A Conservation Story: A Commode Made for Marie-Antoinette by Jean-Henri Riesener

A Conservation Story: A Commode Made for Marie-Antoinette by Jean-Henri Riesener


We are up in the conservation department workshops, which are on the third floor of the Wallace Collection. We have rolling programme of conservation at the Wallace We keep very close eye on pieces of furniture, so
they don’t fall in to a bad state. This piece of furniture is up in the department being treated at the moment. Before any dismantling takes place we assess it with the curators. We then start dismantling the mounts in particular, because the treatment of the wooden carcass will be completely different to the metal. The most important thing is
to mark where the mounts were so we can put everything back, exactly where it came off. Behind the mount, because no light can get to it, you see the original colour of what
this commode would have looked like So this vibrant turquoise, greenish colour, was the original colour. In this poster we can see what the piece of furniture would have really
looked like in the eighteenth century. On the left hand side are the true colours,
it would have been even brighter as this poster has faded since it has been in the workshop. To the right is what you seen now when you see a piece of marquetry furniture. The commode was made by Jean-Henri Riesener, who was one of the most famous cabinet-makers of the eighteenth century. This commode was made near the start of the French Revolution in 1780, when it was delivered to the Palace of Versailles. Marie-Antoinette kept this commode in her private study. A really tiny but very beautiful room. One of the reasons that we know that this belonged to Marie-Antoinette is because the gilt bronze has the beautiful cypher, MA, the initials of Marie-Antoinette. The mounts that you see are made of gilt bronze and are designed to look very rich and grand. Once the mounts have been removed from the
furniture we assess them very carefully and we discovered that these mounts have been
lacquered. The old lacquer was removed by a vapour of diacetone alcohol That lifts off the old lacquer, and you can remove it with a fine brush like this After that you can assess whether the mounts have corroded, and you can see from the gold here that they
are in very good condition. We don’t need to clean these chemically, we decided just to wax them, to protect the surface. If we decided that some of the areas were
a bit dark, that needed highlighting, then we might just touch in those areas using mica
powder. We would possibly give a final burnish but these pieces will now be set aside until
the rest of the piece of furniture is finished and ready to be reassembled. The commode was looking very tired and rather sorry for itself, but there were bits of marquetry which were beginning to peel off and it was very important that
we stabilised that situation. Our job on this occasion was to re-lay all
of this parquetry to secure it from falling off. We had to try and get some humidity down to
the glue, to reactivate it. We do that by putting moisture down through the cracks. You apply a bit of moisture with a fine brush and then put a piece of melinex on top and you use a hairdryer, or a hot air gun to drive the moisture down through the crevices You then repeat the process again and again until you find the marquetry or parquetry pattern
is slightly loose (the veneer is slightly loose). In the first stage we rehydrated all
the loose areas but the existing polish was left as a protective coating You warm up your glue block and press it on. and then you apply gentle pressure, for example, with this frame here. It will take somewhere between 6-8 weeks to get all the areas rehydrated and adhered
back to how it used to be. After rehydrating all the areas we remove the polish, which was applied 70 years ago. Finally, we apply several coats of shellac bronze to protect the commode. There are a number of Riesener pieces in the world in private hands, but this Wallace Collection piece, because of its provenance, because it’s been here for 100 years, is completely beyond price. We put it back into the Study, which is the
Marie-Antoinette room. You’ll see the commode now, in all its glory, sitting amongst other
pieces of furniture that Marie-Antoinette owned It’s the most beautiful piece, crowned
by a garland of gilt bronze flowers and it really evokes the whole Marie-Antoinette style.

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