Scenic Seats | The Treatment of Six Painted Side Chairs
FIGURE 1. Three of the four chairs in the Bayou Bend Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, displayed against the right wall in the Music Room.
Painted side chairs served alongside other decorative furniture in spaces where they could be admired. Their elegance and quality elevated the rooms they were once displayed in. Despite being undated and unsigned, the chairs can be attributed to a New York City cabinetmaking shop between 1815-1820, based on its design elements pertaining to the American Fancy decorative movement (1790-1850). Wheaton and Davies, a New York firm in operation during the 1800s, is a possible workshop responsible for making these chairs. One of their advertisements in the September 8, 1817 issue of the New-York Evening Post, described “an elegant assortment of curled maple, painted, ornamented, [and] landscaped chairs” [3], indicating that Wheaton and Davies sold similar, if not the actual Caswell chairs. The chairs in this collection showcase the popular styles and taste of the time, while also containing examples of unique, experimental choices in design and construction.
Neoclassicism, which can be identified as a revival of classical Greek motifs and the emphasis on balance and harmony, reigned over the decorative arts during the late 18th and 19th centuries. At the turn of the 19th century in America, Neoclassicism influenced the rise in various stylistic movements in furniture such as the Federalist Period and American Fancy furniture. Late Federal style (1815-1825) is influenced by Greco-Roman archeological forms such as klismos chairs [4]. Concurrently, American “Fancy” furniture, commonly referred to as the “Fancy” style, can be described as “neoclassical styling of Sheraton and Hepplewhite furniture, with their flat surfaces and emphasis on two-dimensional decoration” [5]. “Fancy” chairs were commonly gilded with gold and painted with full landscapes on the backs as with the Boscobel chairs, or with smaller decorative motifs on the stiles, side rails, and legs. In New York State, these chairs were not only numerous, but were also the most well-made and elegant examples of “Fancy” furniture [6]; they often depicted detailed and beautiful decorative motifs or scenery on the backs or seats of the chair. These motifs were painted by craftsmen or well-trained artists; often the compositions depicted landscapes that were popular both before and during the rise of the Hudson River School movement, which began in the 1820s-30s. Thomas Cole, renowned landscape painter and founder of the Hudson River School, earned money during his career by decorating “Fancy” furniture with landscape paintings [7] similar to those depicted on the Boscobel chairs.
The chairs in the Boscobel collection are considered a formal, “high style” since they are higher quality both in material and construction than most “Fancy” furniture, despite being comparable in appearance. “Fancy” chairs were often made of lightweight material with seats made of cane, rush or plank [8]. The Caswell chairs are instead made with sturdier wood with upholstered seats. The structural design of the side chairs can most notably be compared to the chairs of Duncan Phyfe, a leading American furniture maker based in New York, who designed multiple chairs similar to those in this collection. Tapered, out-curved legs of klismos chairs and decorative lyres were common design elements of Phyfe and his admirers (and competitors), and side chairs of this nature can be found in many collections (fig. 2).
FIGURE 2 . Example of Duncan Phyfe’s design, Side Chair (1810-20), Mahogany with ash, yellow poplar, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Accession Number 65.188.2
CONSTRUCTION of the chairs
The chairs, in the klismos style, are constructed with solid tiger maple, also known as flame maple--its dramatic stripes running horizontally across the stiles and legs. The use of flame maple, a wood native to New York, rather than commonly imported woods such as mahogany, increases its rarity and uniqueness today [10]. The frames of each chair are constructed with mortise and tenon joinery and include curved crest rails (tablets), saber legs, divided rear posts, double lyre splats, and turned ebonized wood detailing [11]. The pierced stiles make the chairs less dense and are rare design elements for this period in American furniture [12]. The double lyre splats in the center of the chair compliment the chair’s curvature and, like the pierced stiles, utilize negative space to create a lighter, more delicate silhouette. The ebony disk detailing is on the left and right sides, two on the upper part of stiles, and two on the side seat rail. The surface coating on the wood is likely composed of a natural resin varnish. Because the chairs have undergone various treatments, there may be multiple layers of varnish added over time.
The back of each chair is embellished with a small oil painting, illustrating river scenes reminiscent of Hudson River School landscapes; the backs of the chairs were prepared with a very thin layer of gesso, serving as a ground layer for the paintings. The pale, blue and yellow sky of one painting hints at the soft beginning of a sunset, while another has dark pink skies stretching across the panels, flanked by moody clouds. People can be seen in the distance--in boats, or on the shore. Ruins perched at the top of hills are depictions of dreamy landscapes and romantic allusions to Greek ruins. Though not identical, one can see similarities to real locations in the Hudson Valley, such as Zabriskie’s Waterfall in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (figs. 3a-b). The frames of the chairs were most likely fully constructed before painting in the decorative landscapes.
