by Donna Stevens, Senior Metals Conservator
For most people the word ‘Tula’ probably conjures up the idea of luggage and small leather goods, but it is actually the name of the town in Russia where Peter the Great set up workshops to produce arms and munitions. The workers also used their skills in iron and steel to produce small items such as snuff boxes and occasionally larger pieces of furniture such as the fireplace. The fireplace was made in the late eighteenth century and came to the V&A in 1953 (M.49-1953). As the fireplace was required for the new Europe Galleries, the opportunity was taken to dismantle completely the piece to look at its construction and to see if there were any clues to its history.
Once dismantled into over 100 pieces, two things were apparent: that there were very few screws holding it together and that the makers relied on dovetail-style joints to hold many parts in place. Also, most sections were less than 40 cm long, and what appears to be a large piece of metal is usually, in fact, short sections of steel with the joins covered by gilt copper alloy decorative elements. It is those parts which are screwed in position. After the fireplace was taken apart, each section was de-lacquered and polished using jewellers rouge (Figure 1). This revealed the brilliant original surface finish and etched decoration which had not previously been easily visible. It is this decoration which provided clues to the designer, now believed to be Charles Cameron or someone heavily influenced by him.
During a previous restoration in the 1980s, some small replacement parts had been made for the vases which sit on top of the fireplace but nothing had been done to the fireplace itself. Therefore, it was decided to replace some missing areas using steel and gilt copper alloy, as the epoxy resin replacement parts on the vases had not aged particularly well (Figure 2). The gilt copper alloy leaf elements on the front of the fireplace were moulded and replacements cast in bronze and gilded. The new parts were attached to the originals using carbon fibre and epoxy resin. As we were making a new part in original materials for the fender, it was decided to make two copies so there would be one for visitors to touch. This replacement oval section was made using mild steel, forged, filed and polished to a high shine and the copper alloy decorations of the original were moulded, cast, gilded and attached.
On the fireplace itself there are two sections of blued steel which had been engraved, with the engraved lines infilled with gold. Over time, the blued areas have turned almost black, however we do know the original colour from small protected areas that were covered by other parts. Because of this, a decision was made to also reproduce a section of blued steel to give the visitor an idea of the original very bright colour. Today ‘bluing’’ is often done using chemicals but originally, heat was used. The colour we wanted only appears between 293 and 298 degrees Celsius, and although it is possible to blue small objects in an ordinary flame, achieving an even colour over a large area is complex. In the past, the steel would probably have been immersed into a molten salt solution, however there are potential health and safety hazards connected with this process so we decided to use the kiln in the stained glass conservation studio instead. To our satisfaction, it worked on only the third attempt.
The fireplace has always been shown with two Tula vases and a perfume burner. One vase has been extensively restored with what appeared to be epoxy resin and aluminium powder. We had hoped that a contact in 3D printing research could print out new parts in steel, however this was not possible due to time factors, so it was agreed to remake the parts in epoxy. The original epoxy repairs had dulled over time so it was decided that the new parts would be chrome plated and then toned down with alkyd oil paint. It is hoped that this will wear better than the original epoxy resin and aluminium powder replacement parts from the 1980s. The whole project took over 500 hours.
Europe 1600-1815 has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the children of Her Highness Sheikha Amna Bint Mohammed Al Thani, the Friends of the V&A, The Selz Foundation, Würth Group, The Wolfson Foundation, Dr Genevieve Davies, William Loschert, the J Paul Getty Jr Charitable Trust and many other private individuals and trusts.