Conference: The Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group, Icon (London)

‘Conserving Context: relating object treatment to collections & settings’. 

The Conference took place on 14 March, 2013.

Hertford House

Venue: The Wallace Collection (Goodison Lecture Theatre), Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN.  A National Museum since 1900, the Wallace Collection is a dynastic treasure house in the heart of London’s West End.  It contains one of the finest collections of international decorative and fine arts in the world – bequeathed “to be kept together, unmixed with other objects of Art”.  The recently refurbished rooms offer a contemporary museography in a traditional architectural setting.

The Landing, Hertford House

This was the first Conference held by the Group since 2009.  The programme and abstracts of papers given follow, below.

Louis XV’s Commode, Wallace Collection


The Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Group, Icon, Conference

‘Conserving Context:

relating object treatment to collections & settings’

14th March, 2013

The Wallace Collection (Goodison Lecture Theatre),

Hertford House, Manchester Square, London.  W1U 3BN

 09.00: Registration & coffee. 

09.30: Welcome & introduction. 

10.00: Exploring the complex issues involved in making decisions that correspond between objects, collections & settings.  How treatments conserve or change the whole context of their collection & setting.  Integrated approaches applied right down to individual objects as significant elements within. 

Dr Christopher Ridgway (Curator, Castle Howard).  Context and Understanding in Country House Collections. 

David Wheeler (Senior Conservator, Furniture & Works of Art, Royal Collection).  The Decorative surface within the working Royal Palace. 

10.50: Discussion. 

11.00: Coffee. 

11.45: Evaluating complex interacting or conflicting contexts – such as past, dispersed or destroyed collections & settings – & how layered meanings & values of their tangible & intangible qualities affects the intentions of current decisions for treatment. 

Alastair Johnson (Frames Conservator, Tate).  Re-altering the glazing alterations of a Burne-Jones frame

Deborah Cane (Hoard Conservation Project Manager, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery).  Working with complex collections: the Staffordshire Hoard. 

12.35: Discussion. 

12.45: Lunch.  Large range of choices around the Wallace Collection. 

14.15: Exploring how the significance of an object’s decorative surface relates to its collection & setting.  When is it appropriate for objects to be considered & treated in a different way to their contexts? 

Ann Katrin Köster (Collection Conservator, English Heritage) & Laura Houliston (Curator, English Heritage).  The conservation and reproduction of Robert Adam’s benches from Kenwood House

Zoë Allen (Gilded Furniture & Frames Conservator, V&A) & Lea Wegwitz (Frames Conservator, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).  The two make a pair

15.05: Discussion. 

15.15: Tea. 

15.50: Considering dilemmas encountered in attempting to maintain a consistency of approach between intentions guiding the treatment of an interior & the objects within it.  How far should principles be refined, or compromised, within a particular context?  How should context be considered in relation to objects function & aesthetics or to their interpretation & access? 

Sarah Kay (Curator, National Trust) & Catriona Hughes (Conservator, National Trust).  The Picture Gallery and Grand Staircase at Attingham Park: to gild or not to gild?

Jane Wilkinson (Conservator, Sir John Soane’s Museum).  Making Mrs Soane’s Morning Room “Permanently Magical”

16.40: Discussion.

16.50: Panel Discussion with the days Speakers. 

17.10: Closing remarks. 

17.15: Close


Abstracts of papers and biographies of speakers

Dr Christopher Ridgway 

Context and Understanding in Country House Collections. 


This paper will consider the changing nature of scholarship over the past fifty years, and look at how research is no longer the preserve of any single discipline.  Today country house collections encompass social histories as well as art histories, and need to be understood through a number of different perspectives.  Paramount is the need to preserve the primacy of the objects themselves whilst maintaining a strong historical grounding within the widest possible context: house, family, architecture, collections, archives and landscape. 