The six Caswell chairs from the Boscobel collection, treated at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. Before treatment.
Once the oil paintings were finished, they were sealed with a natural resin varnish. It is probable that the chairs have undergone multiple campaigns of varnishing from past conservation treatments.
The ½-inch gold, oil-gilded border around each composition frames the landscape, evoking the opulence of a painting in a gilded frame. The slight curvature of the panel allows for almost a panoramic sense of a landscape, stretching from one curved crest rail to the other. Oil size and gold leaf were applied after the completion of the oil painting, as damaged areas with chipped gilding had paint underneath. The border was finished with either a tinted varnish, or an aged varnish that had yellowed over time. Additionally, bronze overpaint was painted in sections or over the whole gilded border. This was previously done to even the surface of the gold and conceal losses. The paint unevenly darkened over time and covered the existing gold, so it was decided to remove the bronze paint from the border to reveal the original gold.
The seats of the chairs have been upholstered; some have different or missing cushions, indicating the various upholstery changes from past treatments and care. Generally, but most commonly in the mid-century, reupholstering furniture with fabric that more suited the styles of the time was common practice. Consequently, two of the chairs were reupholstered with overstuffed profile green brocade, which was the style of the mid-century. The multiple replacements of upholstery throughout time greatly weakened the removable wooden frames, as the fabric is secured to the frame with many nails and staples. The wooden frames rest in between the side seat rails, with the front edge curved to match the curved profile. It is constructed with four shaped pieces of wood that are nailed together in a trapezoidal form, with the longer piece as the front edge. Historically, cushions, before the introduction of foam, contained multiple layers: a dust covering to protect the decorative fabric, the decorative fabric itself, cotton batting, and a thick layer of horsehair to provide structure. Horsehair is a classical 19th century material for upholstery, as it provided the necessary balance between structure and give. The cushion is not attached to the chair itself—it is snugly fit into the chair frame between the side seat rails.
FIGURE 3a . Zabriskie’s Waterfall in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York is reminiscent of a waterfall on the reverse of one of the Caswell chairs (see figure 3b below).
FIGURE 3b. The waterfall in this scence reminds one of several natural features along the Hudson River like Zabriskie’s Waterfall in figure 3a (above).
All of six of the wooden frames were intact, but some still had the upholstery from previous treatments. To unify the chairs in appearance, it was decided to remove the previous upholstery from the chairs in which it remained, and to reupholster all of them. The removal of the upholstery is due to the fact that the previous overstuffed green brocade was not sympathetic to the time in which the chair was made—though the brocade fabric may have been similar to what was historically used, the overstuffed profile was greatly inaccurate for the time. Interestingly, after removing the upholstery from one of the original wooden frames, it was revealed that a small piece of original muslin and brocade seat fabric were nailed down, giving evidence that the original fabric was in fact a brocade pattern.
Overall, the surfaces of each chair were fairly free of dust and grime and the structures were stable. Though some of the chairs suffered from minor scrapes and chips in the finish, the surface was generally in very good condition.
The painted surfaces of each chair had varying levels of raised and/or flaking paint and associated loss—widespread overpaint from previous restoration campaigns covered losses on all six of the paintings, indicating that delamination between the paint and the wooden support has been a long-term issue for preservation. Wood is a hygroscopic material, meaning that it absorbs water in the air and expands and contracts based on humidity levels. Because of this, sections of paint buckled from the shrinkage of the wood beneath, creating uneven, finely cracked surfaces with tenting. The cracking and tenting of the paint only occurred across the panel in the direction of the grain, which indicates shrinkage and expansion of the wood vertically, across the grain.
Five of the chairs had natural resin varnishes as the surface coating. For these chairs, the paintings had sympathetic, stable surfaces, so varnish removal was not necessary and the previous varnish was left intact. On one of the chairs, there was an overall absence of surface coating, aside from two localized, discolored areas of natural resin residue located on the bottom of the painting (fig. 4). The chair with the painting that overall lacked the surface coating had a matte appearance, while the other five with the varnish were glossy.
FIGURE 4. Localized, yellowed, natural resin residues are visible in the foreground, along the lower edge of the painting: they almost appear as yellow-green boulders in river.
The gilded border was slightly raised from the painting because it has the thicker layers of gilding. This, however, seems more like a natural occurrence than a deliberate decision. Five of the six chairs contained a border of masking tape in between the gilding and the painted surface. The tape was perhaps a preventative measure during a previous treatment to avoid further flaking. It may also have been a protective border for applying an additional coating of finish to the surrounding wood. The tape had become embrittled and started peeling off in the corners as the adhesive began to fail over time.
