One of my most favoured pieces of furniture, the George III bureau, is not only aesthetically appealing, but also a technical achievement in detail and application. The japanned bureau with its 6 small internal drawers and its contemporary English lacquered stand is proudly displayed as one of Mrs Greville’s finest pieces of furniture. The bureau’s incredible craftsmanship and delicate internal structure reveals the possibility of its purpose as decorative rather than functional. As a collected treasure it underwent extensive conservation from February to June 2013.
The bureau was not in a great condition and required a conservator to evaluate its condition, stability and structure. The drawer and the side handles were loose, particularly the left drawer handle which was split and detached. Also the lock required a new key as it did not work properly. It is important to note that when opening a delicate cabinet, chest or drawer the must not be forced if it feels stiff or difficult because it may cause damage. The varnish on the beautifully decorated gilt landscape on black ground was discoloured which can also affect the lacquer coating. Lacquer is the product of Urushi – a resin obtained from the sap of the Urushi tree. The transformed liquid into lacquer is then coated on the wood furniture up to 30 times, each coat taking 48 hours to dry and then decorated typically with landscape, building, people and animal imagery. When exposed over a period of time to UV light, fluctuating temperate and levels of humidity and poor handling causes damage to the multi-layered coating, gilt and internal structure. The bureau was packed in a purpose-made case and transported for restoration and analysis. The surface was cleaned and parts re-varnished, areas filled and re-touched, the handles repaired and re-fastened and the lock repaired and an appropriate key made. Further treatment in consisted of surface consolidation, cleaning and varnishing.
The japanned stand is an additional feature added to the bureau perhaps by Mrs Greville after purchase. The stand was similarly damaged and required conservation to its structure. There were several visible fractures to the corner brackets at the top of its legs. Because of extensive exposure to UV light, the japanned decoration on the stand suffered light damage and fading. Similarly to the lacquered bureau, the stand’s japanned surface was severely fractured and the varnish discoloured. The demand for Chinese and Japanese lacquer-work grew, however the secret of its process was highly guarded. Japanning was developed in the 17th century as a form of imitation with varied techniques, tools and material. The process of japanning involves applying a multitude of layers which increases the visual quality but on the other hand it is vulnerable to damage. Typically gesso was applied as an under layer and then coated with spirit varnish and various soluble resins and drying oils, including shellac. Exposed to the environment and changes in relative humidity can start the process of shrinkage and cracking in the wood. The object suffered stress, damage and loss in the japanning coating, including outer varnish and the multitude of layers underneath. The japanned decoration was cleaned with white spirits and tri-ammonium citrate. Two small chips were re-touched with acrylic paints. The stand was then varnished with two thin coats of Ketone RK20 conservation grade varnish.
The bureau is now restored and protected from further damage by the conservation assistants who maintain a vigilant eye on UV light, woodworms and other pests, humidity and dust.