- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Water is best. But gold shines like fire blazing in the night, supreme of lordly wealth.

Pindar, Olympian Odes I

Lean in a little too closely at the piece of gold leaf balanced on master gilder Charles Rhodes’ brush and you may find that the sheet of precious gold has scattered like so many pieces of worthless ash. Move too quickly, and the sheet may crumple like the fragile leaf it is.

“You have to have a lot of patience to be able to do this,” says Mr. Rhodes, who owns Golden Rhodes, a gilding workshop and studio in Alexandria. “And you’ve got to have a steady hand.”

Look around the city, and the sure hand of the gilder is readily apparent, from monuments and statues to the golden domes of banks and other businesses. The gilder’s art may be found in interior spaces as well, picking out details on Corinthian capitals or dancing around antique frames and mirrors.

Now, an unprecedented conference presented jointly by the Smithsonian Associates and the Society of Gilders from Sept. 25 to 30 will showcase the art, history and techniques associated with what master gilder and frame historian William Adair calls “the world’s third oldest profession” — after journalism.

Tours associated with the conference will take participants to the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection as well as into the Washington Monument to examine the gilding on the 193 stone tablets — donated by every state as well as counties, organizations and individuals — that are set into the interior walls.

“Gilding is an art that has been around since the ancient Egyptians,” says Mary Beth Kelly, manager of studio arts programming for the Smithsonian Associates. “There are examples of gilding throughout the world.”

Gold and glitter

Picture the great Russian cathedrals, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Mormon Temple here in the United States, all testaments to the power of gold to lift the spirit. The gilder’s expertise is evident in the profane as well, from gilded bank domes and hotel halls to those touches of excess we tend to associate with an overabundance of cash and an absence of taste.

To be sure, gilding over the years has acquired something of a bad rap, from snide musical references to birds in gilded cages to frequent adjurations not to “gild the lily” or try to improve things that are already quite fine the way they are.

American writers, too, have tended to look askance at glitter. In 1863, in “Life Without Principle,” Henry David Thoreau wrote that “A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.” Later, Mark Twain named the corrupt era of the robber barons “The Gilded Age.” Robert Frost followed up: “Nothing gold can stay.”

So much for bling. That hasn’t stopped the Smithsonian from assembling famous gilders from around the world.

“It’s a really unique event,” Ms. Kelly says. “We’ve got an incredible lineup of instructors and lecturers. Anybody can take classes from the top people in the field.”

Moving beyond Bauhaus

Cages and lilies notwithstanding, this country has always shown plenty of enthusiasm for gilding. In the District, a statue of George Washington was once heavily gilded by sculptor Herbert Haseltine, although the statue, on the grounds of the National Cathedral, currently sports no gold.

Today the art is more popular than ever, thanks in large measure to designers and architects who sought to move beyond the clean lines and unadorned surfaces of Bauhaus to experiment with curves and color.

“This country had a rich tradition of decorative painting until the 1930s,” says Michael Kramer, one of the workshop organizers. Mr. Kramer, who has a studio in Olney, is a longtime teacher of gilding at the Smithsonian.

“Then in the 1980s federal tax credits supported the adaptive reuse of historic properties, which meant bringing some of those decorative elements back,” he says. “Now there are hundreds of gilders in the mid-Atlantic area.”

Mr. Kramer believes that just about any surface, if properly prepared, can be gilded. He once gilded a bagel for a New York client.

But in Washington and elsewhere, all that glitters is not gold. Gilders may use other metals, like silver or aluminum. They may use imitation gold. And they may even — horrors — use gold paint.

Framing the subject

Of course, setting is important, too. In Dupont Circle, the center of the District’s gilded age, with its late-19th-century mansions-turned-embassies and office buildings, Mr. Adair operates his Gold Leaf Studios out of a turn-of-the-century space that once housed the stables for the Walsh Mansion, the opulent childhood home of Evelyn Walsh McLean, who later owned the Hope Diamond.

A past president of the Society of Gilders and founder of the International Institute for Frame Study, Mr. Adair will be leading a tour of the Phillips, focusing on the collection’s French frames. So it is no surprise that the old stable is filled with gilded wood, spanning hundreds of years.

“During the Renaissance frames were valued more than the painting,” says Mr. Adair, who learned the intricacies of gilding while working at the Smithsonian Institution. “But tastes change, and too often the original frame for a work ends up in storage.”

In fact, Mr. Adair says, an old frame can tell you a lot more than a painting. You just need to know where to look.

“Each country and each historical era has its own style,” he says. “And you can see cross-cultural references in the pigments they used. Some of these pigments were only available in the East.”

Pride of place goes to a frame that is no less noteworthy because it is empty: it once housed a Monet.

“It has the stamp of Monet’s New York dealer on the back,” he says.

He also has exhibited his own paintings in spaces throughout the city.

