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Home | Articles | Lloyd Family Painted Furniture: Revisited

by Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Thomas Heller, Mary McGinn

The discovery of the painted window cornice and table corresponding to receipts in the papers of the Edward Lloyd family of Maryland from the venerable Baltimore fancy furniture painters John and Hugh Finlay (fl. 1800–1835) was presented in last year’s spring issue of this magazine.1 The find unleashed a series of challenging questions about the furniture’s manufacture and history of use, which were discussed in the article. One year later, the conservation and restoration concerns have been addressed, the findings of which are presented here by those involved in the project: Alexandra Kirtley of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, independent furniture conservator Thomas Heller, and independent paintings conservator Mary McGinn.2

Overall Assessment
After many years in storage in the loft of a barn, the cornice box and table were in poor condition, with broken and missing elements, loose joinery, friable paint surfaces (those easily crumbled or reduced to powder), and significant paint loss.

Conservation work-in-progress (title detail); the restored cornice (above).

The cornice as it appeared in January 2002, only six weeks after its discovery in the Wye House barn. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.
Window Cornice
The cornice presented a panoply of exciting questions that required careful navigation.

Without any extant examples to use as models, the authors relied on the physical evidence of the cornice, printed design sources, historic painted and carved wall decoration, and period wallpaper patterns for interpreting the painted decoration and fabric treatments for the restoration.

An assessment of the overall form was first necessary to provide a sense for what was originally intended. In analyzing the cornice design, its relationship to a classical entablature is apparent, with proportions based in Andrea Palladio’s rules of architecture. It is clear that the Finlays, like other American furniture makers, were well versed in the principles of classical architecture and knew how to apply the rules to their work. With their skills in drawing, ancient design principles, and the ability to perform mathematical calculations, the successful period shop master was able to provide his patrons with a piece of furniture that belonged to a tradition based on thousands of years of individual thought and practice. The classical tradition is one reason why these forms endure and attract our continued interest.

The best original surface is in this section of the cornice. Note the tromp l’oeil shadows on the gilt and silvered balls.

Several components, among them the valance board, needed to be reconstructed. Since fragments remained on which to base a design, individual elements were fabricated and fit to extant fragments, with no original material removed.3 Angled kerfs evenly spaced along the bottom of the remaining portion of the valance panel suggested that the missing section was a series of wooden lobed festoons (see top of p. 176). According to design sources, one festoon of upholstery, most likely of silk taffeta, spanned two wooden festoons and directly hung on the panel, the weight of which perhaps caused it to break off. (Silk is crucial in the restoration because synthetic materials do not properly fold or lay.)

The hangings will be recreated and hung from a minimally intrusive structure inside the window cornice. While there was no physical evidence for tassels in between the panels, research clearly indicates that each silk festoon would have been punctuated with long, blue silk tassels.4

Once the shape of the festooned bottom rail panels and the upholstery system had been finalized, the historic precedent for the design of the trompe l’oeil painted drapery on the festoon panel had to be determined. Wallpaper samples were examined, as were books on painted furniture. Among the sources studied were the painted walls of a house in Scotland County, North Carolina, painted by an I. [J] Scott in 1836,5 which offered a close parallel to the concept on the cornice.

Restoring the festoon panels based on surviving paint and construction details.
English neoclassical design sources abound with examples of stylized cornice decoration as seen on this cornice, for both window boxes and bed cornices that undoubtedly inspired the cabinet and chair makers in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Baltimore. The pair of cornices the Lloyds purchased from John and Hugh Finlay on April 3, 1828, for $7 each (and of which only this one survives) is an amalgam of designs with no one clear and direct source. Plate 12 in Thomas Sheraton’s Accompaniment to the Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book (London, 1794) illustrates several related designs. The most similar, marked No 1, shows diamonds interwoven with a ribbon similar to the interwoven paterae on the Lloyd’s cornice. The festoon-shaped bottom panel of No 4 has painted decoration with fabric behind it. A plate for a drawing room cornice from Rudolph Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts (II, 6, plate 32, page 365) from December, 1818, has a central medallion bearing a dancing goddess as well as a highly developed running Greek scroll similar to the Greek key flanking the central medallion of this cornice. Archives of Gillows & Co. of Lancaster, England, contain drawings of six window cornices dating from 1785 to 1790 that illustrate the same wide projecting top molding, middle frieze, and trompe l’oeil decorated festooned lower panel punctuated by long tassels.6 In the end, the drapery design selected was based most closely on Sheraton’s designs.

The conservation treatment of the cornice was driven by the owner’s desire to re-install it in her home. It was important to preserve as much of the original painted decoration as possible and to use materials in the restoration that could, in the long term, be removed without damage to the original. Fortunately, the surviving paint was in remarkably good condition, the brilliant colors still saturated by a very old, probably original varnish layer. Preliminary examination of cross-sections under ultraviolet light and with the aid of fluorochromes indicated that the binding medium of the cornice paint is primarily oil, although some of the layers contain resin, carbohydrates and/or proteins. The ground or priming layer appears to be gesso. Resins such as mastic or copal, which can increase gloss and transparency, are often used in glazes, evidence of which is found on the cornice. Conveniently, resins can also speed up drying time, no doubt an important consideration in a busy shop. Carbohydrates such as gum arabic or tragacanth and proteins, such as egg or casein added to oil paint also decrease drying time and add body to the paint.

