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 SanFrancisco’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 a carved area was missing, it was expertly replaced by master carver Adam Thorpe.
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.
If a carved area was damaged, the gesso was consolidated or replaced and the clay colors matched. The surfaces were then ready to water gild. We were using a heavy gram weight 23/3/4K gold leaf which was either burnished bright or left matte, as the original design dictated. Finally, the newly leafed areas were lightly toned to blend with the surrounding gilded areas.
My heartfelt thanks go to Lesley Bone, Deborah Bigelow, Natasha Morovic, and Martin Chapman, it was a joy to work with all of you!
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“Shortly after arriving at the Legion of Honor to take my place on the Salon Doré conservation team, I agreed with the project’s chief conservator that more Master Gilders were needed to complete the large scale project by its spring 2014 deadline. Our first call was to Nancy Thorn, and when she agreed to join the project I was elated. I felt confident that her presence would assure the project’s success.
I was proven right. The depth of Nancy’s experience on large-scale art and architectural gilding projects ultimately resulted in several important advances over the course of treatment. Technically, Nancy developed a tool that enabled whole sheets of gold leaf to be laid intact with relative ease, and this was essential to the visually pleasing restoration of the rooms eye-level column bases. Next, Nancy brought to the project her ability to work quickly without sacrificing qualify which enabled her to produce in volume. On a large job, this is a very valuable skill. Finally, her ability to visualize the end result helped us resolve numerous aesthetic questions, and the toning strategy that pulled the many carved and gilded room elements together into a harmonious whole was drawn largely from her experience.
Nancy has abundant artistic talent and a joyous personality to back it up. While Nancy is normally a “take charge” person, in this instance she proved herself a consummate team player possessing all the wisdom and experience needed to handle difficult people and situations that inevitably pop up on any complex job. After being in the Salon Doré pressure cooker with Nancy for 8 months, I can attest that now more than ever Nancy remains my go-to person for any gilding project worthy of her participation.”
– Deborah Bigelow, Gilded Objects Conservator, Beacon, N.Y.
“Thank you Nancy for helping us make the Salon project a resounding success, we couldn’t have done it without you. I appreciated the great effort you put into making the team function and follow instructions. I hope the junior members took full advantage of working with someone of your skills and experience. You have my great appreciation and personal gratitude.”
– Lesley Bone, Head Objects Conservator, FAMSF, S.F., CA