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The Fine Art Of China Restoring
By Raymond D. Kershner
( Article orginally published September 1963 )
C-R-A-S-H!!! When you hear that heart stopping sound of breaking china what does it mean to you? To the collector of fine china objects it spells damage to a valuable item that perhaps cannot be duplicated. To the housewife it can mean the loss of a treasured heirloom or gift from a far away friend.
After the feeling of dismay has passed, what can you do? Shall you dispose of the pieces as trash? You can, and probably will, if the broken article was not valuable; but what if it was a rare and costly piece, an early Meissen figure by Kandler; a fine Cappo di Monti; a piece of early Bristol or Nlinton, or merely an item that you valued highly because of its association? Perhaps you will try to salvage the broken pieces and put them together again as best you can, using household glue to hold the parts together, and then place it in an inconspicuous spot where the damage and repairs will not be too noticeable.
If, however, you are a dealer in choice antique china, or a collector who takes pride in his collection, when a fine article is broken or damaged, you will send it to a professional china repairer who will return it restored so only the minutest examination will reveal where the breakage took place. Not content with merely putting the broken portions together with strong cements, the expert restorer will replace missing parts and finally repaint the article so even the cracks will not show.
The expert restorer of china and other small objects of art must be a master craftsman, an artist able to imitate any of the various schools of china painting and decoration. He must be a sculptor as well in order to carve and duplicate any missing parts, and should have a real love for his work.
Aside from merely restoring broken or damaged articles, the restorer is a collector who often has the opportunity to pick up a rare and valuable item at a trifling cost, simply because it is in a broken condition. Through the skill of the restorer this item is transformed into a salable or collectable object, enhancing the profits of the dealer or putting a choice item in a collection.
Many and varied are the articles that come to the restorer to be put in proper condition! A fine old music box that needs new pins put in the comb so it will play again, a beautiful old large China Trade Bowl from a famous collection that had been repaired in Europe with hugh lead rivets holding the broken parts together; a crude earthenware Chinese burial horse, a black Basalt bust of Mercury by Wedgwood with the head broken off; an exquisite small three panel fireplace screen of carved wood and needlepoint and crewel embroidery; an Irish tortoise-shell and mother-of-pearl tea caddy requiring the addition of pearl inlays; a four foot high Cloisonne vase the side of which is dented in from a fall; a beautiful Minton basket dish with a crack completely across the bottom that must be made water tight; a charming little Bristol figurine requiring the addition of a stick in the boy's hand; an assortment of old Wedgwood articles, some merely chipped but mostly in broken condition with portions to be added which have to be restored for the Wedgwood Museum in Marion, Pa. and for members of the Wedgwood Society; a pair of demolished Chinese temple jars that have to be put together again; a Ralph Wood Toby jug with most of the tricornered hat missing; six rare and lovely luster pitchers with the handles missing and spouts damaged; as well as various pieces of damaged Delft and Lowestoft plates, cups and saucers.
When an item such as the China Trade Bowl, with lead rivets holding the broken parts together, arrives at the studio it is given a thorough cleaning. The rivets are cut off and removed and the broken pieces placed in a bleaching bath to remove the dirt stains on the broken edges as a riveted article is not glued or cemented but is merely held together by the metal rivets. The broken pieces are then cemented together with a special cement that hardens immediately.
Methods of restoration keep up with the times and new techniques, after being thoroughly tested, are used. Time was when the man who did the riveting of broken pieces was the master of the shop. Legend has it that in ancient China the apprentice in order to demonstrate his skill had to rivet together a broken egg shell. Whether or not this is true, rivets have been used for hun dreds of years to hold broken chin< together but while they have served their purpose they are unsightly and immediately draw attention to the fact that the article has been repaired. Today, with the modern adhesives, rivets are no longer used by the modern restorer. In fact, many articles that have been riveted together are sent to the restorer to have the rivets removed and the article properly restored without any evidence of the restoration being shown.
After the pieces are cemented together any missing parts are filled in with an artificial stone specially prepared fo this purpose. The holes drilled in the bowl to hold the rivets which have been removed are then filled in and carefully smoothed to match the surrounding surface. The bowl is now ready for decorating. Mixing special paints used to decorate china without firing to exactly match the color of the bowl, the paint is sprayed on with an artist's air-brush to make a perfectly smooth and even coating. After the body coating has been airbrushed over the cracks, decoration and designs matching those on the portions of the bowl are painted in. Th entire bowl is then given a waterproof glaze and after completely dry is ready for delivery.
In the case of a beautiful Minton basket dish with a crack on the bottom, tne dish was sold to a decorator who did not mind the crack but wanted to be sure the dish would hold water as it would be used in a floral decoration. On filling the dish the water immediately leaked through the crack. The problem was to make the dish water tight. However, the crack was thin and did not extend along the sides of the dish; therefore could not be opened in order to force in either cement or other material to fill the crack. Ingenuity plays an important part in restoration work and in this case the dish was turned upside down and on the bottom a gutter cut through the crack for half the thickness of the bottom. The cut out portion was then inlayed with metal and a final coating of litharge of lead, used by plumbers to seal pipes, was placed over the metal inlay. After smoothing down even with the surrounding surface the entire bottom of the dish was sprayed with paint so there was no evidence of crack or restoration. As the crack on the inside of the dish was not objectionable it was left alone and the dish was made completely water-tight.
When restoring articles with missing parts, such as handles on cups, pitchers, etc., if the collector or dealer does not have a similar piece from which a cast can be made recourse is made to the study of reference material in order to exactly duplicate the correct design when making the new part. Such was the case with a luster pitcher with a broken handle. It so happened there was another pitcher of the same size and design in the studio with a complete handle from which a cast was made. The new handle was made with a metal core and covered with artificial stone, then painted to match the rest of the pitcher.
Anything breakable is repairable. After Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall all the King's men could not put him together again but if he had been sent to a modern professional china restorer he would have been made as good as new. So you see, you need not be dismayed when one of your cherished pieces of china is broken. Like Humpty Dumpty it can be put together again through the Fine Art of China Restoring.