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Conserving the Pier Table

January 10, 2016 Archive Insight

Painted Federal Pier Table after treatment, THF 62.139.1. The table is made of pine with a marble top. The painted motifs are gilded urns and horns with rope swags and also bell-flower festoons on alternating panels. The legs also bear free-hand designs incorporating gilded floral elements. The painted and gilded ornaments mimic more expensive metal ornaments that can be found on more expensive furniture of this period.

Museum Conservators don’t usually like stripping. But sometimes we need to do it.

I partially stripped a yellowed varnish from select areas of this fabulous table to restore a more period - appropriate contrast between the painted panels.

If you collect antiques or watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS, you already know that “original surfaces” are usually highly valued. Even when it is found in slightly damaged and worn condition, the original varnish on a piece of furniture may help prove the true age of a treasured antique.

However, what happens when the varnish has aged and yellowed, causing a color-shift in the object? This normal yellowing, which happens over time, may make the object hard to “read.”

Painted Federal pier table before treatment.

In the case of our table the contrast between the yellow panels and the blue panels had been compromised. The panels that should have been delicate blue were looking muddy-green.

Museum curator Charles Sable thought it would be worth our effort to try to carefully remove some of the badly-yellowed and worn varnish from the blue panels. He thought we should try to bring the piece back to a condition where the original intent of the maker could be understood and better appreciated by our visitors. So the table was carefully cleaned, then varnish removal with strong solvents was done only in areas that did not have the decorative detail. It was finicky work, but well worth it.

A painted detail during the stripping varnish-removal process.

These details were hand-painted with areas of gold-leaf and delicate “shadow” details to give the ornaments an intentional 3D illusion.

Here’s what that detail looks like after "in-painting."

The final step was careful “in-painting,” a term conservators use to describe the restoration of paint – but only to the areas of loss, not to the remaining original paint. You can see the table once again on exhibit in Fully Furnished inside Henry Ford Museum.

Clara Deck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.

Henry Ford Museum, furnishings, by Clara Deck, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, collections care, conservation

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