Restoration of the Master’s Chair of the Joiners & Ceilers Company

Ornamental Woodcarving alumna (2015), Clunie Fretton, has recently completed the restoration of the Master’s Chair of the Joiners & Ceilers Company. Here she describes the complex project and explains how she approached the in-depth research, design and carving required to replace the missing elements of the intricate design, whilst minimising any indications that the chair had been restored.

“The restoration of the Master’s Chair of the Joiners & Ceilers Company posed an exciting challenge (Figure 1). The chair, on long-term loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum, was made in 1754 by Edward Newman, a Past Master and talented cabinetmaker and carver, and gifted to the Company. It possesses carving and design of a distinctive flair and aptitude, and marries very elegantly the two concerns of the Joiners & Ceilers, who as a livery are responsible for both joinery and carving, the latter at times conflated with panellers under the archaic word “ceiler”.

The chair, constructed from mahogany, has survived in remarkably good condition with very few significant losses from the ornately carved and pierced back despite its many years of service. However, the apex of the chair-back had seen more substantial losses, most notably the loss of a whole finial on the right hand side of the chair, and a number of heraldic elements from the coat of arms figured in full relief in the middle, and it was agreed that these missing elements detracted enough from the silhouette and impact of the chair to warrant their replacement.

Figure 1. The chair after restoration (Photography by Clunie Fretton)

It was particularly important during the restoration to reduce the ambiguity of any replacements. This was more easily achieved in the case of the missing leaf tips, as the acanthus style of ornament has a predictable design, in addition to there being a surplus of reference material in the carved chair-back itself. The task was made easier by the hints left in the way the carving had been undercut, as the decisions of the original carver left clues as to how the missing carving would have continued up from the breaks if one were to follow the curves to their conclusions. The missing finial, of course, could be copied directly from its mirror on the opposite side of the chair, barring a missing leaf tip at the top.

The replacement of the heraldic elements posed a greater challenge and was the area in which there was the greatest lack of reference material. The content of the missing heraldry is defined very clearly in the blazon – a written description of the coat of arms that leaves no uncertainty as to the devices that are featured – but the execution of the missing elements was more problematic. However, research yielded a copy of Edward Hatton’s  New View of London, published in 1708, in the British Library, and his comprehensive survey of London very handily included descriptions of the Halls and Arms of every Livery Company and, luckily, engravings of many of their coats of arms. Though published just under fifty years before the chair was made, this proved the closest reference image that could be obtained of the coat of arms at that time, and the most contemporary blazon:

“Crest is a Demy-Savage proper holding a Spear Or. Supporters 2 Cupids of the last, the dexter holding a Woman crowned with a Castle, the sinister a Square.”

This thankfully cleared the sometimes muddied record of what the dexter supporter was holding, which had in some references been more akin to a figure of Christ, and clarified her as wearing a mural coronet. The crest, a “Savage”, was shown in the reference image holding a tilting spear, which had in later incarnations developed into a regular spear. The savage motif has also been debated over the years: he is not a true Wild Man of the Woods, as these are usually depicted as extremely hairy, but is more likely to have Silvanus, the Roman God of the Woods, as his inspiration. Silvanus is commonly depicted with a crown of leaves, just as the Joiners & Ceilers’ Crest is, and makes a more understandable choice for a livery company devoted to working timber.

There were in total eleven missing pieces, comprising the arms from the supporters, an arm and head from the crest, the finial, and numerous leaf tips. Work began by modelling in a hard modelling wax, in order to create a removable reference for the new pieces being made and to fine-tune how best the new pieces ought to sit in relation to the old. Small blanks were then cut from Honduran mahogany, with the grain of the wood running in the same direction as on the original.

Carving began on pieces fixed to a piece of board with a hide-glue paper joint, allowing the carving to be held in place and the majority of the waste material removed with reference to the wax models before they were detached from the back board. With some excess material left, the carvings were then offered up to their positions, and the lengthy process of carving away their points of contact began. As it was not possible to remove any original material in order to “make good” the breaks, the new pieces had to be carved to marry up with the oftentimes jagged and uneven breaks.  It was particularly important at this stage to have excess material left, as it allowed the matching of contact points to be made exact before the rest of the carving was completed, in order that on pieces such as the sinister supporter’s arm, the square would sit vertically and at the correct angle. At this stage the small size and awkward shape of the carving demanded that it no longer be fixed or clamped, but held in one hand and carved with the other.

Figure 2. Savage crest with left arm, spear and head restored (Photography by Clunie Fretton)

The carving of the head (Figure 2) proved the greatest challenge due to the paucity of contemporary references. Inspiration was taken from the two supporters, which though carved with great facility also retained something of the uncanny in the proportions and shape of their faces. The broad foreheads and closely clustered features are typical of infants, but some of their unusual look was transposed into the head of the savage to create continuity with the existing carving style.

The finial, by contrast, could be worked more freely (Figure 4). After taking measurements the design was reversed, and carved largely by eye, so as to introduce the natural differences in appearance that occurred across the rest of the chair when the design was originally mirrored.



Figure 3. Restoration in progress. Spring clamp and Kemco platform in use on the sinister supporter (Photography by Clunie Fretton)

With the carving complete, the pieces were glued in place with hide glue bulked with coconut shell powder and microballoons. The clamping of the small and irregularly sized pieces was tricky, and the best solution proved to be using Kemco Impression Compound pressed onto the new carvings in order to create a platform for the spring clamps (Figure 3).

The chair had been French polished after (and over) the breaks, which was removed where it would interfere with the adhesion of the glue. The carvings were then colour-matched to the original using garnet shellac, a very close colour match, adjusted with a minute quantity of lamp black pigment. The additions were then rubbed back to be consistent with the wear on the original, and a small quantity of hard black wax used to smooth the joins where extensive wear of the breaks had rounded their edges. Renaissance Wax provided the top-surface in order to knock back any areas too deep to dull the sheen from the shellac by sanding.”

Figure 4. Comparison of finials: original on the left, restoration on the right (Photography by Clunie Fretton)


I’m grateful to the Worshipful Company of Joiners & Ceilers, Leela Meinertas, Nick Humphrey, and all the members of Furniture Conservation for their support during this project.

This blog is adapted from a version first published in the V&A’s Conservation Journal.


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