Adventures in Upholstery: Figuring Out French Polish
April 24th, 2013
Thanks to a comment from the incomparable Nick Nicholson, of Nicholson Art Advisory, I’m now pretty sure that my furniture suite is French Polished birch. The good news is I know how to restore the wood finish. The bad news is that I have to French Polish it.
I mentioned this to one of my bridge partners, who owned an antiques and fine art dealership in Berlin, and she related tales of endless buffing, fixing spots on French Polished pieces. Imagine how my shoulder will feel after an entire suite of furniture…
Still undaunted, I ran a quick search of the internet and came up with Project Gutenberg’s French Polishing and Enamelling, by Richard Bitmead, published in London sometime in the late-19th century. Bitmead also wrote guides to upholstery and cabinet-making. I should probably see if I can’t find his work on upholstery…when the time comes for that step of course.
From Bitmead’s preface, describing the invention of French Polish finishing:
Early in the present [19th] century the method generally adopted for polishing furniture was by rubbing with beeswax and turpentine or with linseed-oil. That process, however, was never considered to be very satisfactory, which fact probably led to experiments being made for the discovery of an improvement. The first intimation of success in this direction appeared in the Mechanic’s Magazine of November 22, 1823, and ran as follows: “The Parisians have now introduced an entirely new mode of polishing, which is called plaque, and is to wood precisely what plating is to metal. The wood by some process is made to resemble marble, and has all the beauty of that article with much of its solidity. It is even asserted by persons who have made trial of the new mode that water may be spilled upon it without staining it.” Such was the announcement of an invention which was destined ultimately to become a new industry.
His book also contains sections on dyes, staining, and imitating more costly woods; other types of wood finishes; and even a chapter entitled “Cheap Work,” for those occasions “when economy of time is a consideration.” Hmm, sounds rather tempting.
Shellac, the principle ingredient in French Polish, turns out to be an excretion of the female Lac Bug. Once you get over the ick factor, it’s actually pretty cool. Here’s a blog post I found, detailing the Lac Bug and its many uses.
Bitmead’s treatise covers all the steps required to finish raw wood. Since my wood has already been finished, I will either need to sand it down (not sure how I feel about that, both in terms of effort and ethics) or modify the process a little to account for the previous finish layers. Something tells me I’ll be doing a lot of testing on the back legs…
April 23rd, 2011
Here, finally, are the pictures I took inside Winterthur on the general house tour. Some are a little blurry, as I kept my flash turned off (if all the other tourists knew how much damage they’re doing to the historic surfaces when they flash their cameras, they’d have done the same — and their pictures would have been blurry too).
The house, which was home to a few generations of the DuPont family during the 19th and early 20th centuries, has 175 rooms on 9 floors. Henry Francis DuPont, the last to live there, was a collector of American antique furniture. He filled the house with his collection, eventually moving out to a smaller building nearby so that he could open the house as a museum.
It’s an amazing tour — room after room (we only saw a small portion of the house on the excellently delivered hour-long tour) chock-a-block with fine antiques of every period from the 17th century through the mid-19th. Since it’s mostly a collection of antiques, some of the pieces don’t really make sense. For example, they have at least one secretary or escritoire in every single room. Sometimes two or three. No one writes that many letters. But they were sure beautiful to look at. There are also far more corner cupboards than any sane person would ever own, filled with dishes that weren’t purchased to hold food. An entire pantry was devoted to the display of porcelain candlesticks.
The few nods to social history date to the roaring 20s, when the DuPont family were living in the house and entertaining their fortunate guests amidst all the antiques. What a place to play hide and seek! The faux tea sandwiches and petit-fours were a nice touch.