All That Glitters
Eyewitness: Fiona Blunden
Humans have been drawn to gold since time immemorial. To the ancient Egyptians, the glimmering rock was the terrestrial surrogate for the sun. Two thousand years later, in 610 BC, the Greeks used it as the basis for the world’s first system of currency. It wasn’t until 1971 that the United States decoupled the dollar from the bullion — before then, the slogan on the back of a one-dollar bill should have said, “In Gold We Trust.”
Fiona Blunden, a gilder with a studio in the Bridgewater Mill, still trusts gold’s power to enchant, and her clients — many from Boston and New York — rely on her to restore their antique frames and furniture to their original luster. Her techniques date to the Middle Ages.
In many ways, Blunden, 51, was born for this task. She grew up in the medieval town of Kilkenny, Ireland. Down the road from “Castle Blunden,” a big, gray Georgian house where Blunden lived with her parents and five sisters, is the Kilkenny Castle, an imposing structure built in the 12th century. In its rooms hang many pieces of art bordered by intricate gilded frames, their high gloss conceived not only as a showcase for the artwork but also to reflect the weak candlelight and brighten the space.
Blunden, a friendly woman with blue-gray eyes, long limbs and gently tanned skin, wasn’t attracted to gilding right away. She apprenticed with a jeweler for a while, was an au pair in Paris, and then ran the café in the Kilkenny Castle. When she visited an old friend who was gilding at Ireland’s National Gallery in Dublin, Blunden first realized that a piece of art extended to and included the frame.
“I went to watch her for a couple of days, and I was impressed,” Blunden recalls. “My friend said, ‘If you want to learn gilding, you need to go to London.’” So she did. After scouring the phone books and making dozens of cold calls, she found an older gentleman by the name of Seabury Burdett Coutts willing to take her on as an apprentice.
Blunden spent three years with Coutts, whom she recalls as an irascible fellow, and then began working with Christina Lader, a gilder who makes frames for galleries in London’s West End. Blunden and Lader did the finishing on the frames, distressing and antiquing them to the artists’ desires. “It can make or break a painting,” Blunden notes. “If you have a nasty frame around a great piece, it just doesn’t look right.”
Four years later, Blunden met her future husband, a native of Cambridge, Mass. They were married in 1996 and moved the following year to Brookline. There Blunden opened her own gallery, and gradually gained clients by word of mouth. In 2001, the couple moved to Windsor, Vt. When Blunden grew tired of doing her gilding in her bedroom, she opened a studio in the Bridgewater Mill, between Woodstock and Killington.
Her space is on the second floor, with windows facing Route 4. The place has its original hardwood floors, stained dark and undulating across the room. Blunden works alone on a series of big tables towards the back of studio. On a recent Wednesday morning, a selection of old wooden frames waits for treatment. “I like working on my own,” she says, “and there are other artists nearby if I want to socialize.”
Next door, in fact, is a frame shop; other artists around her include crafters, painters and a jewelry maker. In the front of the studio are mirrors — some baroque, some contemporary — and paintings for sale.
For purposes of a gilding demonstration, Blunden brings a wooden, hand-carved mariner’s dolphin to the table. The piece — a sort of wall plaque about 2 feet tall — came off an English ship and is an ode to the ancient mariners’ respect for dolphins’ swimming skills. When it arrived at Blunden’s studio, the dolphin was cracked and tarnished, time having worked its deleterious effects. She restored the wood by clamping and gluing it back together.
The process of gilding is supposed to yield a product that appears to be made of solid gold. In fact, the gold is just a foil-thin layer over wood, and sometimes metal. They key to the outer layer’s consistency and its rich conceit is the smoothness of its base, Blunden explains. In water — as opposed to oil — gilding, the first layer on the wood is made from a combination of rabbit-skin glue, calcium carbonate and water. The glue and chalk come in a granule form, and when mixed with water make a gelatinous liquid that is painted onto the frame material. Blunden will lay down 15 coats of this mixture and, when dry, smooth them down with sandpaper. “If you have any imperfections in the undercoat,” she says, “once you put the gold on, it will show through.”
The next layers consist of yellow clay and red clay. Sometimes a fourth layer of black clay will be swabbed on in highlights, to make the piece look old but not destroyed. “I’ll antique it so that you won’t know I’ve regilded it,” Blunden says. “That’s the hope.”
The mariner’s dolphin has gone through all of the steps except the gilding, so it has red clay on the sides and black clay on the prominent surfaces. They provide a sort of throne for the gold leafs. Blunden uses 23-carat gold, and the leaf comes in 3.25-inch sheets, 25 to a book. When she’s ready to lay the leaf, Blunden rubs a squirrel-hair-tipped paintbrush against her cheek and then uses the static to pick up a gold sheet. She puts the leaf on the piece, picks up another sheet and places it next to the first. When the gold has bonded to the under layer, she burnishes it smooth with an agate stone on the end of a paintbrush shaft.
Polishing rapidly, Blunden says, “See how it’s becoming a little shiny? That’s what kind of blends it all together.”
Blunden has taken pictures of the piece at every stage, so she knows what it looked like when it came in. She’ll burnish the highlights, leave other sections in a matte finish, and antique some areas to give it authenticity. This job will take her about three days.
Clients rarely want their frames to gleam like they did in the dark ages — we have lights to illuminate rooms and don’t need help from the reflective gold. Instead, they often ask Blunden to distress the final product. Sometimes she’ll rub the gold with denatured alcohol, which brings out the black layer and makes the frame look as if it’s been jostled on a transatlantic voyage. Other methods include pigment powders, tinted shellac and a concoction called dragon’s blood. “Sometimes you make them up as you go along,” Blunden says. “A little of this, a little of that. Whatever works.”
When she needs inspiration, Blunden goes to Boston and visits the Museum of Fine Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She’ll first hone in on a frame and then take in the entire work. A successful pairing of art and frame doesn’t happen by accident. “You want the eye drawn in,” she says, with no abrupt transitions around the perimeter to distract it.