In the Studio:
An English 18th-Century Japanned Cabinet on Stand
A private collector in New York City recently brought in a beautiful English cabinet on stand with a delicate Asian-inspired design crafted in gold leaf on a black japanned ground for treatment. This piece was truly extraordinary; we had noticed one of similar quality in a famous European collection. We were particularly concerned about the exterior doors and interior drawers, both of which showed serious signs of delamination, in addition to some losses that affected the design itself. All of this is visible in the "before treatment" image above.
"...so Japanning has taught us a method, no way inferior to [painting], for the splendor and preservation of our Furniture and Houses." — A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing by John Stalker and George Parker, 1688.
Stalker and Parker were certainly right about the splendor; few things are more visually interesting than lacquered furniture and objects. Unfortunately, their point about preservation was substantially less correct. Surfaces decorated with either true (urushi) lacquer or "japanning" develop particularly delicate conservation problems. Fueled by the growth of international trade, the desire for East Asian style lacquerware skyrocketed in the seventeenth century. Since imports were costly — and could hardly meet market demands — European craftsmen began to make their own versions of the glossy-surfaced material and a few handbooks, such as Stalker and Parker’s, provided recipes. While the traditional Asian technique using urushi was known (Dossie, Handmaid to the Arts, 1742), Western artisans preferred to work with more familiar resins, both because they were viewed as safer than the toxic urushi and because they expedited production by drying faster. Many different techniques went into creating "japanned" furniture and objects and these, of course, evolved over the years as true lacquerware never fell completely out of style.
Numerous conservation issues impact japanned items over time. The supporting wood expands and contracts in response to changes in humidity, while the gesso and varnish layers typically do not. This nearly always results in delamination, in which the surface layers detach from the wood support, and occasionally, in losses to the varnish, gilding and even gesso. While we have grown accustomed to viewing craquelure as a natural, even desirable, indication of an object’s aging, it is generally a sign of a sure problem with a japanned object. Additionally, as with other historic items, subsequent "restorations" that produce temporary visual improvements will often create conservation problems.
Our initial approach was to stabilize the lifting topmost varnish layer – those minute small spectral reflections you see on the "before treatment" image. Testing showed that a solvent vapor technique would likely "reform" the original coating and renew its ability to hold. Afterwards, we stabilized the delaminated gesso layers by using a specialized gluing technique, and began to concentrate on the losses. The first thing we had to do was to re-create the original ground layers over the patches of exposed wood. We used a traditional gesso in order to match the existing thickness and texture. Then we duplicated the missing gilt elements, applied them using a reversible technique, patinated them to hold up to a naked eye examination, and painted in the details.
A Conservator's Ethic
If you look carefully at the "after treatment" image above, you will notice that we did not correct several places where the varnish was only slightly abraded and less glossy. After an object is stabilized, we are guided by a key principle: reintegrate the aesthetic qualities of the object. While this sometimes means compensating for losses (as with the duplicate gold leaf items), it also means carefully deciding, which marks of age, authenticity and use should remain to tell the object’s story. After all, preserving the original artist’s intent and retaining signs of age while permitting continued use and enjoyment are central to the conservation approach.
Furniture Conservator Yuri Yanchyshyn has worked with wooden objects for over 25 years, from a cabinet-maker’s shop to the laboratories of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Private collectors, museums, architects and designers have all entrusted precious items from the 14th through the 20th centuries to Yuri’s care, and institutions such as Christie’s invite him to lecture. Yuri holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the California Institute of the Arts and received advanced training from the Amsterdam Academy for Restoration and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education.
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