by Isobel Harcourt BSc, MCULMC
Upholstery Conservator, Blythe House Decant Project
Made in 1900, this French Art Nouveau stool from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s furniture collection (Museum number 2008-1900) was one of many objects found to be in need of remedial conservation during the Blythe House decant. An image taken at the time of acquisition shows the upholstered seat with a leather cover embossed with a pattern of water lilies, and a box shape with well-defined edges and a very slight dome (Figure 1, left). Unfortunately, in the intervening years some of the upholstery materials had failed, and by 2019 the stool had a very different appearance (Figure 1, right).
The seat is constructed using steel springs covered with a thick padding of horsehair. The springs were originally compressed between a lattice of webbing and a coarse covering textile. The horsehair pad sits on top of the spring cover and is itself covered with a similar textile. The top horizontal edges of the horsehair pad have been stitched through the stuffing cover to create a sharp-edged profile. A second stuffing cover with a finer weave was applied over the first and the leather show cover on top of this.
Both the leather and the webbing have become chemically unstable and weakened with age. This has allowed the springs to decompress, pushing other materials out of their original configuration and exerting further pressure on the weakened components, causing them to fail.
The pattern of damage suggests that the show cover was first to degrade. The top of the seat had become distorted with bulbous protrusions at the edges, splitting the stuffing covers along the top horizontal edges. This would have been caused by the springs pushing up into the horsehair padding. Looking at the underside of the seat we can see that the spring cover textile, while unbroken, is distorted from the same pressure. Very little of the show cover remains – just fragments at the lower edges where it was attached to the frame. It is probable that the leather, having lost structural strength would have cracked or torn under pressure and eventually fragmented.
The webbing displays the characteristic colour change and powdering associated with jute fibres, and an equally characteristic pattern of damage. Individual lengths of web had fractured at the points of maximum tension along two sides of the seat rail, allowing the springs to decompress fully. The springs now hung from the cover to which they are stitched, while this same spring cover textile also now supported the upper upholstery layers.
Although the condition of the seat was now seriously compromised, the frame of the stool was undamaged and important elements of the upholstery scheme such as the stitched edges and the stitching holding the springs in horizontal configuration were still in place. Moreover, evidence of the manufacturing process had been uncovered by the loss of the top and bottom layers. This included an unexpected layer of red silk in between the top stuffing cover and the leather, the function of which remains unclear. This object could provide useful research data and could successfully be reupholstered, following the original scheme, for future exhibition. For these reasons it was important to prevent further damage and find a way of supporting the currently unsupported seat. This would necessitate returning the layers to as close to their original relative positions as possible and providing a new bottom layer for the springs to rest on.
During the decant project over 1000 objects with textile components from the furniture collection were assessed and treated to ensure safe transit. The majority of these were also given lightfast covers to protect them in their new open storage environment. Given the size of the project and the necessary time and budgetary constraints remedial treatments needed to be developed that were quick to apply, cost effective, and could be easily reversed to allow in-depth conservation in the future. Fitting a permanent spring support would be a complex and interventive treatment and was not appropriate in the context of the decant. As the frame was robust a slung support would be an easily removable alternative. However before applying any pressure from beneath, the springs needed to be re-compressed to avoid further displacement in the upper layers.
The stool was inverted, and the spring cavity opened up by removing the few remaining stitches attaching the webbing to the springs (Figure 2). Each spring was then tied down with three lengths of thick linen upholstery twine threaded through the coils and evenly spaced around the circumference. Following this, the webbing lattice was rewoven and stitched to the coils using the original needle holes in the original stitch pattern (Figure 3). As the remaining stuffing cover textiles were relatively stable and the top cover leather virtually non-existent very little was done to these areas. A few long laid anchoring stitches were applied through the stuffing cover where the red silk or leather was in danger of further losses.
It was decided that the sling should be extended to wrap around the sides and top face of the seat thus doubling as a storage cover. As the furniture will be going into an open store where it can be viewed by the public, storage covers were designed to give as complete a visual impression of the object as possible. This combined sling/cover kept the carving on the legs visible while showing off the original upholstery profile, now largely regained (Figure 4). The cover was constructed from two long panels of Tyvek intersecting to form a regular cross. The crux supports the springs while the arms wrap around the seat body with the overlaps secured with cotton tape.
This combination of low-level interventive treatment and the provision of a cover to meet preventive and open display requirements will minimise the risks involved in relocation and further long-term storage, while ensuring that visitors to the new Collection and Research Centre at V&A East can appreciate the elegance of this object’s design.