Restoring our 18th century commodes

18th century commode showing cracks prior to restoration at Uppark, West Sussex

We've recently restored our 18th-century lacquered commodes, originally commissioned as a pair by Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh, who bought Uppark in 1747.

Despite their oriental appearance, they were made in London around 1765 by the highly regarded French cabinet maker Pierre Langlois. Their exotic style was much in demand during the 18th-century having been introduced to England by the East India Company, in which Sir Matthew was a major shareholder.

Their finish was designed to replicate a technique popular in Asia of coating objects in the sap of the native Toxicodendron Vernicifluum tree, more commonly known as the Chinese lacquer tree. The recreation of this technique became known as 'japanning'.

What's a commode?

Although today the word 'commode' is often associated with a kind of toilet, in the 18th-century it was used to describe a low cabinet or chest of drawers with a gracefully curved or serpentine front. The commodes at Uppark are particularly notable for their carved gilt-wood beading, foliate borders, and a series of panels depicting scenes of oriental palace life.

The top of one of the commodes prior to restoration, with surface cracks and lifting lacquer.
Top surface of 18th century commode at Uppark, West Sussex
The top of one of the commodes prior to restoration, with surface cracks and lifting lacquer.

Why did they need restoring?

Over the years, shrinkage in some of the panels had damaged the lacquer veneer with cracks as wide as 5mm appearing in places, while some sections were lifting at the edges. The top had become bowed, while the front had sagged slightly, causing the doors to bind. Carved edges had accumulated various chips, the gilding was flaking in areas, and the legs were in need of repair.

Tarnished wax, accumulated varnish and missing lacquer on the sides of one of the commodes prior to restoration.
Tarnished wax and accumulated varnish on 18th century commode at Uppark, West Sussex
Tarnished wax, accumulated varnish and missing lacquer on the sides of one of the commodes prior to restoration.

Tests showed that the blooming to the surface was in fact a layer of beeswax that had deteriorated in the sunlight. A sample dated to the 1930s indicated it was probably applied as part of conservation work by Lady Meade-Fetherstonhaugh and her team.

The tarnished wax (seen on the left) was removed, revealing the original detail (right).
Restoration of the 18th century commodes at Uppark, West Sussex
The tarnished wax (seen on the left) was removed, revealing the original detail (right).

Where were they restored?

One at a time, the commodes were removed and taken to a specialist conservation workshop. However, transporting a quarter of a million pounds of precious historical artefact isn't for the faint-hearted. Conservation tape with starch paste was applied over cracks and loose areas before the entire commode was carefully wrapped ready for its journey.

Damaged and delicate areas being protected prior to transport.
Preparing an 18th commode for transport at Uppark, West Sussex
Damaged and delicate areas being protected prior to transport.

What work was carried out?

On arrival, the component parts were removed so that they could be thoroughly assessed.

The layer of tarnished wax was found to have slumped in places making it thicker, while accumulations in the beading concealed much of their definition. Using specialist chemicals this was carefully removed, revealing the original detail beneath.

The carved leaves had been restored in the past by applying new oil gilding, but once removed this exposed the original water gilding beneath, revealing the veins in the leaves that had previously been obscured.

Individual veins in the carved leaves could be discerned once the later gilding was removed.
Carved detail of the 18th century commode at Uppark, West Sussex
Individual veins in the carved leaves could be discerned once the later gilding was removed.

Splits in the panels were infilled with balsa fillets with an acrylic filler carefully placed on top, before being blended in to match the tone of the surrounding area. Meanwhile, the leg structures were stabilised and the gilt-bronze scroll-work cleaned and re-attached.

The legs were stabilised and the gilt-bronze scroll-work cleaned.
Carved foot detail of the 18th century commode at Uppark, West Sussex
The legs were stabilised and the gilt-bronze scroll-work cleaned.

More involved, however, was the process of restoring the lacquered panels themselves. Where areas had become cracked and started to lift, they were returned to their original shape by pre-wetting the underside and carefully applying warmth to the lacquer followed by gentle pressure.

Applying pressure with flexible thermoplastic sticks, inspired by the Japanese technique Shimbari.
Restoration of the 18th century commodes at Uppark, West Sussex
Applying pressure with flexible thermoplastic sticks, inspired by the Japanese technique Shimbari.

Inspired by the Japanese process of Shimbari, flexible thermoplastic sticks were braced against a frame as a means of applying pressure to a specific area, a method that is especially useful where a conventional clamp cannot be used.

The top panel required particularly careful restoration. With the wax removed, layers of red and black lacquer could be seen beneath a protective varnish. Where the varnish had flaked away, it had unfortunately taken the lacquer with it. The gilt scenes were originally created by sprinkling varying combinations of gold and silver powder over wet lacquer, allowing elements of the design to be distinguished in tone such as the horse from its rider.

The top panel was in need of particularly careful restoration.
Top panel of the 18th century commode at Uppark, West Sussex
The top panel was in need of particularly careful restoration.

It can be tempting during restoration to achieve an 'as new' finish, but Uppark's conservation team always strive to ensure each piece fits within the room it is displayed. In the case of the commodes, that means the craquelure effect (the fine pattern of cracking on the surface) was preserved while any new carved or gilded pieces were toned down to match.

The craquelure effect was preserved during the restoration.
Front doors of the 18th century commode at Uppark, West Sussex
The craquelure effect was preserved during the restoration.

How long did it take?

Work began in August 2016 and by late September 2017, after hundreds of hours' work by skilled conservators, both commodes had been restored and returned to their original positions in the Red Drawing Room.

The results speak for themselves. Make sure you take a look on your next visit.

The restored commodes returned to their original positions in the Red Drawing Room.
Pair of 18th century commodes in the Red Drawing Room at Uppark, West Sussex
The restored commodes returned to their original positions in the Red Drawing Room.