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Dutch-​German Cooperation


Students help to restore Chinoise Rooms of Oranienbaum Palace

Over the past five years, Oranienbaum has been a privileged location for meetings between German and Dutch training programs in conservation.


First of all, the palace itself is a "lieu de mémoire" for the Oranje-Nassau dynasty. It was the residence of Henriette Catharina, daughter of Stadhouder Frederic Hendrik and Amalia van Solms, after her marriage with Johan Georg II, Fürst von Anhalt-Dessau. In 1682, she commissioned the Dutch architect Cornelis Ryckwaert.
The palace survived the many upheavals and changes in function and ownerships remarkably well. It still bears today an unquestionable cultural reference to Dutch Classicistic architecture. But the palace needed care and urgent conservation was top priority for the Kulturstiftung Dessau-Wörlitz. For this reason Oranienbaum was selected by the Queen and by the Bundespresident as a "lieu de rencontre" between their two countries, a meeting place for knowledge transfer, research and exchange of opinions in ethical, technical and esthetical issues in the world of conservation and restoration of historic monuments.
The evolution of the profession from craftsmanship towards academic discipline is still in full development in Europe and abroad. Scientific progress is, in all conservation areas, felt most strongly when considering the access of young conservators to PhD programs. The first "Colloquium Oranienbaum" was held in 2008, with the collaboration of the "European Network for Conservation/Restoration Education" (ENCoRE). For the first time in the history of the profession, PhD candidates presented their research in the interdisciplinary field of conservation and restoration. Intense discussions about the definition of the profession and specific areas of expertise in relation to exact sciences and art history, brought a new consciousness and with that, a certain pride, in the achievements of those young "hands on" specialists. The moment of conservation and restoration was clearly seen as a privileged moment for research, necessary for formulating an adequate treatment strategy but also rich in its harvest of art technological and scientific data.
Research related to architecture and more specifically historic interiors, could not have found a better location than Oranienbaum. The original decorations dating from the 17th century and all subsequent changes in color and taste up to the Bauhaus modification in 1929, are still present in their authentic and historic integrity. Workshops and Summer Schools could ideally be held there and multidisciplinarity would emerge, as a matter of course.

Summer School

The idea of organizing a "Chinoiserie Workshop" was triggered by the urgent need for conservation of two rooms on the ground floor of the palace and became reality in the Summer of 2010. After addressing art historical and technological issues in the fascinating and very international field of Chinese import decorations, dating from the late 18th and well into the 19th century, a first survey was made of the state of conservation.
The idea of a "hands on" Summerschool, taking care of the actual urgent conservation, followed logically and was made possible on the Dutch side through the financial participation of the University of Amsterdam, the Royal House Archives and the ”Stichting Historische Verzamelingen van het Huis Oranje-Nassau” in The Hague, and on the German side through the generous contribution from a sponsor of the Kulturstiftung DessauWörlitz. Additionally, the project gratefully benefitted from the experience and support of the training programs in conservation and restoration of Potsdam, Stuttgart, Dresden and Amsterdam.

The Oranienbaum Summerschool 2011

was organized efficiently by Claudia Hörster, keeper of the art collection at the Royal House Archives in The Hague. She visited Oraniebaum in the spring of 2011 with Daniëlle van Kempen, head of the Historic Interiors training program at the University of Amsterdam, who formulated a first project proposal, following on the research done the year before during the "Chinoiserie Workshop". The training programs in Potsdam, Dresden and Stuttgart welcomed the idea, students were selected and teaching staff was found to coach the students during research and practical work in situ. Five Dutch students were to stay for a period of three weeks (31/7/2011 until 20/8/2011) and three German students, starting at the same time, would stay until the first week of September. Prof. Dr. Werner Koch (wall paintings, ABK Potsdam), Prof. Roland Lenz (wall paintings, ABK Stuttgart) and Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schießl (Historic Interiors, ABK Dresden) participated in the elaboration of the program together with Dr. Jan Raue (private conservator wall paintings) and advisor of the Kulturstiftung DessauWörlitz. The President of the Foundation, Dr Thomas Weiss, and his staff, Annette Scholtka, Dr. Wolfgang Savelsberg, Architect Robert Hartman and Dr. Ingo Pfeifer, were extremely generous in facilitating the project and providing the means to bring it to a fruitful completion.
The starting point of the project was heavily overshadowed by the untimely and sudden death of Prof Dr Ulrich Schießl on the 25th of July 2011. All participants agreed on their moral obligation and duty to go on with the project and to overcome their sorrow by dedicating the "Oranienbaum Summerschool 2011" to the memory of its founding father.

