new exhibit in Votive Hall in the permanent display:
Centrepiece — Allegory of the Four Seasons and of Morning and Evening
Lime and pine wood, polychromed in green tempera, glass, mica, copper, brass,
steel, lead, tin, aluminium, beeswax, shellac, white lead, paper, plaster of Paris, silk, etc.
Bohemia or Central Europe, c. 1760—80
Inv. no. 15 035
Regrettably, it can no longer be ascertained whether this table ornament was fashioned in Bohemia or one of the neighbouring countries (Austria or Germany). The piece on display dates to the late rococo period, which is well apparent in the physical appearance of the figures, their attire and the general arrangement of this three-part assemblage. The distinctive atmosphere exuded by this artefact is similarly “rococo” — an idyllic arcadian landscape, with the Allegories of the Four Seasons set in the central section and accompanied on either side by two bucolic companion compositions featuring a music-playing shepherd and shepherdess (probably Allegories of Morning and Evening).
Formally, the congenial application of diverse materials in this densely adorned centrepiece make it truly exceptional. The figures are cast in wax, their clothing is made of coloured papier-mâché, the accessories (for example, the hand bag) are of textile fabric, and the garden landscape is created from thousands of brightly coloured beads attached and shaped into the required forms using an intricately woven wire mesh and metal supports. The horizontal mirror-like surface is intended to give the impression of water, which only intensifies the overall bizarre look of this
Decorating dining tables with flowers dates back to Antiquity; yet table centrepieces — three-dimensional decorative objects — first appeared in Western Europe’s aristocratic interiors only in the 16th century. Forerunners of this centrepiece, or rather its sources of inspiration, were porcelain table ornaments produced from the mid—18th century. Among the earliest items of the kind is a Baroque dining centrepiece of 1749 in the Slatiňany chateau in eastern Bohemia, that was fashioned at the Vienna porcelain factory for Prince Franz Joseph Auersperg. A dining table embellishment from Austria’s Zwettl Abbey, executed in 1767—68 in that same factory, represents the late rococo style. Centrepieces (Tafelaufsätze) continued in popularity in the 19th century. In addition to porcelain and noble metals, the use of glass soon came to the fore. Besides figural compositions still rendered largely in porcelain, glass was employed for elaborate arrangements of bowls and vases for displaying fruit and flowers.
It can only be surmised whether figural table ornaments had a function other than purely decorative. It may well be that these wares inspired the company at table to discuss or contemplate topics that were, in the true sense of the word, plastically displayed before their eyes, as was once the case with this centrepiece.
The Restoration of the Centrepiece
The restoration of the beaded dining table centrepiece, carried out in 2008, was time-consuming, but highly interesting work in terms of technique. It was preceded by detailed research and documentation, during which we identified all 669 components and made a diagram of the wires of all the bead appliqués.
The object had been damaged mainly by dust. The grime was particularly stubborn because of the turpentine used in previous conservation work, which had been carried out mainly on the iron wires. There was also oil on the surface of the glass beads and because it had turned brown, the glass was completely discoloured. The iron parts were corroded; the iron wire had cracked and broken in the twists of the beadwork knots. The lace-like strips had become deformed and loose beads were lost; on the satin and rocaille beads cracks appeared and bits of glass had been chipped off. The parts sculpted in wax — the clothing of the figurines, which was made of thin leaves of perforated wax — were also deformed. The broken-off pieces of wax were missing and an unsuitable coating of paraffin had been used during the previous conservation work. The pedestals of the wax sculptures had suffered damage, and so too had the basic supporting boards, from which the polychrome had flaked off.
Because of the great variety of materials, we began the restoration by totally dismantling the object. We removed all the appliqués glued to the wooden board or fastened down with iron hooks and we marked each part with a number from the technical drawing.
Before restoration work, each kind of material was cleaned with a process suitable specifically to it, during which an aqueous solution of household soap and Castile soap, as well as benzine and ultrasound were used. To retouch the places where it was missing, we secured the polychrome of the wooden board and plinths with gelatine, using water colours on a chalk ground. The polychrome of the plinths was restored with shell silver and a protective dammar varnish mixed with a small amount of white wax.
We added new leaves of wax to the sculptures, which were produced using the original technology. We applied the leaves to the figurines on waxed construction paper which was patched with Japanese paper. To substitute for the missing parts of the hollow wax sheep we used new casts of white beeswax, which we soldered on with a palette knife with controllable heat, and eventually retouched the oil paints. Thin stainless-steel wire and new beads that are visually identical to the originals were used to connect the damaged bead composition of the plants and other decorative parts. We wound new silk thread, dyed in its original colours, over the old silk thread on the flower stems and tree trunks, which had been faded by light and damaged by the corrosion of the wire and soiling. Any rust on the metal parts, the fence posts, the frame of the entrance gate, and the iron hooks was removed in a solution of EDTA and then conserved with tannin.
The centrepiece includes a great many other interesting elements, techniques, and natural materials: the snow on the trees is made of crushed mica stuck together with gum arabic and the surfaces of the lakes are made from a thin sheet of mica underlayed with metal foil. The fruit on the trees is made from a casein-based medium, finished with wax or coloured with gelatine. The little birds are made of wax, which, while warm, was set with small beads.