As part of the Inspired by Knole (IbK) project, Yannick Chastang was commissioned to conserve the imposing Boulle Clock and pedestal in the Knole Ballroom. He speaks about the processes, ethical and aesthetic decisions involved during the one year he spent in conserving this beautiful piece of horology and furniture. While recent research has thrown light on previously unknown details of the pedestal’s interior and the barometer’s insertion, this piece of beautifully-crafted furniture engaged Yannick in a journey of discovery, before it returned to the Ballroom for the re-opening of Knole in 2019.
Specialist conservator, Boulle furniture
Interviewed in December 2018 by Veronica Walker-Smith
Achieving harmonious balance
“When we got it, the brass, or the gilded brass were not a kind of greenish brown; they were not yellow at all. And it’s always a challenge because an object like that needs to be harmonious, not only harmonious with the surrounding of the collection so it has to fit with the collection, with what you’ve got in the rest of the gallery. But it has to be harmonious to itself. So you’ve got the yellow marquetry – it should be yellow though it might turn brown over the years. So you have the yellow brass marquetry, and then you should have yellow gilded bronze to go with it. So the conservation is not only about preserving the material, or preserving the aesthetic, or preserving the history. There are so many things we could talk about preserving. But you also try to preserve the aesthetical integrity of the object. And the integrity of the object is to have that kind of harmonious balance between the yellow brass and the yellow bronze. When one of the two is gone, then you end up with maybe a marquetry which is too bright or a bronze that is too dull, or the other way round. So it’s really about trying to create a very happy balance between the two and of course matching what you’ve got in the gallery. Not necessarily matching, but feeling comfortable in it.”
Interviewer: Yes, so we’re looking at it now, are you happy with that balance which you have achieved?
Interviewer: Because we have new lighting as well and that affects how the visitor experiences this object.
“It would. It would definitely affect it if the light is too cold, or too harsh, or if you have got a spotlight flashing on it in one corner or the other. So finding this kind of soft light which one would expect in an historical house is really a challenge for the lighting technician here. And it’s really what you need to try and achieve.”
It's all about the light
So it’s all about light. It’s really much about light. An object like that: you have the flat marquetry which is reflecting the light in a very flat way, but then you’ve got the gilded bronze with matt areas, burnished areas reflecting the light differently and of course you have the volume So all of that is a real challenge for us to preserve and to make sure it looks right. Then the colour of the brass, the colour of the gilding, the only way we can really assess it is by coming back here.
We came back here about six months in the the middle of the project, with samples of the gilded bronze and samples of the marquetry with different finishes. So we had the slightly more glossy finish, we had the slightly matt finish, we had the slightly more coloured finishes. We could play quite a lot with the finish and the lacquering of the brass and the lacquering of the bronze without having an impact on the conservation. Because conservation is about that, to find the balance between what has to be done for the conservation, the preservation of the object.
But then there is a major part which is very often forgotten in the creation of an aesthetical and pleasing object. And that can be manipulated through the lacquer we use, through the wax we use, without affecting the conservation of the object, the preservation of the object.
So we came back here, we had a couple of marquetry samples lacquered in different ways with samples of different waxes on top, and the same with the bronze. And we spent about a few hours with the curators, and we moved this sample around in the room. We compared it with what was in the room [Ballroom] – we have two pieces of Boulle marquetry in the same room – which we wanted them to be harmonious with. Not matching – it’s not point because the two in the room had not been conserved – so there will be a difference of course – but just try to make sure they are harmonious.
So we moved them around, we looked at the lighting. It was important to return it here, to locate my sample in the same corner to see what it was going to look like. And it was quite satisfactory for me, because things that I don’t necessarily like in my workshop, they are completely transformed when they come back here.