Allison Jackson couldn’t stop long to chat. She was adding an impossibly thin layer of gold leaf to a small wooden frame in a conservation lab on the Harvard Art Museums’ bright, vaulted fifth floor. As she worked, the “oil size” — the adhesive she’d applied the night before — was starting to dry. “Once it has set up for 12 hours the size is only tacky for a short window,” she said.
Carefully, the assistant frames conservator at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies lifted tiny pieces of the decorative gold from a small booklet with the help of a soft brush she repeatedly touched to her cheek. The oil from her face, she explained, helps the brush stick to bits of an 18.5-karat square sheet of gold leaf that’s only 1/250 thousandth of an inch thick. Making sure not to breathe too hard to ensure the delicate leaf didn’t float away, she carefully brought her gilt-tipped brush down to the frame, gently pushing the gold into the small carved crevices, and smoothing it out with another, slightly stiffer brush.
When done, Jackson would let the frame sit for 10 days to “fully cure,” then begin muting its glow.
“Once gilded the frame looks like a gold bar, so it has to be toned back to make it look like it’s 150 years old,” said Jackson, who would go on to apply a layer of glue followed by shellac and a thinned-out layer of paint to the frame to artificially age and “dirty” its newly glided surface. “The process works to beautifully mellow the harshness of the lemony green gold that Moore choose for his frames.”
Jackson was referring to the 19th-century British artist Albert Moore, and she was putting the shining touches on a frame she helped recreate for an early version of the lush Moore painting “Study for ‘Blossoms’” (c. 1881), on view in the museums’ gallery The Pre–Raphaelites and Their Legacy.