be removed and replaced without deforming. Dried and trimmed forms with shaped wooden supports were then ready to be covered with the next layers of linen. Poplar wood was chosen as it is a close-grained wood that will hold the upholsterer's tacks.
The padded former was filled with horse hair. There is a 5mm pocket around the formers' edges to allow the upholsterer to sew the cover to the buckram base.
Re-upholstery of the chair back
The bare back of the chair needed another structure to support the upholstery. The shape of the chair back includes compound curves and is not symmetrical. And so a wooden stretcher-frame of poplar wood was made and assembled to fit the chair's back shape as closely as possible. It could then be upholstered off the chair, protecting it – particularly its fragile gilding – from any negative effects, such as impact and vibration from hammering. This 'sub frame' was held in place on the chair back by removable brass clips screwed into the corners of the stretcher. The wooden support was angled along the front and back surfaces to aid the upholsterer in shaping the padding.
The conservation process took two years to complete and involved a fascinating collaboration across various V&A departments and external specialists, resulting in unique solutions to a range of complex conservation challenges. The chair, returned to its near-original appearance, can now be seen in our new Europe 1600 – 1815 galleries.