The world’s second oldest profession

Back in March, I was privileged to attend a three day course on water gilding at WestDeanCollege, the impressive home of the Edward James Trust. It was established by the late Edward James, reputedly an illegitimate son of Edward VII , who was a friend and contemporary of John Betjeman and a sponsor of Salvador Dali.

West Dean College

West Dean College is dedicated to the visual arts and crafts.

By applying a thin covering of gold to a prepared surface an appearance of solid gold can be achieved – without the cost and weight of the solid metal. This art can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians – it has been described as the second oldest profession! In fact all the tools and materials I used would have been familiar to Italian Renaissance craftsman. The materials are all naturally occurring substances – gold, rabbit skin glue, chalk/gypsum and pipe clay.

Two test pieces

Two test pieces

Firstly the wood needs to be sized with hot rabbitskin glue before the application of ‘Gesso’ – a plaster like substance being a mixture of animal glue and either chalk or gypsum. The Gesso provides a smooth stable bed for the application of the gold leaf and anything between 8 to 20 coats may be required. Then you do a dry rub down with fine silicon paper, to achieve a surface for gilding, this process can take hours.

Gesso applied, dried and rubbed down

Gesso applied, dried and rubbed down

The next step is the application of  ‘Bole’  – this makes the Gesso less porous thus slowing the absorption of the size water when applying the gold leaf. As gold leaf is translucent, yellow bole (2 or 3 coats) provides colour enrichment beneath the gold, whilst red bole burnishes better and is used for highlights.

Yellow and red bole after application

The gold leaf is cut to the required size on a gilder’s cushion and put in place with a small flat brush known as a ‘tip’ after first applying ‘size water’ – a mixture of  glue size water and meths. By keeping the ‘tip’ moist with petroleum jelly it will lift the goldleaf which in turn is drawn off the tip by the moisture in the size water. Gild from the upper surfaces downwards – making sure each leaf overlaps. When almost dry begin burnishing with an agate stone hammer – gentle sweeps over the surface gradually increasing pressure until required finish is achieved.

All that glitters may well be MDF!

This fascinating and immensely rewarding course has broadened the skills of both myself and the department and potentially could be developed to care for items  in the National Collection such as picture frames and furniture as well as offering a stepping stone towards oil gilding and the care of railway vehicles.

Oil gilding could be used to care for many items within the collection

Oil gilding could be used to care for many items within the collection

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About Chris Binks - Conservation Assistant

I am a Conversation Assistant at the National Railway Museum in York, UK.
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