Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Conserving an Eighteenth-Century French Sedan Chair: Treatment (Part 2 of 2)

The successful conservation of the sedan chair now on display in Court to Café relied on a collaborative approach with conservators providing expertise in the treatment of furniture, objects, paintings, and textiles. As presented in Part 1 of this blog, the leather, paintings, and textile components of the sedan chair all needed attention. The goal of the treatment was to stabilize and visually integrate these elements through minimal treatment and using stable and reversible conservation materials, as required by conservation ethics. 

The repair of tears and areas of detachment to the leather was a two-person task, carried out by myself and contract furniture conservator Mark Minor. It was decided that patches needed to be attached behind torn and distorted areas to stabilize the worst areas of damage. Often, there was no direct access to the back of the leather panels to attach a backing, as the interior panels of the chair are padded and upholstered in silk damask. We devised a treatment approach to attach a patch cut from an inert, thin, and rigid support material (often used in paintings conservation) with one side coated with a heat sensitive adhesive. Placement of the patch used a technique for repairing stringed instruments such as guitars and violins where access to the interior is also not an option. Small holes were made in the patch, and fishing line was strung through the holes. Then the patch was inserted behind the leather through a tear with the fishing line protruding out. The fishing line was used to make fine adjustments to the position of the patch. Then, while one conservator gently pulled the patch forward with the fishing line, the other applied a heated spatula to the surface of the leather over the patch. The heat from the spatula activated the adhesive on the patch, allowing the patch to stick to the back of the leather. Once the patch was securely adhered, the fishing line was removed.  

The treatment of the paintings and painted leather, by paintings conservator James Squires, aimed to provide an even and integrated overall appearance. The painted canvases (vignettes) and the painted leather panels were first cleaned to remove grime. The old, yellowed varnish was then removed from the vignettes, and a new, protective, clear varnish coating was applied to them.  Before a final varnish layer was applied, distracting areas where chips of paint were missing were “inpainted” or filled in to match the surrounding areas, when deemed visually appropriate. The amount and location of inpainting was discussed and agreed upon with the curators’ input. None of the inpainting covered original paint, and the inpainting is also completely reversible, in accordance with conservation ethics. Finally, a clear varnish incorporating a small amount of wax was brush-applied in two coats to the leather panels to give them an even appearance.

For the conservation of the textiles on the interior, the decision was made to only stabilize the existing, original fabric rather than trying to recreate the full damask pattern.  The latter approach would have required commissioning weaving of the same damask fabric as the original and then covering the original with the new fabric. Here, showing the stabilized original fabric, though not in perfect condition, was considered preferable. The first step of the treatment was to surface-clean the interior of the chair to remove accumulated dirt, dust, and debris. As with the treatment of the leather, support materials were vital to repair and stabilize the very fragile and “shattered” silk damask. New nylon netting and silk fabric were custom-dyed to blend with the sedan chair fabric. The silk backing fabric was inserted behind splits, tears, and losses.  All of the existing threads of the damask were then painstakingly untangled, realigned, and pinned into position. Stitching techniques typical of textile conservation were used to secure the threads as much as possible. In a few areas that could not be stitched, conservation quality adhesives were used carefully and minimally. Areas of damage susceptible to abrasion such as door openings and windowsills were encapsulated with nylon netting to protect them.  Condition assessment and dying of the support materials were performed by textile conservator Allison McCloskey and the surface cleaning, stabilization, and repairs by contract textile conservator Paulette Reading.

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

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

Conservation’s role, although “behind the scenes,” supports and augments museum programming and curatorial departmental goals by ensuring that collection objects such as the sedan chair are in a stable state and preserved within a low-risk, suitable environment. Examination, condition assessment and treatment are crucial processes implemented by conservators to support the future preservation of collections.

Additional images of before and after treatment are presented in the slide show below.

Image credit: Sedan Chair, mid-18th century, Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mrs. Christopher Dobbins, 1980.82.  On view in Court to Café.

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