David Battle - Furniture Maker and Restorer furniture maker - conservation and restoration of period furniture
conservation of fine antique furniture

This article was written in 1994. It  first appeared in Conservation News, the Journal of the United Kingdom For Conservation

Ethical considerations of furniture restoration and the preservation of old finishes

In the last few years there has been a marked and gratifying improvement in the general awareness and attitude towards antique furniture. I have noticed that my customers are now much more educated in the the concept of minimal restoration and the prime importance of age, colour and authenticity.

The debate about how furniture should look and what ethics should apply to restoration has penetrated the restoration trade but it is only a small beginning and there is a paucity of information on the subject. In the ever increasing number of books published about furniture restoration, there is usually only a cursory mention made of ethical considerations and reams about restoration techniques and methods. Students fresh out of college often appear to have little idea or opinion with regard to conservation matters apart from knowing that 'you should keep a bit of age in if you can'.There needs to be a clerearer appreciation of the difference between conservation and restoration and the dangers of unecessary restoration.

The techniques of restoration are not always easy and take years to master but the critical decisions that determine how a piece of furniture should look are still at the mercy of subjective whim rather than strict criteria and it is time that dealers, restorers, collectors and casual buyers understood that antique furniture should look antique and not over restored. A simple test is to contrast much of the over restored furniture selling in shops to the furniture conserved in museums. In the former you are still iable to see rooms full of french polished and perfectly clean furniture that has been 'restored to its former glory' that could have been made yesterday. In the latter you will hopefully see furniture that has been left alone with its blemishes and original colour gloriously alive.

Furniture occupies a curious position in the general debates regarding conservation matters, uneasily straddling the divide between conservation and restoration. What is this difference? With works of pure art the strictest ethical considerations regarding  non-intervention can be applied and therefore we do not see missing faces replaced on statues or missing areas painted in on murals. With applied art forms such as furniture the criteria are a little different For instance it is generally appreciated that a chair functions better with four legs rather than three and that by restoring a fourth leg you are helping to conserve the chair. With only three legs it will keep falling over and suffer further damage. However although furniture is made to be used rather than simply looked at certain conservation practices should always apply and depending on the age, style and importance of the piece of furniture there comes a time when it is appropriate to do nothing to it.

It is now perfectly acceptable to have lots of age showing in Seventeenth Century and early Georgian furnitutre but too much later furniture is being overzealously repolished. One day this furniture will be three hundred years old and different standards of desirability will apply.

Before a chisel has been raised or a brush applied a piece of furniture can be condemned by the application of misguided or unethical technique. For the potential restorer of antique furniture it is important to have an understanding of these ethical considerations. In the years to come it will be those items of furniture that have been ethically and sympathetically restored or not touched at all that will retain their charm and value.

The restorer should always use procedures that are reversible. You should not deliberately fake or alter pieces and intervene as little as possible. You should also have a knowledge of the history of a piece,an understanding of how it was finished and make streuous efforts to use exactly matching and appropriate replacement parts. It is also, important to undertake only that work that you know you can do to a high standard. Good restoration will not damage a piece. Bad restoration seriously damages the charm and value of a piece ofd furniture. But should you also be prepared to show evidence of repair?

Traditionally the skill of the restorer has been his ability to undertake 'invisible mending'. On occasions this is appropriate, for example with veneer repairs and patching, yet strict conservation criteria dictate that any changes to the item should be discernable in the future. In an attempt to answer this question I asked Mr John Kitchen the head of the furniture conservation department of the Victoria andAlbert Museum if he could define the limits to which the resorter should go. His succint reply was that the restorer should only do what is necessary to make the piece presentable. This is quite correct but not unambiguous.  What might be presentable to me might be ugly to someone else. Another restorer I spoke thought that in order not to deceive a repair should be well matched in but still recognisable to the discerning eye of another restorer. Mr Kitchen made the wiseset comment. He strongly believes that each piece of furnitute should have its own passport or log book giving details, and photographs of all repair.

Providing that reversable methods have been employed then there is no problem about deception. At  present it is not unethical to match in new pieces of wood used in repair. What might be unethical is whether the repair is necessary in hte first place. A seventeenth century chair might actually not need to be repaired at all. It is of an age where it can now be seen simply as something to be looed at rather than require repair so that it can be sat on. Should the integrity of the piece be compromised by the addition of new wood so that it can be used? Why not just leave it alone unaltered. It will be much more vauable in this state in one hundred years time if it is left unaltered. If you have a three hundred year old teapot it will be in a collectors cabinet rather than on the kitchen table. The same criteria can apply to furniture. At what age this cut off point between everyday uasge and historical mothballing is to be fixed cannot be answered. However be aware that one day every piece of furniture will be three hundred years old.

At present it is not deemed ethically incorrect to tone in new work to match the exisitng colour and wear of the existing piece. However there are provisos which are based on the age, importance, colour and nature of the piece of furniture.

Assuming a piece of furniture is structurally correct its desirability is judged by its colour and patination and it is this area where the criteria between good and bad, right and wrong are most ambiguous.
It is generally acknowledged that patination is desirable and it is a misconception to equate neglect or dirt with patination. The word is perhapas not fully understoood and originally referred to the the green layer produced by oxidation of bronze. With furniture it refers to the build up of polish on the surface and how through time polish and wood change colour and attract dirt through applications of wax resulting in a layered film containing the subtlest shades and nuances of colour. It also refers to a certain depth of polish and sheen and includes the small knocks and marks that inevitably occur to furniture.

In terms of overall look different criteria apply to different types and ages of furniture. For instance a well used country made table should look very different from a lovingly cared for display piece such as a side table in an important house. With furniture that has been seriously mistreated or damaged and bought back from the dead it is more difficult to apply strict conservation principles. However what is important is that strenuous effort is made to keep original finishes and because well patinated surfaces require more skill and expense to conserve there is still a tendency to remove original finishes if they are deemed unattractive and to repolish.Be aware that fashions change and that what might be unattractive now might be very desirable in later years, especially if it is in original condition. I predict that in fifty years time the desire for authentic and unaltered furniture will be paramount. It is quite likely that restorers will spend most of their time actaully removing previous repairs and exposing original ground work. Somebody will be making a lot of money from their 'stripped MDF' franchise, bemused owners will be going round saying 'they used to paint it'! If you do own or are thinking about restoring a piece of furniture that is in its original condition think carefully, do as little as possible and cherish it. Soon there might not be any left.