AFTER more than 17 months of work, the restoration of the Cucci cabinets, on display at Alnwick Castle since 1930, is complete. The Kent-based conservator Yannick Chastang was chosen to restore what he calls “the most valuable pieces of furniture in the world”.
A cast iron royal provenance underlies the importance of the
Alnwick cabinets. Commissioned by Louis XIV, designed by Charles Le
Brun, made at the Gobelins by Domenico Cucci and delivered to the
palace of Versailles in 1683, they are the only fully-documented
Sun King cabinets in existence today.
At the height of his career in Paris, the Italian artist
Domenico Cucci (1640-1705) was producing arguably the most
extravagant and most expensive furniture of all time. However,
changing fashion and their inherent fragility dictated that much
was dismantled. Indeed, during the 1740s, many of the Louis XIV
pietra dura furnishings at Versailles were sent to the newly
established natural history museum in Paris. The polished stones
were removed for display in the minerals gallery.
The Alnwick cabinets, sold from the French royal collection in
1751 (and restored in 1753), are first mentioned among the chattels
of the Duke of Northumberland in a bill sent to the 3rd Duke in
1822. The following year the stands were re-gilded and two new
ebonised plinths made to allow for better display in the Saloon at
Northumberland House in London, where the cabinets were kept until
1874, when the house was demolished; 1823 was the last time they
The cabinets remain in largely original condition. However,
furniture combining wood with hard stone marquetry is extremely
sensitive to climatic change and air pollution, and the pair were
in urgent need of conservation to stabilise lifting inlays caused
by the drying out of original adhesives.
A panel of curators and conservators from the Duke of
Northumberland's collection, the Victoria & Albert Museum in
London, the National Trust and Versailles formed a plan of action
and the treasures were sent to Yannick Chastang's Sittingbourne
workshop in July 2009.
Twenty-first century conservation (all of it fully and easily
reversible) is a fascinating combination of cutting-edge science
and traditional techniques.
Carefully re-applying the hardstone decoration involved matching
then modifying the original wax-based glue to improve its
compatibility with wood and stone. Where previous repairs had been
made using an inappropriate adhesive, these unstable areas were
carefully un-restored and consolidated. The monkey marquetry panel
was a challenge. Previously restored with plaster, it was entirely
lifted from its slate backing before the plaster could be removed
and replaced with the wax adhesive.
By using solvent fumes and poultices of a neutral cleaning
agent, the mercury gilded bronze mounts, exposed to high levels of
air pollution while the cabinets resided in Victorian London, were
cleaned without damaging the gilded surface layer.
Xr-F analysis, only available to the conservation community for
around five years, was used to determine the precise composition of
the alloy. A database of results is being created that will help
determine the differences between, for example, 17th, 18th and 19th
century bronze: already Mr Chastang said the Xr-F results from the
Alnwick Castle cabinets are helping firm up other pieces in museums
and private collections.
To ensure the recently-cleaned mounts do not appear too garish -
and to create more depth to the chasing of the gilded sculptural
elements - they were treated with a final protective application of
coloured wax, a method known in the 18th century as mise en
couleur de l'or.
Section analysis (and the recent emergence at a Paris flea
market of two early 18th century coloured engravings of the
cabinets) showed that the dark green paint to the distinctive
carved ox legs was old but not original, while it emerged the stand
had in fact been re-gilded twice since the late 17th century.
As the original Louis XIV water gilding was extremely damaged,
it was decided to preserve and clean the 1823 gilding layer that
proved to be in better condition than first expected. "Conserving
gilded furniture always presents the interesting challenge of
knowing where to stop," commented Mr Chastang.
From start to finish the work took almost a year and a half and
involved the input of four conservators. The newly restored
cabinets, currently awaiting photography, will be on view at
Alnwick Castle from April 1.
By Roland Arkell
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