Curator at Castle Howard since 1985, he has lectured and published extensively on the history of Castle Howard and its collections, architecture and landscape.  He is Chair of the Yorkshire Country House Partnership, a collaborative research project between the University of York and the country houses of Yorkshire.  He is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of York, and Adjunct Professor attached to the Department of History at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.  He is a member of the Attingham Trust council, and sits on the Lord Chancellor’s Forum on Historical Manuscripts and Research.  His most recent publication was co-edited with Terence Dooley, The Irish Country House: Its Past, Present and Future (2011).

David Wheeler 

The Decorative surface within the working Royal Palace. 


The maintenance of decorative surfaces in the Royal Palaces has always been a challenging and continuing task both historically and in modern times.  The demands of up keeping ‘magnificence’ within an environment subject to constant use and suffering continual wear and tear has meant that restoration, repair and renewal has been a continual process over many centuries.  The Royal Palaces are the flagship for the country’s State Image and for The Queen as a setting in her role as Head of State.  Successive Monarchs have left their distinguishing marks in all aspects of the Palaces development and decoration. 

This paper will look at the historical treatment of furniture and interiors and the effects and legacy this has left, using examples from recent projects.  Conservation and house management today will also be examined, looking at the way the Palaces cope with increased visitor numbers and use of rooms for functions. 


David Wheeler is the Senior Conservator of Furniture and Decorative Arts in the Royal Collection and is responsible for running the Marlborough House Conservation Workshops.  Trained at the London College of Furniture, he has worked on many pieces of Furniture and objects from the Royal Collection.  He was closely involved in the restoration of works of art after the fire at Windsor Castle.  He has been responsible for the preparation of artefacts for three major exhibitions at the New Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace – ‘Treasures’, ‘George III’ and ‘Victoria and Albert Love and Art’ – as well as previous Exhibitions in the old Queen’s Gallery.  He now spends most of his practical time working with the Ceramic Collection and has completed a full overhaul of all the Sevres and French Porcelain in the Collection – published in the Catalogue Raisonné by Geoffrey de Bellaigue.  He is currently realising the Catalogue Raisonné of oriental porcelain, jades, lacquer wares and objects, which covers all the Royal residences and numbers some 1300 catalogue entries.


Alastair Johnson 

Re-altering the glazing alterations of a Burne-Jones frame. 


The availability of affordable glass in mid-nineteenth century England, brought about by the abolition of the glass tax in 1845, offered artists the opportunity to protect their paintings from air-borne pollutants beginning to engulf towns and cities.  As a group, none were more energetic in their adoption of glass than the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers, whose concern with the preservation of the crisp, luminous detail of their painted surfaces led to collaboration with framemakers to design frames that included glass as an integral feature. 

By the end of the century, many public collections of paintings in London, including the Tate Gallery – which was founded in 1897 – had taken steps to protect their entire holdings, and glazing campaigns, continuing into the next century, were carried out by both the gallery and a number of contracted firms.  Alterations to frames to accommodate glass varied from visually disfiguring to barely noticeable interventions, but nearly all have one thing in common: for the greater part of their existence they have borne the disfigurements of these conversions, and in the context of the Tate, become an accepted and historical part of their appearance. 

Using the recent treatment of a frame from the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite collection as an example – the extraordinary Renaissance Revival frame around Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884) – the paper examines the first alterations made to the original glazing scheme and how these related practically and aesthetically to a new display requirement, and the rationale behind the reversal of these alterations in 2012.  The current trend for an authentic presentation is arguably an attempt to create a hermetic context for a work to exist in isolation against an increasingly changing display context, but should this regression come at the expense of its long-standing history? 


PACR accredited 2008.

Frames Conservator, Tate, 2003-present.

Conservation Technician, The Wallace Collection, 1995-2003.

Papers & Conferences:

Returning a Ben Nicholson painting to its original? frame, ICON Gilding & Decorative Surfaces Conference, London, 2009.

Reframing Malevich, Malewitsch unter dem mikroskop Symposium, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2010.

The frames around two paintings by Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich in the Tate Collection, unpublished paper, 2012.


 Deborah Cane 

Working with complex collections: the Staffordshire Hoard. 


