Issue Four T.O.C. – “Entrusted to Our Care: An Interview with Furniture Conservator Christine Thomson”

Tomorrow the last article of the Issue Four table of contents will be announced. Every weekday until the February 1st opening of Issue Four pre-orders, we've been announcing one article from the table of contents here on the blog. If you have yet to sign up for a yearly subscription, you can do so here. 

In producing Issue Four, we were privileged to sit down with furniture conservator Christine Thomson to discuss how conservation theory intersects with her daily shop practice. Christine has been involved in the conservation of historic furniture since her days in college. Her background working for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (Now Historic New England) and Robert Mussey Associates, Inc. prepared her open her own private practice conservation studio in Salem, Mass. Today, Christine and her assistant, Wenda, focus on finish treatments for historically significant objects and collaborate with woodworkers, upholsterers, and metals specialists to offer comprehensive conservation treatments.

Christine says, "My interest in furniture and wooden objects led to a fascination with varnishes, and has taken me down the path of research into traditional materials and recipes for furniture finishes. Early on, I also became intrigued with learning how to gild with gold leaf. The only book I could find on the subject in the early 1980’s was in French, and since my French was rudimentary, I would stare at the pictures to try to understand exactly how it was done.  I learned about gesso, and found out the hard way that gesso for gilding is not the acrylic-based stuff you buy in the store for priming canvases. It is instead a very precise mixture of chalk and rabbitskin glue, applied in several layers as a ground layer for gilding. I also learned about bole, which is naturally occurring clay mixed with rabbitskin glue, and how it is critical to creating a burnished gilded surface. I taught myself to gild through trial and error, but now it is much easier to learn this unique skill through the many sources for teaching gilding, including books, videos and study courses.  Along with practicing gilding I have experimented with traditional varnish recipes and also with decorative paint treatments, including faux graining, marbleizing and glazing."

Christine’s also very involved in research into period craft methodology. Her fascination with American “japanned” decoration led her to analyze, document, and catalogue every single known surviving example of “japanned” work made in Boston.


In this in-depth interview, Christine discusses some of the ins and outs of conservation principals such as “reversibility” and “minimally invasive treatment”. It is fascinating to see how these lofty ideals play out in the real world of her private practice studio work. In her microscopic analysis of historic surfaces over the years, Christine has discovered original layers of wax finishes, surprisingly brilliant pigments, and early natural resin varnishes. These findings have led her to experiment with wild period varnish recipes – so wild, in fact, that they are too dangerous to mix indoors.

Christine is one fascinating lady. Her winsome articulations of the conservation profession are well worth hearing out.

You can reserve your copy of Issue Four here.


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