It was Never Supposed to be Perfect – Some Thoughts on Woodwork at the c.1810 Chancognie House.

I recently had a conversation about early 19th century woodwork with my friend Chris Swan, Senior Furniture Conservator at Colonial Williamsburg. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, architectural woodwork and furniture were all made by hand and although there would have been differences in the levels of refinement, they had one thing in common – the work was not perfect.

The dining room cornice at the c.1810 Chancognie House.

This is certainly true when analyzing the woodwork here at the Chancognie House. Take, for example, the dining room cornice which I have posted about recently on Instagram. It was executed with great skill, but it was also tailored to its audience which in this case would have been viewing the woodwork from the floor several feet away. As a result, there are a lot of small irregularities in the cornice – beads are various shapes and sizes, the spacing between them is uneven and sometimes there are different numbers of beads between the reels.

There are usually seven beads between the reels in the top section of moulding, but in this section there are only six.

When cleaning the woodwork here, I am careful not to alter those imperfections. It would be easy to round out some of the rough edges on the beads, but my goal is to return them to their original appearance, not to embellish them. The cornice was not meant to be viewed at eye level and the craftspeople who made it certainly never anticipated that I would someday show off closeup pictures of their work.

After stripping the paint, I go over all of the woodwork with fine grade sandpaper and files, careful to just remove paint residue and not alter the irregular shape of the beads.

As Chris noted, there is the question today of just how perfect things should be made when they are restored or in the case of historical sites such as Colonial Williamsburg, contemporary recreations of historic buildings and furniture are made. To the modern eye, imperfections that would have been acceptable and even expected in the period might now appear to be a lack of good craftsmanship. Here at the Chancognie House, the historic fabric is remarkably intact, but on those occasions when replacing lost detail is necessary, it is executed by hand and as a result, has its own unique character.

Master restoration contractor David Hoffman carving a section of bead and reel moulding for the Chancognie House piazza.

Standing on the floor of the dining room (or in this case, looking at a picture without enlarging it), I would challenge you to point out irregularities on the cornice. It is a beautiful piece of woodwork – it is not perfect, but it was never supposed to be.

The dining room cornice of the Chancognie House as seen from the floor.

Coming soon – to paint or not to paint the dining room cornice….

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