Gilt Gesso: The Technique from A to Z

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Detail of the top of a George I gilt gesso card table 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

With our exhibition on gilt gesso furniture now underway, it is time to dig deeper and focus on the extraordinary and fascinating technique behind gilt gesso decoration.

Gesso is a type of plaster that is prepared of finely ground chalk and a type of adhesive and water.  This material is applied onto the wooden surface in a series of layers—at least fifteen layers were needed to achieve the desired thickness.  Once dried, the surface would be sanded to create a perfectly smooth surface.

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Detail of the base of a George I gilt gesso torchere 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The craftsmen could then cut into the new surface to create a variety of designs.  The designs in gilt gesso furniture vary widely, from the strap work designs inspired by French sources to the elaborate acanthus leaves and foliage.  Different textures could be achieved by incorporating punch work, which is a technique that has been used in paintings for centuries, often to delineate halos on religious works.

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Detail of the top of a George I gilt gesso torchere 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

When the designs were complete, the craftsmen would apply several layers of a red clay ground, known as bole.  Once sanded, this material provides the best surface for the gold leaf.

Gold leaf is often applied with a brush made of various animal hairs (sometimes squirrel!) as fingers have too much moisture to handle the leaves directly.  The craftsmen would wet the bole surface with a weak glue mixture and then apply each leaf with the brush.

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Detail of the top of a George I gilt gesso centre table 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The final step of the process is known as burnishing.  Burnishing creates a soft gloss and luminosity to the finish of the gilding, and it is achieved by rubbing polished agate over these areas.

A number of the pieces in our giltwood exhibition feature the gilt gesso technique, particularly those that relate to the work of James Moore and the early Georgian era.  We invite you to come to the gallery to see these pieces in person to appreciate the gilt gesso technique and how it has aged over the past few centuries.

To learn more about the gilt gesso technique, please come and join us next weekend for two talks at the gallery.  On Saturday July 1 from 2-3pm, we are partnering with the Slow Art Workshop to offer a talk entitled ‘Gilded Histories: Undercovering stories of Georgian giltwood furniture.’  To attend the talk, please visit the Slow Art Workshop’s website here.  On Sunday July 2, we are hosting a talk alongside the Mayfair Art Weekend programming entitled ‘Unravelling the Mystery of an English Masterpiece Destined for Portugal.’  To attend this talk, please visit Mayfair Art Weekend’s website here.

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