These objects are complex and display an array of condition issues that require treatment methodology borrowed from furniture, paintings, and textiles conservation. The treatment of the chairs can be broken up into four parts: the wooden surfaces, the gilded borders, the oil paintings, and upholstery. The wooden surfaces were surface cleaned, the gilded borders were cleaned, consolidated and toned to even the surface, the painting was stabilized and in-painted, and the upholstery was replaced. Each component of the chair posed different challenges and required a collaborative effort that is easily facilitated by the experienced interdisciplinary departments at WACC. The treatment as follows focuses specifically on one of the six Boscobel chairs treated at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center; however, the overall treatment process was the same for all six with slight deviations based on each chair’s material history. This similar approach to methodology was an imperative aspect of treatment since these six chairs will be unified for their display in the exhibition Boscobel has planned for 2022.
Wooden Surfaces
The wooden surfaces were cleaned of any dust and dirt with a combination of 2% (w/v) triammonium citrate in deionized water with a trace amount of Triton XL-80 (a surfactant) and cotton swabs. Minor cracks and losses in the wood were filled with a pigmented wax resin to even the surface. This served as an aesthetic choice, rather than a structural need. Accretions were removed with this solution and/or mechanical action with a scalpel. Scratches and chips in the natural finish were toned with blond shellac; this saturated and protected the exposed wood. The carved ebony detailing was cleaned and areas of lifting black paint were stabilized with Lascaux Medium for Consolidation™.
Gilded Border
The first step in treating the gilded borders was to remove the masking tape that lined the gilding and painting. This had varying levels of difficulty depending on each chair. Saturating the tape with mineral spirits served as an effective way to remove the tape from most of the chairs. However, for one of the chairs with a double layer of masking tape, a combination of acetone, heat, and deionized water was necessary in successfully removing the tape layers. Acetone was applied with swabs to help swell the adhesive and remove the carrier. Using a lightly dampened swab and the heat from a Willard™ spatula, the stubborn tape was carefully removed with tweezers and a scalpel. Special care was taken to avoid swelling the layers of gilding and gesso, by varying the time after application of the solution reagent before clearing.
Afterwards, the bronze overpaint was removed from the border. This was done using xylenes and acetone and swabs in passes, alternating between the two. This was a slow and careful process, as the gold could be easily scoured or burnished. Another method used was applying m-67 xylene:33 benzyl alcohol gel and clearing it after a certain amount of time depending on the thickness of the paint. This gel could permeate the paint layer without disturbing the gold and was very successful. Once the overpaint was removed, a barrier layer of 10% Paraloid B-72™ in xylenes was applied to the gilded border and the losses in gilding were in-painted with mica powders in 20% w/v Aquazol 500™ in ethanol.
Oil Painting
The paintings were first consolidated using 5% (w/v) isinglass in deionized water: a natural consolidant made from the swim bladders of fish. Isinglass is a useful tool in conservation for its strength and reversibility. The isinglass, produced in dried sheets, is soaked in water to swell the material and heated on a hot plate to dissolve. This is then wicked into the cracks and edges of loss; silicone mylar is placed on top of the areas and heat from a Willard™ spatula is used to set the adhesive while simultaneously using light pressure to set the lifting and buckling paint back into plane.
FIGURE 5. Linen reback lined up with spine of textblock.
The painting with patchy, missing varnish received an overall coat of 10% (w/v) Paraloid B72™ in cyclosol to saturate the entirety of the painting prior to retouching. Because the painting absorbed this varnish coat unevenly, localized application of 1:1 Soluvar Matte:Glossy® was applied to areas where the varnish sank to even the gloss prior to retouching. Then, another layer of 10% (w/v) Paraloid B72™ in cyclosol was applied to the painting. For the paintings with intact varnish layers, a barrier layer of Paraloid B-72™ in xylenes was applied to the lacunae in the painted panel to both saturate the paint film and provide a reversible separation barrier between the original paint layer and retouching. After these steps, the paintings were then ready for inpainting.
The losses in each of the paintings were so fine, that filling them may create unwanted texture that would be more distracting than the losses themselves; instead, a decision was made to not fill them and use retouching to reintegrate the losses while providing discernibility between original paint layers and the conservator’s hand. Losses were in-painted with QOR® watercolors to match the surrounding color. Since watercolors are matte and the desired surface is slightly glossy, 5% (w/v) Paraloid B72™ was applied in between layers to saturate the retouching and create layers that mimic the original layers in the oil painting; Gamblin Colors for Conservation® were used locally to achieve delicate glazes prior to the application of a final varnish. The areas in which the watercolors were applied had a glossier finish, so Soluvar Matte was also applied to even the surface gloss prior to the application of a final varnish layer of 10% (w/v) Paraloid B72™ in cyclosol. As the treatments of the six chairs are still ongoing, final steps of retouching are carried out. The chairs will then be examined together and an overall harmonizing surface coating may be applied to further unify the set.