The Staffordshire hoard is an archaeological gold and silver find of Anglo Saxon martial material that could change the way the ‘Dark Ages’ are interpreted.  There are several factors that make this a complex project: the lack of context of the find, the joint acquisition, commitments and agreements tied in with funding, the public interest, regional partners, research and conservation strategies and regional politics.  Because of these, the project has occasionally lost sight of one important fact; the objects themselves hold the key to potentially unlocking their history. 

 With conservation at the heart of the project, it has been key to make sure objects are kept at the centre of discussions and that all work is carried out ethically and in a transparent manner.  The presentation will discuss the timeline of the work to date and some of the key discussions that have helped to propel the project forward and some that have caused debate.  Such as the demands for display without the full understanding of the Hoard and its historical context. 


Deborah Cane (Dip Cons, MA, ACR) is one of the Conservation and Environment Officers at Birmingham Museum Trust.  She worked previously for National Museums Scotland and National Museum Liverpool as an object conservator working on a wide range of materials from arms and armour to decorative arts. 

At Birmingham, Deborah undertook the project management of the movement of three stores to the new Collections Centre and the decant and reinstallation of eight galleries at the main Museum site due to roof works.  She is currently coming to the end of a two-year secondment, managing the conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard, after which she will be taking on the management and training of the Icon preventive conservation intern. 

She is a Graduate of the MA in Preventive Conservation from Northumbria University and studied for the Conservation & Restoration diploma at Lincolnshire College of Art & Design, prior to this Deborah’s background was in museum and exhibition design.

Ann Katrin Köster and Laura Houliston 

The conservation and reproduction of Robert Adam’s benches from Kenwood House. 


The library or ‘Great Room’ at Kenwood is among the most impressive and memorable of late eighteenth-century British interiors, the design is considered one of Adam’s finest.  Completed by 1770, it survived with only some minor alterations until 1922, when the original furniture was sold at auction.  In this paper, the focus of discussion will be a set of neo-classical scroll-armed window seats, which were part of the original commission by the 1st Earl of Mansfield, designed and made specifically for Kenwood.  The suite included three carved and gilded window seats, which filled the window embrasures.  They were designed by Robert Adam and made by the upholsterer William France, Snr. (1727-1773), St Martin’s Lane, London. 

English Heritage is now in possession of two of the window seats, the third is still missing.  Kenwood House is currently undergoing major renovations and the Library is being redisplayed to mirror Adam’s original decorative scheme.  As part of this project, the opportunity has been taken to reinstate the seats to their original position within the library, requiring the large radiators in the window recesses to be removed.  Both seats are in an un-displayable condition.  One example still shows evidence of the original decorative layers and has been consolidated and conserved for long term storage.  The other bench is dismantled and stripped of its original decorative scheme and is being fully restored for display. 

This paper looks at the history and redisplay of the seats within the context of the house and the library.  It discusses how this information has informed conservation treatment of the two benches, taking into account the architectural gilding scheme.  It also explores the decision to make two reproduction seats to complete the set for re-presentation of the library’s south wall. 

Biography: Ann Katrin Köster. 

Ann Katrin Köster has been Collection Conservator for the South East with English Heritage for nearly four years.  After completing her BSc in Restoration and Conservation of Decorative Surfaces at London Guildhall University in 2000, she joined the Frames Conservation Department at Tate for two years.  Ann Katrin then completed her MA in Cultural Heritage Studies at UCL in 2003.  She has worked in various Museums in London (Science Museum, UCL Museums and Collections) and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, both in conservation/collection care, also gaining experience in visitor research and museum interpretation.  While Ann Katrin initially specialized in the conservation of gilded objects, she completed a three year training and development contract with the National Trust in preventive conservation in 2009 before joining the Collections Conservation Team at English Heritage.  She has been Project Conservator on the Caring for Kenwood project since January 2012.

Biography: Laura Houliston. 

