This article was written in 1994. It
first appeared in Conservation News, the Journal of the United
Kingdom For Conservation
Ethical considerations of furniture restoration and the preservation
of old finishes
In the last few years there has been a marked and gratifying
improvement in the general awareness and attitude towards antique
furniture. I have noticed that my customers are now much more
educated in the the concept of minimal restoration and the prime
importance of age, colour and authenticity.
The debate about how furniture should look and what ethics should
apply to restoration has penetrated the restoration trade but
it is only a small beginning and there is a paucity of information
on the subject. In the ever increasing number of books published
about furniture restoration, there is usually only a cursory mention
made of ethical considerations and reams about restoration techniques
and methods. Students fresh out of college often appear to have
little idea or opinion with regard to conservation matters apart
from knowing that 'you should keep a bit of age in if you
can'.There needs to be a clerearer appreciation of the difference
between conservation and restoration and the dangers of unecessary
The techniques of restoration are not always easy and take years
to master but the critical decisions that determine how a piece
of furniture should look are still at the mercy of subjective
whim rather than strict criteria and it is time that dealers,
restorers, collectors and casual buyers understood that antique
furniture should look antique and not over restored. A simple
test is to contrast much of the over restored furniture selling
in shops to the furniture conserved in museums. In the former
you are still iable to see rooms full of french polished and perfectly
clean furniture that has been 'restored to its former glory'
that could have been made yesterday. In the latter you will hopefully
see furniture that has been left alone with its blemishes and
original colour gloriously alive.
Furniture occupies a curious position in the general debates regarding
conservation matters, uneasily straddling the divide between conservation
and restoration. What is this difference? With works of pure art
the strictest ethical considerations regarding non-intervention
can be applied and therefore we do not see missing faces replaced
on statues or missing areas painted in on murals. With applied
art forms such as furniture the criteria are a little different
For instance it is generally appreciated that a chair functions
better with four legs rather than three and that by restoring
a fourth leg you are helping to conserve the chair. With only
three legs it will keep falling over and suffer further damage.
However although furniture is made to be used rather than simply
looked at certain conservation practices should always apply and
depending on the age, style and importance of the piece of furniture
there comes a time when it is appropriate to do nothing to it.
It is now perfectly acceptable to have lots of age showing in
Seventeenth Century and early Georgian furnitutre but too much
later furniture is being overzealously repolished. One day this
furniture will be three hundred years old and different standards
of desirability will apply.
Before a chisel has been raised or a brush applied a piece of
furniture can be condemned by the application of misguided or
unethical technique. For the potential restorer of antique furniture
it is important to have an understanding of these ethical considerations.
In the years to come it will be those items of furniture that
have been ethically and sympathetically restored or not touched
at all that will retain their charm and value.
The restorer should always use procedures that are reversible.
You should not deliberately fake or alter pieces and intervene
as little as possible. You should also have a knowledge of the
history of a piece,an understanding of how it was finished and
make streuous efforts to use exactly matching and appropriate
replacement parts. It is also, important to undertake only that
work that you know you can do to a high standard. Good restoration
will not damage a piece. Bad restoration seriously damages the
charm and value of a piece ofd furniture. But should you also
be prepared to show evidence of repair?
Traditionally the skill of the restorer has been his ability to
undertake 'invisible mending'. On occasions this is appropriate,
for example with veneer repairs and patching, yet strict conservation
criteria dictate that any changes to the item should be discernable
in the future. In an attempt to answer this question I asked Mr
John Kitchen the head of the furniture conservation department
of the Victoria andAlbert Museum if he could define the limits
to which the resorter should go. His succint reply was that the
restorer should only do what is necessary to make the piece presentable.
This is quite correct but not unambiguous. What might be
presentable to me might be ugly to someone else. Another restorer
I spoke thought that in order not to deceive a repair should be
well matched in but still recognisable to the discerning eye of
another restorer. Mr Kitchen made the wiseset comment. He strongly
believes that each piece of furnitute should have its own passport
or log book giving details, and photographs of all repair.
Providing that reversable methods have been employed then there
is no problem about deception. At present it is not unethical
to match in new pieces of wood used in repair. What might be unethical
is whether the repair is necessary in hte first place. A seventeenth
century chair might actually not need to be repaired at all. It
is of an age where it can now be seen simply as something to be
looed at rather than require repair so that it can be sat on.
Should the integrity of the piece be compromised by the addition
of new wood so that it can be used? Why not just leave it alone
unaltered. It will be much more vauable in this state in one hundred
years time if it is left unaltered. If you have a three hundred
year old teapot it will be in a collectors cabinet rather than
on the kitchen table. The same criteria can apply to furniture.
At what age this cut off point between everyday uasge and historical
mothballing is to be fixed cannot be answered. However be aware
that one day every piece of furniture will be three hundred years
At present it is not deemed ethically incorrect to tone in new
work to match the exisitng colour and wear of the existing piece.
However there are provisos which are based on the age, importance,
colour and nature of the piece of furniture.
Assuming a piece of furniture is structurally correct its desirability
is judged by its colour and patination and it is this area where
the criteria between good and bad, right and wrong are most ambiguous.
It is generally acknowledged that patination is desirable and
it is a misconception to equate neglect or dirt with patination.
The word is perhapas not fully understoood and originally referred
to the the green layer produced by oxidation of bronze. With furniture
it refers to the build up of polish on the surface and how through
time polish and wood change colour and attract dirt through applications
of wax resulting in a layered film containing the subtlest shades
and nuances of colour. It also refers to a certain depth of polish
and sheen and includes the small knocks and marks that inevitably
occur to furniture.
In terms of overall look different criteria apply to different
types and ages of furniture. For instance a well used country
made table should look very different from a lovingly cared for
display piece such as a side table in an important house. With
furniture that has been seriously mistreated or damaged and bought
back from the dead it is more difficult to apply strict conservation
principles. However what is important is that strenuous effort
is made to keep original finishes and because well patinated surfaces
require more skill and expense to conserve there is still a tendency
to remove original finishes if they are deemed unattractive and
to repolish.Be aware that fashions change and that what might
be unattractive now might be very desirable in later years, especially
if it is in original condition. I predict that in fifty years
time the desire for authentic and unaltered furniture will be
paramount. It is quite likely that restorers will spend most of
their time actaully removing previous repairs and exposing original
ground work. Somebody will be making a lot of money from their
'stripped MDF' franchise, bemused owners will be going
round saying 'they used to paint it'! If you do own or
are thinking about restoring a piece of furniture that is in its
original condition think carefully, do as little as possible and
cherish it. Soon there might not be any left.