The replacement of the upholstery with all six frames was completed using a non-intrusive upholstery system in order to prevent more damage from occurring to the original wooden frames. Rather than replacing the upholstery using the same process used before—removing the nails securing the fabric and nailing down new fabric—the non-intrusive upholstery system replaces the upholstery without making new marks in the already damaged wooden frame—no nails are used in this process. This not only helps preserve what is left of the original object, but also ensures that future treatment on the upholstery will be easier and less damaging to the objects. 
The previous cushions that were intact were first deconstructed to separate the fabric and stuffing material from the wooden frames. This was completed using nail pullers and small screwdrivers to loosen and remove all of the nails that secured the dust cover and seat fabric to the wood. After this step, all six of the frames could be examined, cleaned, and stabilized if needed.
On one of the original wooden frames, original muslin and seat fabric were nailed down. To preserve this evidence of original material, a strip of mylar was attached around this area. The nail holes from repeated upholstering made some of the edges of the wooden frames ragged and unstable; these sections were filled with Aeroepoxy Light®, a light weight, two-part epoxy putty that could be shaped and sanded to create cleaner edges to receive the upholstery.
To replace the upholstery, layers of Ethafoam™ and polyester batting were used as the cushion base. The foam was carved to the exact fit and profile needed, as the original cushion had a much lower profile than the overstuffed replacement. Scored, unbleached muslin was stretched over the polyester batting, foam, and wooden frame, and was sewed to a second sheet of muslin that was adhered to the underside of the Ethafoam™-supported form. The show cover that will replace the green brocade will be determined and sewed to the muslin underneath.
The six Boscobel chairs reflect a pivotal moment in the American Fancy movement in areas of furniture and design during the early 19th century. The final steps of conservation treatment are being carried out at the Center. We look forward to sharing the final results of treatment through our social media. These complex objects—made of wood, oil paint, gold leaf, and fabric— called for a collaborative approach that borrowed methodology from our interdisciplinary labs at the WACC. Perhaps you can imagine someone sitting on one of these chairs, sipping their tea, and looking out at the misty horizons of the Hudson River. We hope you get a chance to see them in their full glory at Boscobel next year—and when you are there, make sure you drive down 9D and see for yourself the beautiful views of the Hudson River that inspired their creation.
The conservation of the Caswell chairs was made possible by the NYSCA/GHHN Conservation Treatment Grant Program administered by Greater Hudson Heritage Network with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts. hank you to Christine Puza, Department Head of Furniture, Frames, Analytical Services, for guidance and supervision treating the chair, Hélène Gillette-Woodard, Department Head of Objects, for guidance and supervision on upholstery, Maggie Barkovic, Associate Paintings Conservator for guidance on the painting treatment and this article. Special thanks as well to Jennifer Carlquist, Executive Director and Curator at the Boscobel Museum and Kasey Calnan, Collections Manager at the Boscobel Museum for their extensive research and resources on the chairs featured in this article.
Photography Credit
Treatment photography by Matthew Hamilton and Lila Reid. Feature image by Maggie Barkovic.
[1] “NYSCA/GHHN Conservation Treatment Grant Program Section 2: Narrative Project Description.”
[2] Carlquist, Jennifer. “Boscobel Accession Proposal 2017.”
[3] Tracy, Berry B., Marilynn Johnson, Marvin D. Schwartz, and Suzanne Boorsch. 19th-Century America Furniture and Other Decorative Arts: An Exhibition in Celebration of the hundredth Anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Distributed by New York Graphic Society. 1970.
[4] Scherer, John L. New York Furniture: The Federal Period 1788-1825. Albany, N.Y: University of the State of New York, State Education Department, New York State Museum. 1988.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Dunbar, Jean. “Thomas Cole and the Decorative Arts.” VQR: A National Journal of Literature and Discussion.
[7] Boyce, Charles. Dictionary of Furniture, Second Edition. New York, NY: Roundtable Press. 1985.
[8] Carlquist, Jennifer. “Boscobel Accession Proposal 2017.”.
[9] Puza, Christine. “Williamstown Art Conservation Center Examination Report for Boscobel Chairs.” 2020.
[10] Carlquist, Jennifer. “Boscobel Accession Proposal 2017.”