Laura Houliston has been Curator of Collections with English Heritage for over ten years, primarily looking after The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood.  She studied at Glasgow University, completing an MPhil in Decorative Arts in 1997, before working as a Curatorial and Research Assistant on the British Galleries Project at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Kenwood is currently closed for a major HLF-funded project, which includes the re-presentation of the ground floor.  This year she has published a paintings catalogue entitled The Suffolk Collection and is now working on a catalogue of Kenwood’s furniture and a revised guidebook for the reopening of the house in November 2013.

Zoë Allen and Léa Wegwitz

The two make a pair. 


This paper will discuss how a pair of gilded and upholstered stools from the same suite underwent two different conservation treatments in preparation for their display, in 2011, in the new furniture gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The overall aim of the new gallery is to describe original materials and techniques, and the conservation choices were made in this context.  The pair of stools (W.14 and W.15-2009) was part of an important bedroom suite at Warwick Castle since the late 18th century.  The V&A purchased the stools in 2009. 

During conservation, remains of the original upholstery were discovered on one of the stools underneath its early nineteenth-century cover.  Observations made during the treatment also revealed very unusual upholstery techniques, and the stools may be a unique survival of this method.  Due to the historical importance of such a discovery, it was decided to display one stool showing the remains of the original upholstery and the other with its current early nineteenth-century cover.  

The weight of the historical importance of the textile elements dictated the necessity for a strict consistency in the treatment approach of the gilded elements of each stool.  The stools were originally water gilded over fine tool work cut in the gesso; however, as with the upholstery, the gilding had undergone several campaigns of repair and over-gilding.  The current oil gilded scheme is believed to be contemporary with the early nineteenth-century cover. 

Mirroring the treatment of the upholstery, the original water gilded scheme has now been revealed on the stool retaining some of the original fabric, whilst the oil gilded finish on the other stool has been retained.  The treatment of the original gilding proved to be complex due to the overlapping of numerous layers of various sensitivities.  Excellent results were nevertheless achieved by coupling the use of laser with acidic gel based cleaning. 

Biography: Zoë Allen. 

Zoë Allen first joined the V&A in 2000 to work on gilt wooden objects for the British Galleries, and returned in 2003 where she is now Senior Frames and Gilded Furniture Conservator.

Before joining the V&A full time, she worked as a conservator for both public institutions such as English Heritage and private practices, carrying out projects at the Royal Academy, St Paul’s Cathedral and Somerset House.  Zoë has published articles on her work and in 2009 jointly published a book with Christine Powell, Italian Renaissance Frames at the V&A, A Technical Study.

After a first degree in French Literature, Zoë studied conservation at the City & Guilds of London Art School.  Her training covered the conservation of objects made from wood, stone and other sculptural materials, gilding and decorative surfaces.  Internships included the National Institute for Restoration, Croatia, the Royal Collection, London, and the Museum of London.

Biography: Léa Wegwitz. 

After achieving degrees in Biology and Art History, Léa Wegwitz received her Master’s in Furniture Conservation from the National Institute of Heritage, Paris in 2010, specializing in painted and gilded wooden objects.  She then worked as a freelance conservator for Parisian cultural institutions such as the Musée du Quai Branly for Ethnographical Arts, Chantilly Castle, and the Dutch Institute.

In 2011, Léa worked as Gilded Furniture and Frames Conservator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and since July 2012, has worked as a Frames Conservator at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Since 2009, Léa has worked on a wide variety of decorative surfaces  such as horse-drawn vehicles, furniture, period rooms and frames, leading to numerous research projects such as a survey on bronze paint, temporary consolidation using cyclododecane, the role of protective coatings on oil gilding, adhesives in dry films and a technical study of turtle shell Dutch frames.

Sarah Kay and Catriona Hughes. 

The Picture Gallery and Grand Staircase at Attingham Park: to gild or not to gild? 


For the last six years, the ‘Attingham Re-discovered’ project has been carrying out a long-term programme of improving the late Georgian and Regency interiors of Attingham Park, a vast neo-Palladian National Trust mansion in Shropshire.  The project’s approach has always been a multi-disciplinary one, vital when considering the complex and inter-dependent elements of a series of historic interiors and collections.  The work carried out ranges from conservation to restoration to re-creation, depending on each particular case but, crucially, judged within the context of the whole to maintain a holistic overview and balance. 

