The Wallace Collection


Collection Blog

Filming the conservation of Marie-Antoinette’s commode

Over the past year the Wallace Collection has embarked upon an exciting collaboration with film production company, Chocolate Films, to produce ‘behind-the-scenes’ shorts illuminating works of art and museum events and activities for our audience.

I’d like to share the story of our latest project, a rarely seen peek into our conservation studio to investigate the conservation of one of our most famous pieces of furniture, Queen Marie-Antoinette’s Riesener commode.


All films produced so far aim to share something with our existing or potential virtual visitor, allowing them an insight into an area not normally viewed by the public. Our first film took the viewer behind the scenes of the refurbishment of the Dutch galleries, talking to the Director, Curator and Project Manager about the curatorial and logistical vision behind the eighteen month process and examining the role of the various craftsmen involved, from specialist silk hangers to gilders. We released the film in segments providing an update on the refurbishment process; a complement to the closed door to the space that visitors encountered in the gallery, and were hopefully intrigued by.

Our second film followed a typical family day, A Day in the Eighteenth Century and featured talks, costumed characters, games, craft activities and treasure hunts. The Wallace Collection offers a rich vein for young imaginations to mine, but not all know about these activities. This film was a means of sharing the sense of fun, excitement and exploration.

Filming close detail with JurgenThis sense of exploration has been expanded in our newest conservation film.  The Wallace Collection has a remarkable collection of ten pieces made by or attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener. Riesener started out as a poor German immigrant but an opportune marriage to the widow of his former master, Jean-François Oeben, allowed him control of his workshop, side-lining  strict French guild regulations set up to prevent foreign competition.  By 1774 he had received the official title of ébéniste du roi (Cabinetmaker to the King,) a title fitting for his artistically skilled and technically accomplished production.

Conservation work is ongoing at the Collection and all furniture and metalwork is conserved on site, yet this remains an unknown world for many visitors. Our conservators identify pieces and produce a thorough conservation proposal, working in tandem with the Curator to ensure the works of art remain in the best possible condition for the future. Work is characterised by minimum intervention wherever possible and only well proven, tested methods are used.

Prior to the actual filming process, I prepare a raft of documents from the original object file on the history of the piece and the conservation plan. The object file contains all research and correspondence on the work of art whilst it has been in the Wallace Collection.  It’s important that Rachel and Mark from Chocolate Films know as much as possible about what they will be filming. It’s a complicated procedure and they need to have a clear idea of the story before they embark, to help in the edit suite. We speak in detail with all the interviewees before any filming begins and devise a set of questions and prompts and a loose narrative.

The removed gilt bronze mountsThe conservation process is time consuming, focusing on minute detail. Filming takes place in the conservation studio over several months, allowing us to capture the different stages of the process – interviewing Head of Conservation, David Edge, about the first pieces to be removed, the gilt bronze mounts, which are showing some signs of corrosion, and, at subsequent stages, Senior Furniture Conservator, Jürgen Huber, as he removes the varnish which has darkened in the sixty years since it was applied, rehydrates the marquetry and parquetry and finally re-polishes the commode.

The crew are intrigued to see the piece deconstructed in the tiny upstairs studio. With the base plinth, drawers and mounts removed a stately piece appears much more humble, and importantly, offers fascinating insights into the process of creation. We know that the base plinth was enlarged and re-veneered sometime before the commode’s purchase by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1865. We discover pencil marks left (in very unobtrusive places) by conservators from the 1940s. When originally completed the commode was much brighter, the natural and stained woods including yellow, green, pink and blue to match the silk on the walls of Marie-Antoinette’s intimate and private cabinet intérieur. The removal of the gilt bronze mounts, which had protected the wood from the effects of light, makes the change in colour, a gradual process over hundreds of years, instantly visible before our eyes.

Conservator pencil marks from 1943We learn from Jürgen that the initial examination has resulted in a fascinating discovery. The gilt bronze royal insignia of Marie-Antoinette’s initials had been carefully cut so that part of it could be removed, therefore potentially making the piece unconnected to Marie Antoinette. It’s well known that Riesener was employed after the French Revolution to remove royal insignia from his furniture; many of the pieces he re-purchased himself in the hope of selling them on. Analysis of the metal using an  XRF portable scanner showed that the removeable section of the mount has the same composition as the rest of it, so perhaps it was taken off at the time of the Revolution, and then re-inserted (perhaps by Riesener himself) at a later date when it was no longer politically unwise to acknowledge Royal connections. Unfortunately it wasn’t a successful tactic for Riesener, who died in comparative poverty in 1806.

To capture the story, directors Rachel and Mark choose to use a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. This camera, whilst fairly small, records very rich, detailed images: exactly what is required when filming detailed processes on intricate and beautiful objects.

Once the conservation process itself is complete, Chocolate Films return to film the ‘reveal’ of the commode in situ, back in the Study, surrounded by other key objects commissioned and owned by Marie-Antoinette. As with all gallery filming, this takes place early in the morning before the arrival of our visitors. Curator of French Decorative Arts, Helen Jacobsen, is interviewed to provide more context on the historical importance of the piece.

Filming the commode back in the StudyThe film is now in the hands of Chocolate Films who take away detailed footage of the entire process, with the brief of condensing this into a six minute film! No mean feat! In the edit suite they choose appropriate music and intersperse older images of the piece, including photographs from 1903 from our detailed object files.  The first draft of the film is then presented and no dramatic changes are made: we hope an indication of good preparation, a clear sense of purpose and an effective working brief. Slight chronological issues are quickly resolved and a quick visit for extra sound provides the additional voiceover to complete the picture.

Once signed off internally, the film is made available for visitors on the Interact section of our website, on our You Tube page and promoted through our social media channels. There are also plans for further usage for this particular film. In April, a display will open in the Conservation Gallery on the Riesener commode. This film will play on a terminal in the gallery, aiding understanding.

The discoveries made on the Riesener commode aren’t isolated. This is just one example of the many fascinating stories that emerge over time, in the process of the focused curatorial and conservation work which happens every day at the Wallace Collection; bringing to life the beautiful pieces which were commissioned by intriguing patrons, created by master craftsmen and privy to fascinating historical events.

We hope that this film and this insight into its creation goes some way in revealing a hidden world to many of our visitors, both virtual and actual; to both ignite and quench your interest. Do let us know if you enjoy it, and also any ideas you have for further films.

Danielle Cunningham, Marketing & Press Manager

Posted by danielle.cunningham
5 March 2013

Delicate, sensitively-filmed and informative, just the right amount of detail to stimulate further interest. Among my favourite objects at the Wallace are the curtains and wall-coverings (touched on briefly in ‘Transforming the Dutch Galleries’) and it would be wonderful to have a series of films following the process from the original designs on paper, the weaving in silk and then to see the fabric measured up and transformed into those amazing wall coverings and window ‘dressings’. I am old enough to remember how dark and gloomy those rooms once looked. It would be interesting to watch and listen to interviews with historic interior designers, silk weavers and makers. Perhaps workshops to follow in passementerie?

Anna Shelley on 8 March 2013


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