When the Diocese of Rockford brought its classic Madonna and Child painting to The Conservation Center for conservation, Josh McCauley, The Center’s Associate Conservator of Frames and Gilding, had the impressive and challenging task of restoring the work’s Revival style frame-which was heavily overpainted, thus masking potential structural damage. In addition, many of the intricate decorations on the frame were showing signs of age and deterioration. The goals of this project were to first remove the overpaint, then consolidate existing decorations, and finally fabricate the lost carvings.
After an initial thorough assessment, Josh discovered that both the painting and the frame had a thick coat of varnish. The frame also had a heavy layer of bronze paint, which was probably applied 40 years ago and now starting to oxidize. The paint was covering up the solid walnut wood frame underneath. Once the bronze paint was meticulously removed and exposing the original surface, Josh identified the missing decorations and secured the loose ones on the frame with conservation glue.
In order to mimic the original decorations and produce new replacements, Josh made tracings using existing decorations. Since both the right and left sides (and the top and bottom sides) of the frame are identical, Josh had a mirror image and an outline of the frame in order to accomplish this task.
After tracing, Josh chose an appropriate wood to carve the decorations. He was unable to use walnut since the grain is too open, so instead he had to find a substitute. The Center’s furniture department provided the perfect solution: box wood. Box wood has a harder and tighter grain so it can handle little cuts that needed to be made. After tracing on the box wood, Josh used a bandsaw to roughly cut out the shapes. All the individual pieces of decoration were then gently glued to a secondary board—in this case a simple piece of medium density fiberboard (MDF) to hold them in place. This allowed Josh to move the MDF in front of what he wants to copy while looking at the original carving.
Once the carvings were finished, Josh plucked them off the MDF (they were glued on with hide glue, a natural substance, which is water soluble and can be easily undone) and began placing on the frame where the decorations were missing. While doing so, Josh made adjustments by trimming and fitting them in place. Since box wood is lighter in color, Josh also had to stain and color match it to the original walnut. Finally, Josh carefully oil gilded the newly hand-carved decorations with 23.5kt gold leaf and toned them to match the original gilded surface with shellac and pigments.
Hand carving is extremely delicate and now a dying art form. Josh spent about a week and a half carving those decorative pieces. The task was complicated and intricate: he had to essentially mimic the skills and craftsmanship of a “rockstar carver” who made this beautiful frame decades ago. He probably could’ve made a mold and a cast to make it look like wood, but he opted for true artisanship instead.