Traditional Chinese culture places strong emphasis on happiness and good fortune. The character 福, which is pronounced “Fú,” is frequently associated with Chinese New Year and can be seen mounted on the entrances of many Chinese households worldwide. However, luck wasn’t on Mary Ellen Hall’s side when disaster struck her house last spring—which damaged many of her cherished belongings, including a bronze “Foo Dog” she had acquired through an antiques dealer. Fortunately, The Conservation Center was able to save this family treasure.
The Chinese “Foo Dog” (in Chinese known simply as Shi), sometimes called Imperial Guardian Lions, is a traditional statue of a guardian lion whose origins date as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.). The Foo Dog is thought to have strong mythical powers of protection and can still be seen today at the entrances of temples, palaces, homes, and even government offices.
Ancient Foo Dogs were carved from marble or granite, and the pose and appearance is varied. Later during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1300 C.E.–1900 C.E.), Foo Dogs began to be displayed in standardized pairs; a male lion with his right paw on a ball carved into a geometric pattern, and a female with her left paw on a cub.
Mrs. Hall spoke to us about her family’s emotional attachment to their Foo Dog. “We purchased Foo at an antiques store while on our honeymoon in 1985. Since then we have decorated and redecorated our home, but no matter what, he was always placed in a prominent place. In 2009 we moved into a new house, where we would have a wall of custom built glass cabinets surrounding the fireplace in the family room and Foo would have his own custom made spot right in the center above the mantle. He was beautiful there. Unfortunately, in May of 2013 our house caught fire and was a total loss.”
Since the Hall’s beloved Foo Dog is made of bronze, the object was able to withstand the heat of the blaze. Unfortunately, it was finished with an oil coating, which during the course of the fire, essentially baked on to the statue. The oil coating is a protective layer that that keeps the patina of the bronze even and slows the oxidation of the substrate. It is often applied to protect bonze statues that are housed outdoors. When Foo arrived at The Conservation Center, the entire piece was caked with a thick black residue and the bronze was actually blackened. This presented a challenge for our objects conservators because the piece had to be treated with various solvents in order to be returned to its original appearance.
The treatment turned out to be a multi-step process. First, the top layer of soot, grime, the oil coating, and the layer of patina were removed using various mechanical processes. This brought the statue back to raw bronze. The conservators then treated the bronze to re-patinate the surface, which resulted in a greenish hue. The next step was a long process of aging the bronze to re-create the dark black-brown patina the statue had before the fire. This was done using a fuming technique and then a cold chemical process. The statue was then finished with a protective layer of wax. The entirety of the conservation process totaled nearly 25 hours, but the results made it time well spent as Foo is restored to his original splendor.
Mrs. Hall is now reunited with her beloved Foo Dog—which she counts on to bring her and her family good fortune for many generations to come. “The Conservation Center did a great job restoring Foo, who will continue to bring us so much joy and so many more good memories. We have almost none of our life long collection left but at least we have our good as new Foo.”