ECPN Interview: Wooden Artifacts Conservation with Harry DeBauche

By Awyn Rileybird posted 11-05-2018 21:25

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of pathways into specializations within conservation, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) has been conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in a variety of disciplines. We began the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation and continued the series by focusing on practitioners working with Electronic Media. In this interview series, we spoke with members of AIC’s Wooden Artifact Group (WAG). These conservators work with various wooden objects, which can range from furniture and musical instruments to waterlogged wood, frames, and more. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, hoping to inspire new conservation professionals and provide insights into these specialized areas.

For this third interview in our WAG interview series, we spoke with @Harral DeBauche. Harry is a project frame conservator with the Brooklyn Museum, and he received an MS/MA in Conservation and Art History from the NYU Institute of Fine Arts (IFA). 

Harry DeBauche applying bole to a liner [Photo Credit: Josh Summer].

ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Harry DeBauche (HD): I’m a frame/wooden object conservator in my first year post graduation. I come from a fine art/illustration background. For hobbies I sculpt and do verre eglomise pictures of family, cats, vegetables, and saints.

How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?

HD: I became interested in conservation while studying abroad in Rome as an undergrad. I spent  a lot of time in museums and became really preoccupied with how a conservation treatment can dramatically impact the way a viewer experiences a piece. Subsequently, I did research on conservation to inform a series of sculptures I was making. Through that process I realized that preserving art was a better fit for my skill set than making art.

ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue wooden artifact conservation?

HD: While I was learning to gild and carve I became really obsessed with frames, both for their inherent beauty and how their design can dramatically influence a painting.  Frames occupy a really strange place within the museum. They’re not usually given the full status of accessioned objects and, until very recently, people working on them didn’t typically treat them following the ethical norms that have been adopted by the rest of the conservation world. You can argue whether or not that’s appropriate but there’s certainly space for new approaches. This means  that there are a lot of exciting, novel problems to be solved. At the same time, I find the day-to-day treatment of frames to be very satisfying. The conservation of different materials and object types has different tempos. When I initially became involved in conservation I planned on treating metal objects, especially bronze statuary, because that’s what I had made previously as an artist. I found actually treating metals, however, to be pretty dull. Treatment of frames tends to be faster paced with a lot of opportunities to cast, carve, paint, and gild.


Frame of Un Regard Fugitif, detail, before treatment [Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum]. 

Associated artwork: Mary Shepard Greene Blumenschein (American, 1869-1958). Un Regard Fugitif, 1900.
Oil on canvas, 51 3/4 x 36 1/4 in.
Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney W. Davidson, 57.95. 

ECPN: What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

HD: I have a BFA in Illustration from RISD. I took science classes at University of Wisconsin and University of Minneapolis. Then, I did a year at the City and Guilds of London School of Art before transferring to the IFA at NYU for my MS/MA. Critically for me, there were a number of conservators and gilders who were very generous with their time and advice; without their help I wouldn’t be where I am now. My art making practice also contributes to my skill set and is a way for me to experiment with various materials and techniques.

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline? Can one solely be a ‘wooden artifact conservator,’ or is knowledge of composites and how to treat other materials inherent to the work?

HD: My impression is that most conservators don’t really know how to gild--and for good reason! It’s a very fussy skill, with a lot of very specialized tools. It's also totally irrelevant to most specializations. Gilding isn’t something I have to do daily, so I still have a lot to learn, but I do find it essential for working on frames. There just aren’t good ways to imitate the look of burnished water gilding other than burnished water gilding. The experience of gilding also helps with interpreting the treatment history of the frames, since they tend to be frequently restored and very rarely documented. Frames are mostly composites and I think it would be difficult to work on them without knowing about a lot of different materials. I would imagine all wooden artifact conservators are familiar with treating non-wooden materials.

Paige Schmidt, treating 19th century pilot house chair (Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park)

Frame of Un Regard Fugitif, detail, after treatment [Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum]. 
Associated artwork: Mary Shepard Greene Blumenschein (American, 1869-1958). Un Regard Fugitif, 1900.
Oil on canvas, 51 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney W. Davidson, 57.95.

ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

HD: I’m currently working a mixture of furniture, frames, and sculpture. I move around the departments as needed. As a personal project I’m also looking into alternatives to mica powder and mica-based paints. There are a lot of effects pigments (meant to imitate pearlescent, iridescent, or metallic surfaces) currently being developed, some of which may end up being more effective at mimicking the appearance of metal leaf than what is currently used by conservators.

ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

HD: Compared to furniture, let alone sculpture, there’s relatively little research and writing about frames. There’s a lot of fallow ground. It’s hard to think of an area, either in terms of history or materials, that’s been fully explored.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

HD: I’m at the beginning of my career but it seems to me that being effective requires years of practice to develop the necessary skills and years of study to build up a base of connoisseurship. More than anything, I think learning the technical skills required to make frames is a huge help.