Leroy Graves Shares 50 Years of Experience in Upholstery Conservation

Leroy Graves Shares 50 Years of Experience in Upholstery Conservation

Reviewed By Christian Roden

Although it is, in part, a conservation manual, Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence by Leroy Graves is a stellar addition to any decorative arts library. Published in the fall of 2015, this book manages a rare feat: engaging newcomers and casual readers while providing substantive information for experts and collectors and practical instruction for conservation professionals.

With a career at Colonial Williamsburg spanning almost fifty years, Leroy Graves is one of the leading conservators in the field of historic upholstery. One of the challenges of this particular branch of conservation stems from traditional upholstery methods, used throughout much of the 20th century as restoration techniques, which are inherently destructive, weakening the structure of the seating furniture and potentially obliterating evidence of previous upholstery campaigns.

In order to preserve the object and all original evidence for future research, Leroy developed a system of non-invasive upholstery that allows for the exact replication of the initial design without injuring the frame. Although treatments differ from object to object, the basic premise is that a removable outer frame, typically of copper but often of plexiglass for larger surfaces, functions as a support for the show cover. Because the emphasis is on the exterior, the Graves method can be adapted for working on a bare frame, around portions of original material, or covering extant upholstery that needs protection or whose current state is not aesthetically pleasing. All three options avoid the further damage associated with a traditional reupholstery treatment.

Featured in the book, and of special interest to participants in the Trust’s 2016 symposia, is a pair of back stools from the collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts that were made between 1755 and 1770 in or near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and are associated with Long Branch, a Clarke County House included in the Thursday optional tour in October. They may represent the only surviving Southern examples of this primarily English form. Leroy’s close examination of the back frame revealed that the joiner was aware of this new type of seating furniture but unfamiliar with its construction. Fibers of yellow wool discovered beneath a tack on the bottom of a seat rail were a clue to the color of the first upholstery campaign, while holes in the original linen foundation revealed a distinctive pattern of tufting.

At a lavishly illustrated 240 pages, the book makes for both an interesting cover-to-cover read and a handy reference. The six chapters include: an introduction to the history of upholstered seating furniture; a description of the 18th-century upholstery trade; an illustrated glossary of furniture and upholstery terms, structures, and components; illustrated walk-throughs on reading the physical evidence of upholstery history on seating furniture; case studies on specific pieces of furniture conserved by Leroy; and an illustrated, step-by-step description of his conservation process for two different chairs. It is sure to remain a pivotal decorative arts text in the coming years. (Colonial Williamsburg, 2015, $65)

UPCOMING EVENTS

SAVE THE DATE
  • Special Program: Tour of the Newark Museum with retiring Chief Curator Ulysses Dietz
    November 3
  • New York Antiques Weekend
    January 19-20, 2018
  • Emerging Scholars Colloquium
    January 21, 2018
  • Symposium
    Upper Hudson River Valley: From the Mohawk to the Berkshires
    May 3-6, 2018
  • Symposium
    New Orleans & the Mississippi Delta
    November 1-4, 2018
  • Study Trip
    Prague & Vienna with an extension to Budapest
    With an extension to Budapest
    October 1–11 and 16–26, 2018; Extension October 12–15

Leroy Graves Shares 50 Years of Experience in Upholstery Conservation

Reviewed By Christian Roden

Although it is, in part, a conservation manual, Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence by Leroy Graves is a stellar addition to any decorative arts library. Published in the fall of 2015, this book manages a rare feat: engaging newcomers and casual readers while providing substantive information for experts and collectors and practical instruction for conservation professionals.

With a career at Colonial Williamsburg spanning almost fifty years, Leroy Graves is one of the leading conservators in the field of historic upholstery. One of the challenges of this particular branch of conservation stems from traditional upholstery methods, used throughout much of the 20th century as restoration techniques, which are inherently destructive, weakening the structure of the seating furniture and potentially obliterating evidence of previous upholstery campaigns.

In order to preserve the object and all original evidence for future research, Leroy developed a system of non-invasive upholstery that allows for the exact replication of the initial design without injuring the frame. Although treatments differ from object to object, the basic premise is that a removable outer frame, typically of copper but often of plexiglass for larger surfaces, functions as a support for the show cover. Because the emphasis is on the exterior, the Graves method can be adapted for working on a bare frame, around portions of original material, or covering extant upholstery that needs protection or whose current state is not aesthetically pleasing. All three options avoid the further damage associated with a traditional reupholstery treatment.

Featured in the book, and of special interest to participants in the Trust’s 2016 symposia, is a pair of back stools from the collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts that were made between 1755 and 1770 in or near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and are associated with Long Branch, a Clarke County House included in the Thursday optional tour in October. They may represent the only surviving Southern examples of this primarily English form. Leroy’s close examination of the back frame revealed that the joiner was aware of this new type of seating furniture but unfamiliar with its construction. Fibers of yellow wool discovered beneath a tack on the bottom of a seat rail were a clue to the color of the first upholstery campaign, while holes in the original linen foundation revealed a distinctive pattern of tufting.

At a lavishly illustrated 240 pages, the book makes for both an interesting cover-to-cover read and a handy reference. The six chapters include: an introduction to the history of upholstered seating furniture; a description of the 18th-century upholstery trade; an illustrated glossary of furniture and upholstery terms, structures, and components; illustrated walk-throughs on reading the physical evidence of upholstery history on seating furniture; case studies on specific pieces of furniture conserved by Leroy; and an illustrated, step-by-step description of his conservation process for two different chairs. It is sure to remain a pivotal decorative arts text in the coming years. (Colonial Williamsburg, 2015, $65)

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