Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Long Recovery for a Secretary

Shelburne Museum was fortunate to come through Tropical Storm Irene unscathed. Many of our neighbors, especially in the southern part of the state, were not so fortunate and our hearts go out to them as they cope with the aftermath of this disaster of historic proportions.

As Vermonters have tried to come to terms with the damage wrought by Irene, comparisons to the Great Flood of 1927 have often been made.

The 1927 storm is the stuff of legend. Over three days in November, it destroyed over 1000 bridges, miles of roadways, and countless structures. Eighty-four people died as a result, including the lieutenant governor. UVM's Landscape Change Project includes many amazing pictures of the devastation in 1927 and what those very same places looked like in 2004. It is interesting to consider those images and amazing that we can still find evidence of that disaster in a piece of furniture in our collection.

In 2000, the museum acquired a piece of furniture that still bore damage from the 1927 flood. The bookcase and drop front desk, or secretary, made c. 1820-1840 by Royalton, VT cabinetmaker John Marshall (1787-1860), was donated to the museum by a descendent of its maker.

The bookcase portion of the John Marshall secretary before treatment in 2000.

The desk portion of the John Marshall secretary before treatment in 2000.

Made of rosewood and walnut veneers on poplar and pine, almost none of the original finish remained, either having been removed by water damage or an aborted attempt at repair and refinishing. All of the glass panes on the bookcase doors, except one, were lost. Half of the green wool cover, called baize, on the desk writing surface was lost; the other half was moth-eaten and faded. More challenging was that about 15% of the veneers were lost, including a large chunk of the book matched burl was missing from the top drawer front. Burl veneer is difficult to cut and thus is thicker. The chances of finding a contemporary piece of wood veneer that would be a good match would be slight at best.

Rather than using wood to fill this loss, I worked together with then post-graduate conservation intern Michaela Niero to make laminated paper veneers painted and varnished to imitate the burl, based on a flipped digital image of the remaining burl veneer on the opposite side of the drawer. We created paper laminate veneers that replicated other veneer losses too. The paper laminate was cut to fit and adhered in place using a reversible adhesive. While it would have been wonderful to use wood, the paper laminate is a pretty good visual replacement. The curators also asked me to replace the missing glass, drawer pull, and the baize as well as refinish the piece so that its surfaces looked appropriately uniform. A local wood turner made the replacement pull for the desk, appropriate glass was found at architectural salvage shops, and green baize was acquired for the desk top. An isolating layer of varnish was applied to the wood surfaces before new layers of varnish were applied to harmonize the disparate wood colors and uneven layers of varnish.

The secretary after treatment in 2000.

The secretary is now on view in the Dutton House. Though its not the same as it would have been had it not gone through the 1927 flood, it does have a very special provenance.

If you have works of art or family heirlooms that got wet during Tropical Storm Irene, there are a number of resources available to help you salvage (if they're still wet or muddy) and find help to conserve and restore them.

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