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Gilding at the Royal Pavilion

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Here in the conservation team at the Royal Pavilion & Museums, one of our main projects at the moment is the restoration of the Royal Pavilion Saloon. This is a large scale project with a lot of work involved, and I’m very excited to see it completed next year.

Nash’s view of the Saloon, 1826

Part of my role in this project is to assist our Gilding Conservator in the re-gilding and conservation of the gilded frames and internal fittings for the room. This has been a great opportunity because it means I have been able to learn the art of water gilding which, as a metals conservator, I’ve not had the opportunity to practice fully before.

This is such an interesting process because when you see a gilt frame or object in a museum, it’s not immediately obvious how much work is involved in the process of gilding. For this reason I want to share the different stages of the process involved. One of the great things about gilding is that the process has had little need to change since it was developed by master craftsmen many years ago.

Each frame length that is in need of re-gilding is approximately three metres long and takes on average one month to complete from start to finish. You can just about see the gilt frame pieces around the red silks and mirrors in the image above.

The initial stage is to remove the bronze paint layers from previous restorations of the room (gilding that is original or in good condition is not re-gilded, but cleaned instead) followed by the application of gesso.

Application of gesso over stripped paint surface

Gesso is a mixture of whiting (a fine chalk) and rabbit skin glue which is applied in about six thin layers. This is a very important stage because each layer has to be applied whilst the one below it is still damp but not dry. If this is not done correctly then the layers can crack and flake away in the future, ruining the gilding you’ve done over the top.

After the gesso ground comes the sanding and smoothing of the surface. This can take a while, so it’s important to be patient, as the perfect ground will now look beautiful when it comes to gilding later.

Next we get to start adding colour. First is the yellow ochre layer. This is about two coats and is a thin yellow clay mixed with rabbit skin glue. It’s important to get this to fully cover the white ground, particularly in recesses that may be difficult to gild later. This is followed by the bole layer which for the Regency period is a purplish colour, but this is the red layer you may be used to seeing under worn gilded surfaces. This layer is built up until it is a solid colour, and then gently rubbed down to create the smoothest surface possible.


Detail of applied ochre layer

Detail of initial gilding over bole and ochre layer

And then comes, for me, the most satisfying part – the application of the first gold layer. A lot of care needs to be taken when applying the gold as it is very thin and therefore fragile. The gold is laid flat on the cushion and cut to size with the knife (care is taken not to breathe too much near the gold as this can dislodge it from the cushion). Each piece is then picked up with the gilders tip (the tip is dry, but rubbed on your hair or arm to pick up a fine grease layer which will then attract the gold). Water is brushed on to the area to gild – traditionally gin has been used – and the tip brought to the surface. The water attracts the gold and pulls it onto the surface where it then sticks once the water has dried (due to all those layers with rabbit skin glue added).

First application of gold over the bole

The whole surface is gilded and the skewings removed (these are kept as they can be used to make shell gold for other jobs). Then a layer of double laying size is brushed over the top of this first gold layer and, once dry, the second layer of gold is applied. This covers any breaks in the first layer, and also gives a more solid appearance to the piece. After this the surface is faulted – which means re-gilding small areas which may have been missed, so that the surface is fully covered. Parchment size is used to seal this layer after it is finished, and acts as a protective coating which can be removed and reapplied when needed. Varnishes can be used, depending on the nature of the object and its location. The coatings stop dirt and dust from becoming mechanically bound to the gold and so the surfaces will last longer.

Detail of completed frame length

And then it’s finished and is ready to be used. So on to the next piece!

Hannah Young, Assistant Conservator