“I don’t put frames on my own paintings,” says Mr. Adair. “But I gild the edges.”

Many ways of gilding

Most gilders still gild largely the old-fashioned way, with just a few adjustments made over the years for speed and safety.

“It used to be, the silver bullet for preparation was lead,” says Mr. Kramer, an expert in exterior gilding who has gilded everything from the Second Division Memorial downtown to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

“Now environmental regulations are really affecting the way some of the products we use are manufactured and how they perform.”

And it turns out there really is more than one way to gild that lily.

Today, exteriors are gilded using oil gilding, which means that an oil “size” is applied to the surface after it has been cleaned and primed. After the size has dried for a specified period of time, the gilder applies the gold leaf, overlapping the 4-by-4-inch squares of the leaf to create what will eventually be seen as a smooth and unbroken surface.

“There are many different shades of gold in the leaf, from white gold to orange gold,” says Mr. Kramer, who gets his leaf from Italy, made to his specifications. “The color depends on the amount of silver or other metals in the leaf.”

Interior pieces are often gilded using either oil or water gilding. For the latter, the surface is cleaned and then covered with a layer of white gesso, usually a mixture of calcium carbonate and rabbit-skin glue. The gilder then applies the bole, a colored clay.

“The color of the bole affects the look of the leaf,” explains Mr. Rhodes, who notes that gilders from different countries are often partial to certain bole shades. “A red bole will give you a warm color, while black or grey are cool.”

The bole is then wetted with “gilder’s liquor,” usually a combination of water and alcohol that brings the glue up to the surface and allows the leaf to adhere. Finally, the leaf is burnished and may be shellacked.

Gilders typically save the small pieces of gold that break away from the sheet, called “scurrings” or “skewings,” and save them to fill in those hard-to-reach places on the object being gilded.

When in London, Mr. Rhodes often found fellow commuters staring at him during the bus ride home.

“We were taught to run the brush in your hair a bit to pick up the oil so the gold would adhere,” he says. “But at the end of the day you would have lots of little gold bits clinging to your hair.”

Today, Mr. Rhodes teaches his assistant Kevin Lawler to gild using a somewhat less obtrusive method — a dab of Vaseline on the inside of the wrist.

Gold for Marconi

Both new and experienced gilders will be regilding the statue of Guglielmo Marchese Marconi, the inventor of radio. The sculpture, which was dedicated in 1941 after a public subscription to raise funds, sits at the corner of 16th and Lamont streets in Northwest.

“We’re doing it as our community service project,” says Mr. Kramer of the art deco piece, which is thankfully free of pigeons and their byproducts, the bane of all gilders who work outside.

The sculpture depicts a bust of the inventor topped by a female figure. Look closely at the piece today, and you can still see traces of the original gilding.

Mr. Kramer and his team will prepare the statue for gilding in the days leading up to the conference. That means removing the old gilding, cleaning it, and priming the surface. Once the conference starts, the gilding can begin.

“We’ll start at the top of the head and then move down to the neck and torso,” says Mr. Kramer. “And we’ll use at least 23 karat gold.”

Paint, leaf, and economic pressure

Sculptors knew how the power of gold could attract the eye. So did theater owners, which is why many movie palaces were filled with examples of the gilder’s art, or at least a simulacrum in the form of gold paint.

The Smithsonian event even features a lecture on restoring old movie theaters, featuring recent work at the Hershey Theater in Pennsylvania and the Hudson Theater in New York.

Alas, most of the District’s old movie palaces are no more. But a glance inside the Warner Theater can give a hint at what went before.

Built in 1924 as the Earle, the theater underwent renovation in the early 1990s, with the interior restored to its original grandeur. The Warner’s gold is thanks to the painter rather than the gilder, but the overall effect is well, sumptuous.

True, gold paint has its detractors, among them Mr. Kramer. “Gold paint is an abomination,” he says.

Yet the choice of gold paint over gold leaf stems from a very practical consideration: cost. The price of gold continues to rise, four times in the last year, according to Mr. Rhodes. Meanwhile, longtime suppliers of leaf in both this country and in Europe are going under, faced with competition from an unexpected source: China.

“The Chinese are really putting pressure on the industry,” says Mr. Kramer. “Gold leaf has high labor costs involved, and Chinese leaf is two-thirds the price of anyone else’s.”

On the face of it, cheaper leaf would seem to be a boon for gilders, who tend to guard their gold in safe-deposit boxes. But gilders are tradition-minded folk, so when a longtime firm goes out of business, there’s a very real sense of loss.

Perhaps that’s why so many gilders keep their own collection of historic supplies and equipment. Both Mr. Adair and Mr. Kramer have impressive displays of old leafs, powders, tools and documents relating to gilding in their possession.

Because in the end, gilding is more about passion than price.

“I just love this stuff,” says Mr. Kramer, indicating old gilder’s wheels from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “They just don’t make things like this anymore.”

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