Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Musings of a China Restorer..............

I have just been going back over past posts. Not something I do, but I just thought it would be interesting to see what I had written, the title really doesn't give away too much.

One post I wrote said that this would be MY last year as Workshop Director of ACCQF. How dumb was that!? I can reassure you that it won't be, as I'm having way too much fun, and things will be easier as I now have an International Consulting Committee, so our title will be ACCQFICC, (or if it's easier, "aquafik" as opposed to Aquavit which is a Danish Schnapps).

I had a lovely day yesterday, which sort of led me back to my older posts as I had friends visiting for lunch. They were interested in seeing my studio. Lunch was wonderful, and we had great food, conversation and even let the husband join us for a little while, then we all trooped downstairs, minus the husband. I showed them some of my work, and then we started talking about china /ceramic repairs, did I have any I could show them? Well only those I did for my diploma about 20 years ago, but like most restorers, you never did your own work, bit like the shoemaker's children.

I thought I might bore you to death with this post and explain in a little more detail the finer points of Ceramic Conservation.

I sort of fell into it almost by accident. At the time, I was trying to make a living as a dealer in 1930's china. The only thing was I wasn't very good at it and didn't always buy the things that people really wanted to buy, but on the other hand, as a collector, I collected some pretty choice pieces. I had high hopes for the pieces I did buy, and some good items came my way but were damaged. Well, that was a shame, and they were not as easy to sell because of that, so...........oh look, The local Adult Education brochure has landed on the mat. I wonder if there is anything interesting? English, French, computers.... now lets have a look at the Arts section.,oh, dance, watercolour Acrylic, well I can't paint so no point, oh, what's this? China Restoration? A one day class on a Saturday to let people try it out with a view to them signing up for a full course, well, what do you think husband, shall we give it a try?

I spent a bit of time running around collecting bits for the class, broken ceramics were not a problem,  it was the materials needed, and off we went. There were quite a lot of people there, and our tutor was a lovely elegant Dutch lady called Blanche. She explained what we would be covering during that day, which wasn't much really, but just gave a taste of what it was all about. I obviously enjoyed it very much as I signed up for her class which ran every week for a school year.

Blanche was fun to be with, and had a class of about 12 eager students.  She explained how to take old repairs apart, clean them  etc,. etc., but, if I explain how she did it, it negates my post, I want to tell you how I did it. Anyway, I was with Blanche for about a year, at the end of which she said to me, "I have taught you everything I know, you can go off and restore for other people". Well, that left me a little scared and nervous to say the least.

I had a subscription to the Antiques Trade Gazette which arrived faithfully every Tuesday morning without fail, and was something I read avidly. It listed upcoming Auctions, Antique Shows, viewings at Auction houses nationally and in London and Auction reports.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I would visit Auction houses in London just to be able to see things I could never afford, and to handle them. My area of interest as mentioned was Art Deco, and I also liked Art Nouveau, but Deco ceramics were my thing. I could generally be found at a specialist sale in Christies South Kensington viewing Clarice Cliff,  Susie Cooper and any other number of bits and pieces, silver, jewellery and anything else that was on offer. I had some very good buys for our own collection, a Susie Cooper plate painted with a Scottie dog which had been bought by a friend on behalf of someone else who didn't come through with the money, so I was able to take that off his hands, another time, I was able to purchase a Wilhelm Wagenfeld glass tea set after the sale as it wasn't sold during the auction. I still have it, and the surprise is that it is as light as a feather, there is no weight in the cups or saucers and they are so delicate. Anyway, I digress, it was through the Antiques Trade Gazette that I stumbled across an advert for a China Restoration Diploma course to be held at Burton Manor College on the Wirral. If your wondering where the Wirral is, it is that piece of land that sticks out between Liverpool and North Wales and looks a bit like an arm on the map of Great Britain.

It was a two year part time Diploma, and would mean me travelling up every six weeks from Friday to Sunday and a week long Summer School. So off I went.  I was very nervous the first time, and found my way -pre GPS- and checked in, the college was residential and quite old fashioned as a building, it had been the home of the son of William Ewart Gladstone.

Burton Manor College  photo by Nigel Cox

The main building housed the students and we sometimes had our classroom in there too, there was a dining room and we were fed well. 

My tutor was the lovely Helen Potter. Helen was a wonderful restorer and worked for Museums as well as doing private work. She also taught Botanical painting which I did a couple of times with her. We became very good friends and I would often go up and stay with Helen, who lived in a delightful cottage behind a Hotel in Wallasey with her Mother and her daughter. The cottage was just lovely but small and had originally been part of the coach house of the Hotel, it was down a very narrow lane with a very sharp L turn and enough parking for one car only. I used to sit with my eyes closed if we went out anywhere, as Helen and her Mother were no taller than four feet nine inches, and they would reverse the car out into the street around this L turn, (it wasn't even a curve but a definite L). As I am five feet nine inches tall, I felt like a giant in this cottage. Helen's father had renovated the cottage and it was lovely, the stairs were open plan wooden planks and no hand rail, both Helen and her Mother, because they were short would come down in stilettos, I would crab walk sideways and I wore flat shoes.

But back to restoration. The weekends at Burton Manor were  also very social, there were a couple of ladies who came down from Scotland, so it was a bit of a competition to see who had travelled the furthest. Helen stayed over too, so the evenings after class finished were quite riotous with laughter and one evening, we stacked all the furniture in the sitting room along the walls while a couple of them got their accordions out and Helen and the teacher of Massage, who was Scottish, taught us Scottish Country dancing, it was hilarious as we had no clue what we were doing, but we gamely threw ourselves into it.

Now Helen and the husband share the same birthday, albeit some years apart, but she always referred to him as her "bruv". One weekend, the husband came up to Burton and took part in the class. He and Helen were standing in the queue for lunch, and Helen said to the chef, "have you met my twin brother?" The husband was standing right next to her. It is worth bearing in mind that the husband is over six feet tall and dark haired, and as mentioned Helen was 4 feet nine at a push and blonde. Chef looked at the husband and said he didn't know how he lived with her!! We thought it was very funny.

I tried to do a fair bit of homework in between, and generally went up with items in various stages of repair, but tried hard to keep to the curriculum. The week long Sumer School was great fun, and we did colour charts. I'm sure some of you might be thinking this is so BORING, but trust me, knowing how to paint a colour chart and use it has stood me in good stead.
My first colour chart and colour wheel below

We used 7 colours to create almost 200, and also did a white chart which was even harder. When you look at ceramics,- and I mean REALLY look- you find that white is not white. I think most people who know nothing about restoring think you slap a bit of white paint on and thats it,  so what's the problem? Well white contains more than white, Titanium white is the purest white, so that was always my base colour and then you looked harder and could see other colours in it. The basic recipe was always Titanium white, Raw Umber and Cobalt Blue in varying degrees, try it and see what you come up with. Use the white as the base, and add the other two in small increments, dab a tiny amount on your white china and see if you can match it- I dare you. it's not as easy as it looks, but after 20 years I'm (almost) a dab hand at it.
The white chart

I redid the colour chart a couple of years ago now, but it didn't hurt to go through the exercise again. We all see colour differently which is another good reason to do it, for some reason, my colours are always pale, although I dress in much richer shades  

I seem to remember uproar at painting the charts, there were one or two who felt that it wasn't necessary, but I am so glad I did. Even if I couldn't match a colour from them, it pointed me in the right direction. But, I am jumping way ahead here. The first thing you need to do is to wash you pieces, so hot water with just a dash of soap is in order.....................

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