Discover the principles and history of this surprisingly modern vocation
Furniture has, of course, existed throughout history: humans have always needed a place to rest their bodies and store their things. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, that the historical and cultural value of furniture, and, in turn, the importance of restoring and conserving it, was recognized.
The craft itself also became a means of practically understanding the processes that created the antiques we admire. A community of restorers and museums blossomed and continues to share their findings openly to ensure the authentic preservation of historical artifacts and the skills and techniques used to make them.
The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute lays out three main principles of furniture restoration:
- The minimization of deterioration (preservation)
- The consolidation (stabilization) of artifacts as they currently exist
- Repair/replacement (compensation or restoration) of existing damage
One of the most ambitious feats of recent restoration was the work on the chair of Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France until her death during the French Revolution in 1973, by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Marie Antoinette was known for her extravagant tastes and this piece is no exception. It was made as part of a set in 1788 for the queen’s private apartment, the Cabinet Particulier, in the Palace of Saint-Cloud near Paris, by one of the country’s greatest furniture makers, Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené. It was then painted and gilded by the equally celebrated Louis-François Chatard. The two were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s favoured craftsmen and restoring their work is no small task.
Pieces like this have often received countless retouches over the centuries. As research methods improve, the errors of previous efforts are revealed and adjusted.
Extensive study of one piece of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York–other pieces are also held at the Louvre and in private collections–found that the piece had originally been upholstered with hand-embroidered white fabric featuring a floral pattern. As you can see, the difference is striking.
The process that was undertaken by the V&A Museum in light of these findings required the removal of various elements of the chair, so that they could be carefully cleaned. Dust that had been embedded over time was also carefully removed.
Pieces were also reset with a special diluted rabbit skin glue, which would allow the original elements to be preserved while also strengthening the structure of the chair.
Repair and replacement
The restoration project also provided the perfect opportunity to apply high tech solutions.
While the original piece was hand-carved, the tools of this century allowed restorers to cast the opposing side of a part of the cresting that had broken off the chair, scan it, copy it, reverse it, and then 3D print a replacement piece that could not be truer to the original master craftsman’s design.
The meticulous work, carried out by the V&A’s Head of Furniture Restoration Zoe Allen and her team, as well as the research conducted in New York, has not only led to the repair and restoration of this priceless piece of European history and French artistry, but has deepened our cultural and technical understanding of the work itself.
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