The next spaces to come under scrutiny are the iconic Picture Gallery and Grand Staircase built by the Regency architect John Nash in 1805-7 for the extravagant 2nd Lord Berwick.  Designed for maximum effect and illusion, both interiors were lavishly gilded, as archival and eyewitness accounts testify, but, more than 200 years later, both are now very tired and dull.  After much analysis, trials and discussion, sensitive decisions will soon have to be made about which decorative elements might be re-gilded and to what degree, and those that might respond to careful cleaning to revive their appearance.  In addition, the team needs to be alive to the potential detrimental effect of any re-gilding of the interiors to the faded patina of the collection: gilded picture frames and furniture could all be shown to disadvantage by comparison and delicate harmonies of appearance knocked out of kilter. 

A key aspect of the project’s success is not only to be transparent about the skills and techniques of the conservation work itself, but also to share the project team’s dilemmas and decision-making processes with our visitors.  They thus gain insight into the complexities of conservation and are encouraged to consider the careful balancing act that we strive to maintain.  The question of ‘To gild or not to gild’ in the Picture Gallery and Grand Staircase will be no exception. 

Biography: Sarah Kay. 

Sarah (BA (Hons), AMA, Curator) studied languages and the Fine & Decorative Arts before working for Christie’s Fine Art Auctioneers in Munich.  She has worked as a Researcher and Curator for the National Trust for the last thirteen years, the last seven as a Consultant Project Curator, specialising in researching historic interiors and advising on their display, historical accuracy and interpretation.  She is Curator of Attingham Park, National Trust, and since 2006 has managed the Attingham Re-discovered programme of improvements to the mansion’s historic interiors with a strong emphasis on engaging the public through conservation-in-action.

Biography: Catriona Hughes.

Catriona studied Archaeology at the University of Sydney before attaining a Diploma in the Restoration of Antique Ceramics & Glass at West Dean College, England.  She worked in a multi-disciplinary conservation studio in Sydney for eight years, during which time she attended the 11th International Course on the Technology of Stone Conservation run by ICCROM/UNESCO.  She gained a Graduate Diploma in Heritage Conservation at the University of Sydney and has worked in the fields of architectural conservation and collections conservation in private practice and government run departments.  She is currently a freelance project conservator undertaking work at a variety of National Trust and English Heritage properties.

Jane Wilkinson  

Making Mrs Soane’s Morning Room “Permanently Magical”. 


This paper will examine the conservation work now in progress on Mrs Soane’s Morning Room, which is part of the current project to re-instate the private apartments at the museum.  The paper will focus, in particular, on the framed works in the room.  It will illustrate the approach to conservation of objects adopted by curators and conservators at the museum.  It will describe the way in which this is informed by the equal importance given to the collections, their arrangements and context.  It will also detail the stages of research leading to the conservation of the frames and describe the range of approaches and methods used. 

 Part one will explain our conservation approach and how it is informed by the 1833 Act of Parliament, which stipulated the house and collection should be kept ‘as nearly as possible in the state’ it would be at the time of Soane’s death (1837).  It will also describe the historic resources, including archival material, historic images and systems, such as original numbering, which the curators and conservators use to help them research and arrive at decisions.  Giving examples of the varied condition, history and status of frames in the Morning Room, part two will illustrate how it is not always possible, or advisable, to adhere to the same approach in every instance and will explain how we tackle the challenges this creates.  The concluding section will summarise the stage we have reached with the conservation of the objects in the Morning Room by the time of giving this paper. 


Jane Wilkinson has worked at Sir John Soane’s Museum since 1984.  For many years, she was the consultant Works of Art Conservator for the collections and in 2009, she was appointed as the first full-time Conservator at the museum.  As well as carrying out a wide range of treatments to objects, she is responsible for the overall management of the conservation timetable and for the day-to-day care of the museum and its collections.  Jane is also an artist, and the paintings and collage she makes are informed by the culture of collecting and her knowledge of the Soane Museum.