Reconstruction in conservation-restoration?
Gloss and colour of the surfaces of a piece of furniture showing typical red Mahogany aspect
The proposal is about a bureau of late Biedermeier-period (around 1840) from Northern
Germany. All outer surfaces as well as those of the interior of the desk leaf are covered
with Mahogany and similar red veneer. Investigations proved the surfaces being
burnished with drying oil and polished with shellac. Historical sources describe this
special technology in different variations. Oil-burnishing always combines the
smoothening effect with the aim of enhancing colour and saturation of the veneer. In the
case of the bureau rests of dragon’s blood dyestuff have been detected within the wood
pores. Obviously the bureau originally has been treated to follow the aesthetical ideal of a
heightened deep red Mahogany aspect, showing further perfect glossy surfaces – a
common decoration concept of classicism and Biedermeier. The technology of treating
Mahogany veneer surfaces is described in many relevant books around 1800.
During the years the bureau suffered from photo ageing as well as from use, now
showing bleached and dull surfaces. The original concept hardly can be perceived and
the shellac polish is brittle, rough and fragile. Especially in the area of pores and wood
rays the coating splinters and crazes, pushing the shellac film to opacity. From the
preservation point of view as well as out of aesthetical considerations a need for action
was seen. Several approaches of ‘reanimation’ by typical conservation-restoration
measures to a certain extent failed, because the non-acceptable appearance of the
surfaces remained. The shellac polish could be stabilized and gloss was enhanced,
however the film stays nearly non-transparent and the veneer continues to be nonsaturated
and dull brownish.
What next? Keeping the idea of reviving the strong aspect of deep red and glossy
Mahogany surfaces old literature was consulted and sample boards were produced in
order to discuss the concept of reconstruction. Especially with regard to the beautiful
arrangement of pyramidal textured veneer on the frontals of the drawers it seems that just
stopping after conservation and leaving the surfaces dull and opaque does not satisfy the
mayor aspect of the bureau, being a valuable imposing piece of furniture.
The proposal will discuss the pros and cons of reconstruction and will deal with the
question: Do conservator-restorers always have to resist the concept of ‘reconstruction’?