Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Conserving an Eighteenth-Century French Sedan Chair: Condition Assessment (Part 1 of 2)

Court to Café, part of the Passport to Paris exhibition, includes eight period decorative arts pieces from the Denver Art Museum’s own collections—seven furniture items and one mantle clock. When conservators examined the objects several months before the exhibition to determine if they needed treatment prior to display, they were pleased to note that the objects were in fairly good condition, requiring only minimal cleaning and some other minor and localized treatment. However, one furniture piece was found to be in unstable condition and in need of extensive conservation treatment to stabilize its structural and surface elements and unify its appearance. This piece was an eighteenth-century French sedan chair. (Funding to prepare all of these items for display was generously provided by the Stockman Family Foundation.)

Sedan Chair, mid-eighteenth century, Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mrs. Christopher Dobbins. Front side, before treatment.

Sedan Chair, mid-eighteenth century, Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mrs. Christopher Dobbins. Front side, before treatment.
 

Historically, sedan chairs were used in France to transport the wealthy elite. Their enclosed compartments protected passengers from dirty streets and inclement weather. Wooden staves were slotted through metal brackets on two sides of the chair. Four men, two on each side, would lift the chair and rider via the wood staves and hand carry the occupant to their destination. This particular sedan chair is a composite object with many different materials:  wood, leather, silk, paint, canvas, gold gilt, iron, copper alloy tacks, and horse hair, rush, and straw stuffing. Due to the great variety of materials, collaboration between several conservators with different specializations was needed to develop a comprehensive treatment plan. Objects, textiles, and paintings conservators from the Denver Art Museum conservation department participated, as did out-of-house contract conservators Mark Minor, a furniture specialist, and Paulette Reading, a specialist in textiles, who are both part of the Mountain States Art Conservation group. Each conservator performed an examination and assessment regarding the condition of the chair and then discussed proposals for treatment to produce a coordinated, ethical, and cohesive conservation approach.

The furniture and objects conservators determined that the chair’s wooden frame was actually structurally sound. However, the leather panels attached to the frame and forming the walls of the compartment exhibited several localized tears, areas of detachment, and associated losses. Many of the gilded moldings on the exterior of the chair were partially detached and/or loose, and some of the gilt was chipped or abraded off.

Detail of tears, distortion, and loss to leather around door handle.

Detail of tears, distortion, and loss to leather around door handle.
 

The exterior of the leather panels is decorated with painted images. An extensive floral motif is painted directly on the leather panels, and four painted canvases depicting period vignettes are also attached to the leather. The paintings had been previously coated with varnish, which had yellowed over time. The paintings conservator determined that the painted surfaces were in stable condition but needed cleaning and cosmetic treatment (compensation) to better integrate the images.

 

Detail of one of the painted canvases, showing yellowed varnish with varnish removal test in upper right corner.

Detail of one of the painted canvases, showing yellowed varnish with varnish removal test in upper right corner.

The material in the worst condition was the sedan chair’s fabric interior. The existing silk damask lining of the interior of the chair revealed many instabilities such as tears, slits, and fabric loss. The damask covered seat cushion was so badly damaged that the stuffing was visible and in danger of falling out. The textile conservators proposed the use of silk fabric back supports and overlays that would be secured into position to locally stabilize the damaged and fragile fabric.   

 

Detail of seat cushion showing shattered silk and exposed rush stuffing.

Detail of seat cushion showing shattered silk and exposed rush stuffing.

The next step was to discuss and refine the treatment proposals with curatorial colleagues from the DAM’s painting and sculpture department, which organized Court to Café, and the architecture, design, and graphics department, whose collection the sedan chair belongs to. Once the treatment proposal was finalized, treatment of the sedan chair began. Be sure to check out Part 2 of this blog entry for details of what the conservators did.

Image credit: Sedan Chair, mid-eighteenth century, Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mrs. Christopher Dobbins. On view in Court to Café.

Gina Laurin is a senior objects conservator at the Denver Art Museum.