Decorative Paint Conservation: Wilderstein Library

Decorative Paint Conservation: Wilderstein Library

Rhinebeck, New York

Decorated by Joseph Burr Tiffany (a cousin of Louis Comfort Tiffany) in 1888, the library ceiling at Wilderstein was executed in a “Flemish Revival Style” and was  intended to represent an illuminated manuscript, composed of foliate branches, stems and leaves, painted and stenciled on old parchment.  When we first viewed the ceiling as part of a comprehensive conservation report, all of the surviving portions of the ceiling were black from soot.  As part of our investigation as to why this ceiling had so dramatically changed color, we discovered through finish analysis that the brown glaze applied to create the effect of parchment was composed of linseed oil.  This permanently sticky liquid had absorbed great quantities of soot from the draughty fireplace and changed the color of the ceiling.

Once we began the process of decorative paint cleaning and conservation for the ceiling, it became necessary that we first find a way to remove this glaze.  After several attempts we were able to devise a cleaning formula which removed the glaze and left the design intact.  This was, however, only one of the problems this room presented.

A flat roof above this ceiling had leaked intermittently and about one third of the ceiling had lost key and collapsed.  We were fortunate to find a skilled plasterer, who replaced the missing areas without damaging the surviving decorative paint design surfaces.  This left us with large and completely blank areas.

Fortunately the design was symmetrical so that lost areas on one side were in fact repeated on opposite parts of the ceiling, which had already been conserved.  By tracing surviving areas we could restore missing areas.  This work all had to be done free hand and completed in such a way that it imitated the style of the original group of artisans.  Our use of similar quill lettering brushes made this much less difficult.  Once we had restored the design in the lost areas, we darkened the new work to match the original brown glaze.  The final step was to apply the gold accents, which united the original and replacement parts of the ceiling.

Architect: Arnout Cannon Jr. & Joseph Burr Tiffany, 1888