The Hunt

The Hunt

Restoring a Victorian era Equestrian Art Folding Screen


Published: 2/29/2016
By: Jerome Vernon
About the Author: Jerome Vernon is a software developer/project manager and an avid antiques enthusiast. When Jerome’s not busy creating business related software products for his clients he’s restoring antiques and writing articles for Restoration News.
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The Hunt

Restoring a Victorian Equestrian Art Folding Screen

As a young boy I remember visiting the Santa Anita horse race track (California) where my uncle worked. I particularly enjoyed touring the stables and visiting with the jockeys, trainers and owners. Ever since, equestrian sports have always drawn my attention. It was of no great surprise to my wife when I arrived home with the Victorian era oil-on-board folding screen shown left. As far as folding screens go this one is huge; nearly 7ft tall and 8ft wide with a striking depiction of a traditional British fox hunt. 

Fox hunting is the sport of mounted riders following a pack of hounds that are hunting a fox by scent. The sport originated in 16th century Great Britain and unlike other types of hunting, is centered on the chase rather than the kill. It is a formal, expensive, and time-consuming activity with a traditional etiquette, uniform and terminology.  Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries equestrian sports became incessantly popular all over the world, including in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, and the United States. Owing to the side saddle, not until the Late-Victorian era, fox hunting held real dangers for women. With the invention of the safety skirt in 1875 and the apron skirt in the 1890s, along with saddle innovations there was increasing participation in the sport by women riders, who began to ride astride.

Largely influenced by celebrated artists, most notably John Frederick Herring and his three sons, equestrian sports became a widely popular theme in paintings, pottery and interior décor.

Based on the women riders attire, construction materials\technique and craquelure; I estimate the creation date of this art piece to be somewhere between 1875 to 1895. Although striking, this piece has substantial damage overall. Judging by the numerous holes, abrasions and cracks to the artwork surface, it appears that the screen has fallen over on at least one occasion. The framework on the right-hand corner is broken leaving the adjoining leg unstable. Most of the hinges have either missing pins, incorrect screws and/or stripped mounting holes. Worse yet, a previous repair attempt has only served to further the damage. 

Our restoration plan will be to reverse the previous repair attempt damages, repair the broken framework thus stabilizing the wobbly leg, refinish the opaque surfaces and to patch and repaint/touchup areas of the damaged artwork.


Process Steps

Repair/patch Holes in Artwork

As some point in recent history an individual had attempted to repair the holes and cracks to the artwork by pealing the artboard from its framework. This attempt only contributed to further damage and left unsightly countersunk screws and putty marks along the panel margins. 

A better idea is to apply durable patches to the rear of the artboard via access cutouts through the rear panels of the folding screen. Afterwards, fresh 1/8th inch cabinet grade birch plywood will be overlaid on the rear of each panel.

To begin, the hinges are removed from each section of the folding screen. To protect the artwork surface, a thick shop blanket is laid across the workbench. (Hint: when roaming second-hand stores, I keep a lookout for old woolen military blankets to be used in the workshop.) The blade on a circular saw is set to approximately 3/16th inch cutting depth. Access holes are cut directly over each area to be repaired.

Several ¾ inch MDF platens are pre-cut and will be used to sandwich the repair patch to the artboard during glue-up\clamping. Wax paper is used on both sides of the repair to prevent glue from contacting the platen(s). The rear panel cutout scraps are re-used as patch material which will be affixed to the rear of the artboard, directly to each area of damage.
 
To protect the artwork, wax paper is laid across the bottom platen which is then positioned under the artboard. For this project, Titebond® II PVA glue is used to apply the patch over the defect area.  A relatively thick layer of PVA glue is applied to both patch and rear of artboard using a glue roller and allowed to tack-up for approximately 10 minutes.  The patch is then aligned over the defect and overlaid with another sheet of wax paper. The top MDF platen(s) are then positioned over the wax paper layer.

A common 2x4 cut to the width of the workbench is firmly clamped over the platen(s) and the glue-up is left to cure for 3 to 4 hours. This process was repeated to patch/repair each area of damage on all four panels.


Repair Broken Framework \ Unstable Leg

Another area requiring structural repair is the broken framework to the lower right-hand corner and resulting unstable leg.

A solid birch panel is cut and thickness planned to fit. Pocket screw holes are predrilled along the perimeter of the birch panel. Ample PVA glue is applied to the entire underside of birch panel and along the framework. Next, the panel is positioned tightly against the framework and screwed into place. The panel is left undisturbed overnight to cure. The remaining gaps are filled using a 2-part epoxy putty wood filler.


