Boucher Room at the Frick Museum in New York

In the summer of 2010, I completed a big project in the well-known museum, The Frick Collection. The estate sits on a picturesque block in the Upper East Side of New York City, across the street from Central Park.

Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) built this 18th century, French-style estate in the early 1900’s to house a sizable collection of artwork, furniture, manuscripts and more.

In 1905, the ornamentation panels found in The Boucher Room made their way to the US from a castle in France.  At first, they were installed in a bedroom, but in the 1950’s, they were moved to the first floor.  What is now known as the Boucher Room, consists of one room and 2 connecting hallways.   A prestigious team of wood carvers, recreated the ornamentation style to fit the panels and surrounding areas.  The room features include, large panels, ornate molding and ornaments, towering panels by Boucher, and a focal mantle.  The decorative painting techniques we used were; “French Patina”, ornamentation, striping, gilding, faux marble, and aging.

The project leader from  the Frick called me up to discuss this project.  The room was in need of renovation (including new lighting) and the decorative painting had lost its quality over the decades with contrived techniques and aging substrates. Because of this, the decorative painting wasn’t worth preserving, thus making this a complete re-do.  I was asked to lead the painting renovation. Previously, my company, Grand Illusion Decorative Painting, Inc. had been asked to renovate The Fragonard Room and also painted several faux marble pedestals.

In this article, I’d like to take you through the many steps needed to complete the delicate historical reconstitution, and intricate process.  You will read about the meetings, concepts, installations, application, and final steps to completion.

Step 1:  Establishing the existing look I took several photos of the room before the furniture and paintings were removed.  I had to take pictures of every area since we’d be painting over everything. This was a crucial step because I was able to study each area and think about my plan.

Step 2:  Scrape survey Since the museum committee pays attention to historical details, I wasn’t shocked when they ordered a scrape survey.  This fascinating test describes details of the paint layers and reveals historical clues.  The data showed that the last renovation was done in the early 80’s where a glazing was done with an oil glaze (which yellowed badly) and the carved elements were decorated with rather, “speedy” hands.   Note: In the 1980s, deco paint jobs were done by house painters with limited experience.  This was the end of three decades of challenging times for the industry.

Step 3:  First meeting Since I already snapped a bunch of photos and my head was in it, I was prepared for my first meeting.  I met the director of the museum to find out what they were looking for.   It was decided that the main goal was to re-create the 18th century -period look, but with modern products that will withstand future decades. He stressed the importance of “framing” the artwork, by complimenting the panels of  Boucher.  Note:  Often I find that artisans struggle with taking second fiddle to the artists work.  You must embrace the idea that your work doesn’t have to be the focal point. In this case, my skills were servicing the artwork, not the other way around.

Step 4:  The Contract As I do with most projects, I broke up the contract into 2 parts:  preparation/base coat; and decorative painting.  From there, I further broke up each of the 3 rooms (main room plus 2 hallways) with both sections.  That left me with 6 contracts with prices based on square footage.  In my experience, this is the best way to deal with any size job so that items can be removed or added easily.  Also, this method allows for payment for completed rooms as they are delivered.  I asked for a 50% deposit.

Step 5:  Color design and first samples Because of my previous relationship with the museum, they trusted me come up with a color scheme, practically unguided.  I returned to the museum to study the space in its natural light and focused on the Boucher panels.  I concentrated on pulling out blues and grey and translated them into a range of colors from multiple color charts.  Soon, I was able to visualize the room from floor to ceiling.

I suggested darkening the ceiling (to compliment the mood), making the transition to the wall less drastic.  This look was achieved by choosing gradual colors for the crown and intermediate crown.  This was my last chance to see the room with the paintings still in place.  In my studio, I created a 3-dimentional ¼ panel sample for my meeting with the curator.  It was a simple rendering just for color placement only.  This sample allows me to show the tonalities of the panel, stiles/rails, molding, and baseboard.  I brought this by the curator and he thought I was on the right track for the big meeting with the entire board of directors.
Step 6:  The prep begins The rooms were closed off to the public and the paintings, furniture, and fixtures were all moved into the museum vault.  My crew protected the floor and started the preparation process.  The ceiling needed a large amount of repair (due to new light fixtures installed). Also, the walls needed much attention (heavy sanding, loose paint to be removed, and divots to patch).  After that long and messy process, we put a coat of clear shellac on all surfaces to seal.  We were ready for the basecoat.

