In 2013, I was asked by San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum to help with a special conservation project.
Special is an understatement. The Salon Doré of the Hotel de La Tremoille is arguably one of the finest examples of French neo-Classical interior architecture anywhere, and that it resides at san Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum is just one more twist in its storied history. Originally the main salon in an aristocratic French home, it survived the French Revolution, the demolition of a Parisian hotel, and many changes of ownership before it came to the U.S. in the 1950s through an antiques dealer.
The Salon Doré was used as a receiving space for guests to converse. The seating was not particularly comfortable, and was arranged by social station, with the hostess near the fireplace, and the lesser-ranked persons putting themselves further back in the room, or even standing.
The Salon Doré is not a very large room, roughly 25 feet square, with Neo Classical panels, pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals, and door and mirror surrounds. Yet the importance of the Salon called for a highly skilled and experienced restoration team, of which I was pleased to have been asked to join. The team included Lesley Bone, Head Objects Conservator, FAMSF, S.F., CA; Deborah Bigelow, Gilded Objects Conservator, private practice, Beacon, N.Y.; Natasha Morovic, Conservator of Frames, FAMSF, S.F., CA; and was headed by Martin Chapman, European Decorative Arts Curator, Legion of Honor Museum, S.F.
Martin Chapman’s goal was to make the room less of a backdrop for paintings and sculptures, and more of a room that sheds light on the fascinating cultural practices of the 18th century French aristocracy. During restoration, many museum goers viewed the action through a special window, which proved extremely popular.
Some architectural elements in need of consolidating or re-gilding were the 10 foot pilasters, or half columns. They each consisted of coves, flutes and half rounds with the beautifully carved “chandelles” attached as a decorative element. Each pilaster also had a base and capitol. Between the pilasters were mouldings that made up the panels, the carved doors, door surrounds, and mirror surrounds. Those were the gilded elements, all other areas were painstakingly painted around each of the re-installed elements.
Each element was evaluated to determine what the original gilded surface had been, and whether that original surface could be saved. Some objects had as many as 3 previous over gildings. They were cleaned, old paints removed, gesso consolidated and replaced, clay colors matched, water gilded with a heavy 23.75K leaf, and finally toned, if necessary, to match the surrounding areas. If a carved area was missing, it was expertly replaced.
Most of the elements were water gilded in the traditional manner, with rabbitskin glue based gesso, colored gilders clay, Sepp Leaf’s heavy gold, and burnished or left matte in the original patterns.
With the completion of this project, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor’s Salon Doré now joins a handful of notable gilded period rooms such as Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery’s own Salon Doré. Personally and professionally, I certainly hope it won’t be the last!
My heartfelt thanks go to Lesley Bone, Deborah Bigelow, Natasha Morovic, and Martin Chapman, it was a joy to work with all of you! Thank you for asking me to join you on such an exciting project.
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