Celebrating the Art of Gilding

by theartofbespoke in Bespoke stories

As the craft revival continues apace, we ask whether gilding will be one of those techniques to experience a comeback.

The craft revival has seen swathes of people embrace once-unfashionable pastimes like knitting, embroidery and beekeeping. There are prime-time TV programmes devoted to scrapbooking and quilting, while bestselling books tell us how to smoke our own fish and preserve our own vegetables.

This is all good news – some of our heritage crafts are in real danger of dying out, as so few people know the skills and techniques. And once they retire, there’s no one to take their place.

Gilding – the art of coating a surface in fine gold leaf or paint – is a traditional craft that’s seen a decline in recent decades, although one place you’ll see it heralded is Ossowski on Belgravia’s Pimlico Road. This family-run treasure trove of a shop specialises in 18th-century antique mirrors (owner Mark Ossowski calls it ‘the long 18th century’, meaning that it covers a few decades either side.) These days Pimlico Road might be building a reputation as London’s design quarter, but the ritzy interiors shops that line it today are mere interlopers – Ossowski is the original, having been here since 1960.

‘When you talk about gilding, people think of gold, but you can gild in aluminium leaf and copper.’

 

It’s Mark Ossowski’s belief that gilding is one of those techniques that ‘never really went away. It’s true to say that there are fewer workshops than there were 20 years ago,’ he says, ‘but I think that these days people are more prepared to have someone come into their home and gild a few cornices.’

Admittedly gilding is less likely to see a resurgence than, say, knitting, simply because it’s perceived as being hard to do. ‘It is quite difficult,’ admits Ossowski. ‘The technical steps themselves aren’t that tricky, but there are any number of variations in the atmosphere of the room, say, or drying times, that means there are lots of little things that can go wrong.’

There are courses around for people who want to have a go (‘The V&A have offered courses,’ says Ossowski, ‘and you can learn a lot off t’internet.’) But, to find out more, Pimlico Road is as good place to head as any. ‘We really know our stuff,’ he says, ‘I was brought up with it.’ The shop also holds regular talks where you can learn about the different techniques and see them demonstrated.

Certainly it’s a lovely place to explore, one that feels as much like a museum as a boutique. After all, there are few other places you can get up close to a restored Charles II looking glass. Naturally, if you’re interested in buying, such items don’t come cheap. The more elaborate pieces can cost anything up to £90,000, although you can pick up a simple George III giltwood mirror for £1,400.

 

And if you want something commissioned to your own specifications, it can be done. ‘We also do bespoke mirrors,’ says Ossowski. ‘At the moment we’re making two mirrors in contrasting styles based on models we have, but in different sizes.’

Clearly these bespoke pieces won’t be antique, but Ossowski says this rarely an issue with clients. ‘Some people only want antique,’ he says, ‘but there’s less and less resistance as the older mirrors are so hard to find and expensive.’

Besides, the newly made mirrors are still handcrafted pieces of exquisite quality. ‘People are happy to be encouraging these skills,’ he says. ‘We’re doing it by hand and in this country. And after all, these are the same techniques we were using in the 18th century.’

Someone who’s using gilding in a more contemporary way is Rupert Bevan, creator of bespoke furniture and interior finishes. Bevan trained as a gilder when he started out, aged 18, and still incorporates it in his work for clients such as Soho House, Nicky Haslam and One Hyde Park.

‘When you talk about gilding, people think of gold, but you can gild in aluminium leaf and copper,’ he says. ‘Traditionally you might do cornicing or the gates on Buckingham Palace, but we’ve also done bathrooms and cloakrooms.’ He recently gilded the walls of a Primrose Hill bathroom in aluminium leaf, and describes the effect as ‘like being in a silver box’.

There’s a reason these techniques are becoming so popular, says Bevan. ‘They have longevity and depth because we’re using natural materials that have character. That marks them out from modern spray lacquer finishes. It’s the difference between a Findus pie and one that’s homemade.’

Indeed, he sees a bright future for gilding (no pun intended). ‘It’s been in the doldrums for a few years, but good craftsmanship is definitely coming back – people want that sincerity and depth.’

For more information about gilding talks at Ossowski, visit www.ossowski.co.uk.


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