Replace Rear Panels

After applying the patches behind the holes and cracks in the artboard and repairing the damaged framework, fresh 1/8th inch cabinet grade birch plywood is overlaid on the rear of each panel. A combination of wood glue and finishing nails are used to attach the plywood. Several 4ft by 8ft sheets of plywood are cut into individual panels. The plywood is cut oversized by approximately 4 inches to allow plenty of room for easy alignment on all sides.

For this step, a relatively thick coat of Titebond® II Interior/exterior PVA glue is applied to the rear of each panel using a glue roller. The plywood is positioned over the panel with approximately 2 inches of overhang around the perimeters. Several 5/8 inch 18 gage finishing nails are used to initially tack the replacement plywood in place while trimming.

To trim the replacement plywood flush with the curvatures of the panels, a Whiteside 1/8th inch diameter spiral-flush-trim-bit is used. This router bit has a guide bushing to prevent the bit from cutting into the folding screen framework. A lightweight trim router makes this a simple and quick task and the bit provides a clean, splinter free flush cut.

After trimming, 5/8 inch 18 gage finishing nails are countersunk around the perimeters at approximately 6 inch intervals. A dab of Mohawk Finishing Products Patchal® putty (Beige Tone) is used to fill the nail holes. Patchal® putty has a creamy texture and is easily applied and wiped clean by fingertip.

The final step in preparing the fresh birch plywood for finishing is to lightly sand the surface. This was done using 6 inch P240 Abranet® abrasive discs and a MIRKA® DREOS (random orbital sander) set to a modest speed.


Fill, Repaint/Touchup Artwork and Refinish Frame

This is the most extensive yet rewarding step in our restoration project. First, each of the voids, which were patched from behind, are filled, smoothed and sanded. During a previous repair attempt flathead wood screws were countersunk along much of the artwork perimeter. All screws are removed and loose areas of the artboard are attached to the framework using gap-filling cyanoacrylate adhesive.

Loose debris are removed from all holes, cracks and gouges in the artboard. Mohawk Finishing Products ‘Quick Fill’ burn-in sticks are melted and drizzled into the voids (slightly overfilled). A small torch is used to gently melt the stick. Once cooled, Quick Fill burn-in sticks are rigid yet flexible enough to shrink and contract with changing ambient conditions and, without separating from the substrate.
After filling, excess fill stick material is removed and made level with the surrounding surface using a propane powered burn-in knife. The adjoining areas are block-sanded as needed to level the surrounding raised/deformed substrate.
A light coat of Mohawk Finishing Products Burn-in sealer is sprayed over the repaired areas to prevents the burn-in stick paraffin from diffusing into subsequent coatings.

Artist oil paints are used to repaint/touchup defects to the artwork. Here, naphtha is used as needed to reduce the viscosity of the oil paints to a usable consistency. As with any touchup restoration project, one objective is to apply the least amount of material possible.  Large areas of defects, such as the sky in this case, require repainting of the entire pane. Other less damaged areas are touched up by applying unreduced oil paint over the defect then, gently blending to its surroundings using a clean brush dipped in solvent. I found it helpful to follow original brush strokes. Also, to tint/tone the colors for highlights/shading dependent on the angle of the depicted light source. For stippling, the angle of the brush helps in replicating areas of direct/indirect light and shading. Fortunately for this piece, little mixing of custom colors is needed as the artwork was mostly done in stock colors such as burnt/raw sienna, umber, yellow ochre white, black, gray and so on. For a uniform sheen, the artwork is sealed with a light coat of flat lacquer aerosol.

Following repainting and touchup procedures, the artboard is thoroughly masked in preparation for finishing the gesso style frame. All nail holes, gouges and cracks to the frame are filled, primed and sanded. Next, several coats of antique gold lacquer are sprayed applied over the entire artwork frame.

Once cured, a small amount of lemon shellac (1-pound cut) is mixed with a few drops of Vandyke brown TransTint® dye. The watery shellac/dye mixture, is applied to the frame by brush and readily flows into the cracks and crevices. Excess shellac/dye material is wiped away with a clean lint-free rag. This process creates the emphases of depth and somewhat darker overall appearance.