Historical and art technological context

The two "Chinoiserie"rooms situated to the left of the main entrance on the bel-étage, were decorated in the same style as two similar rooms in Wörlitz. Both locations were commissioned by Fürst Franz (1740-1817) following the style of Sir William Chambers (1723-1783) and his "Dissertation of Oriental Gardening" of 1772. A description of the Chinese rooms in Wörlitz palace that can be dated at approximately the same period as the ones in Oranienbaum, can be found in the work of August von Rode (1751-1837). In his "Beschreibung des Fürstlichen Anhalt-Dessauischen Landhauses und Englischen Gartens zu Wörlitz" (1814-1818, ed. Mitteldeutscher Verlag 2008. p.22), where he says: "Die Tapete besteht aus länglich viereckigen Feldern, abwechselnd mit Peking und mit Chinesischem bemalte Papiere bekleidet. Zwischen diesen Feldern, und unter denselben rings in Zimmer umher, läuft eine dem Holz völlig ähnliche Einfassung von braunroth gemalten, erhabenen, ineinander greifende Ringeln aus Stuk. In dem Raume unter den Fenstern ist jedoch diese Verzierung wirklich von Holtze, weil sie daselbst Thüren bekleidet." Von Rode describes very accurately the spatial concept of the room: painted rectangular fields of Chinese and Peking wall-paper, fitted into a framework of red/brown painted wood imitation on stucco. The painted wood imitation and parts of the room executed in "real wood" are complementary and form a tonal unity.(Ill..)

This tonal unity and similarity in style and materials can be clearly recognized in Oranienbaum (Ill..): the doors are made of wood and decorated with thin rectangular profiles, following the same patterns as those on the stucco wall that replicate with red/brown paint the texture and color of the wood. Here the "real wood" has aged and darkened considerably. In harmony with this phenomenon, the wood imitation on the stucco walls has been covered in the past with a viscous brown layer of drying oil + resin(?), forming heavy horizontal dark lines and drippings.

The tonal unity is disturbed significantly by paint losses, showing the white stucco background and large losses in the stucco layer itself that had been roughly repaired in the past. These losses are shadows of the installation put into the rooms in the period after the second world war when Oranienbaum was used as State Archive.
The photo documentation of cross sections of the paint layers taken during the ”Chinoiserie Workshop” in 2010 and processed at SRAL in Maastricht, is shown by the UvA students to Roland Lenz (Stuttgart). An examination of the whole painted surface with hand held UV fluorescence lamps, both in Schloss Wörlitz and Oranienbaum, gave a clear image of the various old retouchings and non original surface coatings.

Perception, ethics and esthetics

The difference between restoration concepts related to exterior and interior of monuments, between countries over the world, has been a debate over the past two centuries. Here the value of age and the value of beauty or architectural original concept, can be seen in juxtaposition.

In a first step, students found the process of retouching with aquarelle and ”toning down” (Entstören, ontstoren) the white losses in the painted decoration, a way of gaining tonal coherence and unity. After several solubility tests, a safe and effective method of removing disturbing overpaints was found. The significant ”re-discovery” of original material was seen as a very positive and comforting element.

After the workshop given by Mr Fleischman on stucco techniques, showing once again that the knowledge coming from traditional craftsmanship is vital for our understanding of the making process of historic interiors, the students made their own trials in making new fillings. Old fillings that covered large parts of the original surface and also disturbing because of their irregular structure, were removed partially to allow for improvement of the surface.

During the first week, many different approaches were talked about, going from total cleaning and retouching of the original decorations with ”original materials and techniques”, an approach that can be seen in other historic buildings in the area or, a minimal and reversible approach consisting of moving step by step and removing disturbing visual elements.
With the colleagues from Potsdam, Stuttgart and Dessau-Wörlitz, a treatment strategy was discussed on the basis of the visual and technical results of the pilot project in the first week. We agreed on the following steps:
-Surface dirt removal on the whole decorative stucco paint surface
-The chinoiserie paintings on wood, that had not been varnished, remain as they are
-Aged and discolored wood remains as it is
-Partial removal of the disturbing old fillings
-Removal of discolored overpaints with acetone (good ventilation, gas masks and gloves)
-Removal of the very disturbing dark drippings of the non original surface coating
-Retouching of small losses with aquarelle
-Retouching of the large new fillings with acrylic paint used as a middle tone
-Saturation of mat areas by polishing lightly the surface with varnish and/or micro-cristaline wax

For didactic reasons, all the students take part in the totality of the cosmetic treatment of the room, so all different methods of treatment can be brought into practice. This is very important for the organization of the work and in that sense, a student project needs a specific approach, bridging gaps in experience and knowledge for each individual student. The fact that Dutch and German students came from different programs, disciplines and within different BA/MA moments in their studies, makes the bridging even more essential. A basic truth in this kind of practice related conservation project, is the fact that students learn significantly from each other. Learning to communicate in difficult circumstances is the essence of the practice of conservation and restoration.

On the 8th of August a press meeting was held in the Chinoiserie room of Oranienbaum and the next day a very good article ”Hilfe aus den Niederlanden: Summer School, Studenten restaurieren Räume im Oranienbaumer Schloss.” Was published in the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, 9/8/2011, p.8.

Dr Jan Raue, appointed as coordinating conservator for Oranienbaum by the Kulturstiftung DessauWörlitz, arrived on Monday 8/8 and followed the preliminary test area’s of the students. Two days of working together before handing over the coaching responsibility were essential in reaching a practical agreement about treatment strategy.

Anne van Grevenstein

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