Step 7:  On-site sampling For the big meeting with the board of directors, I prepared to do a floor-to-ceiling sample.  I asked that a few paintings be pulled from the vault and proper lighting to be connected.  I mixed the base colors for each section of the room.    When I was happy with the tonalities (after testing each color on a sample card), I preserved a long, vertical section for proper viewing.  The panels and millwork were to be painted with what I call, French Patina.  This technique mimics the “ropey” texture of  the painting style of the 18th century.  This ropey-ness was due to the limiting material (rabbit skin glue, whiting, and pigment were the ingredients).  Before the meeting, I had prepared everything but the glaze that creates the aged look of the French Patina.  When the meeting took place, I offered a few options by applying a few different tonalities of glaze to get a comparative reaction. This allowed the group to voice individual opinions towards options that were presented.  The decision was made and I was proud of my ability to get my entire look approved by the Board of Directors.  Working with clients on the decision-making process is a skill that comes with experience.  I am constantly making an effort to involve the client in many aspects, so they feel like they are part of the creative process, even if I gently nudge them in the right direction.    Giving them a voice builds their confidence and therefore, your opinion will be more accepted.  Always be ready to justify your advice when you are choosing between 2 options.

Step 8:  It’s a go! Upon final approval of my sample, done in front of the entire Board of Directors (scary!), I set my crew back in the space.  Starting with the ceiling, base coating began on a large scale.  See my step by step for the decorative painting, below.  You’ll find links to the brushes I used for each step.   Yes, I sell brushes, but I’m not kidding when I say my brushes are “shop tested, museum-proven!”

1.    We applied 2 coats of French Patina, ropey base coat on all panels & millwork.  Essentially, this is a heavy-bodied basecoat.   I add 1 part GOLDEN Molding paste to 2 parts latex paint to thicken to a desired viscosity.  I use a glazing brush to apply and the ropey texture comes from dragging a  tooth spalter.
2.    We applied blue stripes on the molding and ornaments with the rondin (no taping).
3.    Using a polychrome technique, I hand-painted ornaments from light pink to dark blue to create a modeling effect. The  pointed sable is the best brush for this job.
4.    Then, it was time for the glazing on all walls (including ornaments).  Because of the absorbent nature of the basecoat and the sheer size of the room, we used an oil glaze (3 parts turpentine, 1 part linseed oil, Japan drier).  The glaze is applied with oil glazing brush, stippled and pulled with a tooth spalter .
5.    Once dry, we applied talc on every glazed surface to matte down and prepare for the gilding.  This proved to be an extremely important step to ensure the gold leaf does not stick on unwanted surfaces.
6.    Areas to be gilded were covered with red tinted shellac.  The rondin brush was absolutely perfect for long stretches of molding without taping off.
7.    The process is repeated with red tinted oil size (I like oil size because it lays smoothly and allows for a comfortable tack time).
8.    23 K gold leaf was applied on all areas.  We used the gilding tip technique, which shows the join lines of each leaf laid.  To do this, we sectioned right off the book by slicing delicately with a gilding knife and placing the strips directly on the surface with a gilder’s tip.
9.    Loose leaf was skewered and the gold was burnished using a chiqueteur or other squirrel-hair brush.  The precious scraps were collected for touch-ups.
10.    At that point, the gilding was perfect- too perfect.  The next step was to age the gold by dipping a rondin brush in alcohol and gently scrubbing the gold off in areas to reveal the red undercoating.  This is a very traditional “water gilded,” worn look
11.    Finally we had lots of cleaning, touch ups, and fine-tuning of all areas.  We took down our protection and moved out of the space.

The outcome was fantastic and the crew was very proud of their accomplishments after a challenging two months at the museum.  The conservator at the museum was thrilled with our work and finished by saying, “it’s exactly what I would expect from Grand Illusion!” Beyond the outcome, he praised us for our professionalism and cleanliness on the jobsite.   Our crew was always dressed in uniform and was respectful and friendly to the museum staff (after all, the museum was open to the public during the job).

I always trust that my team will live up to these expectations because I have provided them with guidelines for behavior on all jobsites.  They have all read and signed an “employee code of conduct” and my foreman is in charge of enforcing our values.  Whether it is a small bathroom or a museum, our professionalism remains the same on every job, and I find solace in that.

This is also a big reason I get many of my clients returning again and again.   I am confident that I will be getting more work from The Frick Collection.  Work that they will faithfully lay in my hands plus projects that they might not undertake without knowing they have a strong decorative painting company on their side.    Such a strong force justifies the cost for most of my clients.

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