After the shellac/dye layer fully cures, raised areas of the frame are emphasized. This is done using Artist Supplies & Products Gilders Paste (bronze colored) by rag to the raised surface areas of the frame. Gilders Paste is similar to shoe polish in consistency and can be thinned using mineral spirits or naphtha. It’s available in a multitude of colors and can be applied by rag or brush (when reduced to a paint-like consistency). After applying the bronze Gilders Paste for the desired effect, a full-solids coat of clear satin is applied to the entire frame surrounding the artwork.


Apply Finish to Rear of Panels and Reassemble

Prior to finishing the rear panel, the folding screen is pre-assembled. Most of the existing hinges have either missing pins, incorrect screws and/or stripped mounting holes. The original hinge mounting holes are filled using an epoxy putty stick and the sides of each frame section are painted by brush in black opaque lacquer. New (old-stock) solid brass hinges are re-mounted slightly offset to their original locations to avoid tapping into the original (filled) screw holes. After pre-assembled, the hinges are removed and the edges are masked in preparation for rear panel finishing.

The original color of the rear panels was black which, in my opinion, absorbed far too much light. Being a room divider, I feel the rear facing room space needs to be lighter/brighter so will apply a French provincial style finish. In this step, lots of materials are spray applied, a 2-quart pressure-pot attached to an Apollo Spray Systems 8200 series spray gun is used. For the base coat, Mohawk Finishing Products gloss white colored lacquer is applied un-reduced in two passes then allowed to cure for four hours.

The next step, is to apply some color with a subtle wood graining effect. Mohawk Finishing Products light golden oak Wiping Wood Stain provides the pale-yellow hue with slightly darker shading that’s typical of traditional French provincial style finishes.
 
The oil-based light golden oak stain is applied heavily using a lint-free rag and allowed to gel for 15 minutes or so. Next, a clean lint-free rag is used to lightly sweep the slightly stain across the entire length of the panel. For more contrast (more solids), additional stain is added as needed. However, each application of stain re-melts previously applied material so additional time is needed to allow the stain to partially cure (gel). The idea is to have ample solids in gel-state on the substrate to eventually and effectively produce the desired artificial grain pattern effect. After staining/graining, the panels are left untouched to cure for 24 hours. (Note: Prior to applying the top coat extreme care is taken to not touch the pre-stained panels which would smear the meticulously applied material.)

For the top coat, unreduced satin sheen Mohawk Finishing Products Buffcote lacquer is spray applied in two passes.  Buffcote lacquer has a slight amber color and provides durability along with a hand-rubbed look straight from the can.

Although not the French ‘poli-cire’ approach, this easy-to-apply and elegant pale-yellow French provincial style finish reacts impressively under changing lighting conditions. Notice how the yellow hue is significantly more pronounced under lower color temperature lighting conditions while appearing more subdued as color temperature increases.


Conclusion

I’m not an artist but do find it gratifying to bring the dilapidated to dazzling; an old and damaged piece of artwork tends to provide a low-cost and pliable medium for quick and simple transformations. When selecting an art restoration project from antique outlets, an attempt should be taken to identify the period, artist and significance of the piece to determine its rarity and value. For a fun learning project, damaged antique “production” artwork is plentiful and economical.

Because of its huge size and diverse damage, this piece was more challenging. Repairing holes in artwork involves patching from behind then filling/leveling from the front. Independent of material, (canvas, wood, paper…)  a rear facing patch usually results in level distortions to the area of the patch which then needs to be graded to its surroundings. Fill material (wax, putty, gesso…) is added gradually, allowed to cure and leveled between each subsequent application. The final layer of fill material is textured to match the substrate before adding color. Even with all these steps, a critical observer can usually spot an area of repair with ease. Some leeway is allowed for repairs and quality of work often follows much practice.

In this article, each process step reveled a host of proven applicable products and repair techniques which can be readily applied to your upcoming projects. I did find one unique product, (Artist Supplies & Products Gilders Paste) to be particularly suitable for antique restoration work and believe it would be a fantastic augmentation to any finishers toolbox of capabilities. All-in-all, I’m happy with the results this project. The biggest deviation from the original, was the decision to change the bleak backside color of the folding screen from black to a pale-yellow French provincial style finish. I perceive this piece being placed in an equestrian themed restaurant, tavern, retail establishment, or large home. From a particle standpoint, the chosen rear-facing finish will reflect light, thus making the space more visibility grand and usable to its new owner.







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References Related Items
   
Levels of Finish Damage and Touchup products
   Wood Touchup and Finish Repair Primer
   
Lighting and Color Theory
   Wood Touchup and Finish Repair Primer

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