Gilded Brilliance: New Decorations for a Pair of 19th Century Frames

As told by Jennifer Sims, TCC client:

“These beloved 19th Century portraits are of my great-great-great grandfather Luther Bodman and his wife, Clarissa Day Bodman. They are family heirlooms that were on view in our family homestead in Connecticut—a house built in the mid-1700s. During the 1950s, burglars broke in, vandalized the house and seriously damaged the paintings. My grandmother, Emily Bodman Leiserson, who owned the house and the paintings at the time was devastated. She sent the paintings to Washington DC to have the damaged canvases repaired. Eventually she gave the paintings to my mother, Ruth Bodman Leiserson, who later gave them to me. Although as a child I thought the portraits seemed dark and very somber, I nonetheless loved them.    

When the paintings arrived at our home in Washington DC, we had them cleaned and restored using professionals recommended by the Smithsonian Institution. They encouraged us to have the frames evaluated for restoration too. Serendipitously, my daughter Jessica was then working for an internationally renowned framing expert. He evaluated the frames and confirmed the judgment that they were lovely and original to the paintings. Shortly after moving to Chicago, we spoke to the experts at The Conservation Center and decided to have the frames restored. We were confident The Center had the skills and experience to do the finest job possible.”

The frames arrived at The Center in poor condition. Josh McCauley, our Associate Conservator of Frames and Gilding, immediately recognized they would require more reconstruction than conservation. One frame was significantly worse than the other with little of the original surface remaining. The decorations were virtually nonexistent, having fallen off over time due to adhesion failure. Additionally, only about 30 percent of the original gilding remained, and there were gesso losses throughout. The goal of this project was to reconstruct missing decorations and re-gild the surface to preserve the artistic integrity of the original frames.

Josh started by consolidating existing decorations, break areas, and weak gesso in order to preserve the remaining original decoration. Because he would need a lot of material to fill the areas of  lost decoration, Josh began making molds early in the process. While filling gesso losses he also took molds of the existing decoration, and used the molds to create the thin, delicate plaster reproductions. “I chose to do a ‘pour-in’ cast as opposed to a ‘press-in’ cast to limit the chance of having to repair any air bubbles. I also backed the brittle plaster with Japanese paper, allowing it to be pulled out of the mold and manipulated without crumbling,” he said. Once the plaster was released from the mold, there was a paper halo around the decoration, so Josh needed to trim the negative space before applying the decoration to the frame.

Next, Josh had to prepare the frame surface for gilding. A thin layer of yellow bole—a fine clay and glue mixture used under gilding—was applied to the entire surface. “The bole provides a fresh layer for gilding, replenishes the gesso and evens out the surface,” he said. Josh began with water gilding, which consists of applying water to the surface and laying down the gold leaf and, as the water dries, the leaf adheres in place. Later, he used a burnishing tool to smooth over the surface of the leaf and bring out the brilliance of the gold. 

The rest of the frame was oil gilt— this involves applying a size, or adhesive material, to the surface, and the loose leaf is adhered to the tacky surface created by the size. After gilding, the aesthetic of the frame appeared too shiny and new. In order to make the frames possess an aged quality, Josh added a glaze of grey to cool down the surface. “Gilding is usually the easiest part, but is also very tedious. You must remain even tempered during the process.”

The finished products were matching frames that appear to have aged gracefully since the mid-1800s. They have been revived for future generations of Jennifer’s family.

“We are excited to have these family treasures restored to their full glory," Jennifer said. "I wish my mother and grandmother could see them. Someday my husband and I will pass the portraits along to our daughter so we feel fortunate that they will be safe, sound, and restored for years to come.”