Consistent with the owner’s desire to use the object, a comprehensive campaign of filling and in-painting was undertaken to restore the overall surface and design. After stabilization of the flaking paint7 and removal of the substantial layer of dirt,8 the losses were filled and “in-painted.” The gesso fills were painted using a medium reversible in mineral spirits, a mild solvent that will not adversely affect the original paint or varnish. In general, loss compensation on painted furniture is limited to those areas where damage has occurred by accident or because of expansion and contraction of the wood substrate. Paint losses resulting from normal wear and tear are often left untouched as “evidence of use.” In this case, the object would not have accumulated much wear during its useful life, as it hung high over a window. Most of the extensive losses probably occurred during the long period in storage, the result of extreme swings in relative humidity and temperature along with exposure to water, microbes, insects, and animals.
The table in as-found condition, January 2002. Photography by Gavin Ashworth.

The painted decoration was applied after all of the elements were attached and assembled. Judging from the regularity of the designs, a stencil or some other means of transfer was used to lay out the design elements. The paint layers were applied free hand, but methodically, each layer applied over a dry surface. Details such as the running leaves involved four or more distinct layers of paint. Despite the systematic application, the execution was extraordinarily loose and delicate.

Decoration on the proper right rail and leg is in the best condition.
The surface decoration of the table has not survived as well as that on the cornice box. Priority was given to stabilizing the surface to prevent further deterioration. It has proven difficult to fully retrieve what must have once been a brilliant, delicately delineated metal leaf design on a deeply saturated black background. The initial cleaning did allow, however, for analysis of the gilt decoration and its comparison with similar tables boasting the trophies of music.

The table, which corresponds to one of several purchases the Lloyds made to the Finlays between 1809 and 1815,9 was solidly constructed in a manner consistent with the best mahogany neoclassical tables from Baltimore, with pine, oak, and maple secondary woods.10 The proper left front leg is missing and appears to have been fractured in the area of the leg stile. The mystery of the missing leaf remains unsolved. Parts of both hinges survive, suggesting that they were ripped out, perhaps in the same destructive event in which the leg was lost. Amazingly, however, the table was saved.

January 2003: The surface has been stabilized in preparation for full restoration in the near future.

The conservation of the table was temporarily halted before any further conclusions could be drawn in order to concentrate on the conservation and restoration of the cornice for the upcoming publication and exhibition, American Fancy, organized by Sumpter Priddy III. The Lloyd proprietress of Wye House, located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Mrs. R. Carmichael Tilghman (Mary Donnell Tilghman), recently promised her ancestor’s table to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

None of this research, conservation, and restoration would be possible without the support of Mary Donnell Tilghman and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley is Assistant Curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art;

Thomas Heller is an independent furniture conservator in Philadelphia;

Mary McGinn is an independent paintings conservator in Philadelphia.

Photography, unless noted, by the authors.

  1. Kirtley, “New Discoveries in Baltimore Painted Furniture,” Catalogue of Antiques & Fine Art (Spring 2002): 204-209.

  2. Independent historic textile fabrication specialist, Clarissa Barnes deMuzio, was consulted on the interpretation of the fabric.

  3. The ends of the cornice box are mitered and reinforced with square cut nails and the valance board is attached with screws. Two small metal brackets, screwed to the inside of the substrate may have been used to hang the cornice box. Small notches in the lower rear corner of the return were cut at Wye House to fit around a window casing for which the cornice was not originally intended.

  4. A design in Rudolph Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts is the clearest inspiration for the future upholstery of the cornice.

  5. Now at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg. See Schaffner and Klein, American Painted Furniture, 1790–1880 (1998), 158.

  6. See Lindsay Boynton, editor, Gillows Furniture Designs, 1760–1800, London, The Bloomfield Press, 1995, plates 15 and 16. Other possible sources include Hepplewhite’s The Cabinetmaker and Upholsterer’s Guide (London, third edition, 1794), which illustrates related bed cornices on plates 95, 98, 101, and 107.

  7. The flaking paint was consolidated with sturgeon glue by brushing the warm diluted adhesive through Japanese tissue laid on the paint surface. As the glue gelled, the tissue and paint flakes were set down with a warm tacking iron. After drying, the tissue was dampened and carefully removed. Flakes that adhered to the tissue could then be easily reattached to the wood.

  8. After consolidation, the surface was cleaned with a mild detergent solution to remove the substantial dirt layer. The varnish was removed only from the areas of white paint, which were most affected by the color shift and which could be cleaned safely.

  9. Kirtley, “New Discoveries in Baltimore Painted Furniture.”

  10. Wood identification by eye. The curved apron sections are glued up from narrow pieces of pine and the double fly rails rotate on five-section wood hinges designed to stop the travel of the leg at 90 degrees to the rear apron. The table battens are not tongue and grooved to the top, but appear to be joined with blind mortise and tenons. Battens were added to the ends of the board by the maker for stability.

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