Meet the Maker: Fiona Blunden, Gilder

Written for Slow Living: http://www.slowlivingtoday.com/2014/home-garden/meet-maker-fiona-blunden-gilder/

Light streams in from a bank of windows at the Blunden Gilding Studio and the overhead spotlights make the gold gleam on a recently finished mirror, while a round, grand frame sits nearby waiting to be restored. The studio, home of the gilder, Fiona Blunden, is filled with the tools of her craft, an ancient profession with techniques dating before the Middle Ages. A dozen jars are filled with brushes of every size and interesting items (like an agate tipped burnishing tool and gilder’s pad) lie on the table. The art of gilding involves the process of applying gold leaf to surfaces to create a thin coating of gold, which is a laborious process that Blunden has mastered over many years.

Fiona Blunden was born in Ireland, one of six girls, in the medieval village of Kilkenny. Blunden began as an apprentice silversmith in Kilkenny, but was inspired by a friend at Ireland’s National Gallery of Art to study the art of gilding. Traveling to London during the depths of the 1990s recession, she knocked on the door of every conservation and restoration studio looking for an apprenticeship. Her persistence was rewarded, and she found a job in Hammersmith with a gilder and furniture restorer, Seabury Burdett-Coutts. She stayed at his studio for three years before moving to London to work for Christine Leder, a framer and restorer. Leder’s studio was a busy, non-stop shop and there was no lack of projects from West End galleries, painters and artists. After four years at Leder’s studio, Fiona went back to Ireland and then moved to the United States with her husband John (whom she met in London). They settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she established a gilding studio in a converted carriage house, but eventually they moved to their present location in Vermont. After arriving to Vermont, she happened to have dinner with local craftsmen, Charles and Miranda Shackleton (founders of ShackletonThomas, a world-renowned furniture and pottery company), who introduced her to the building where their workshops are based: a historic woolen mill. This was a space filled with windows, spacious rooms, and everything she needed to open her studio in Vermont.

Blunden’s clients include antique dealers needing restoration work, urban designers, and many individuals seeking restoration of frames, mirrors, and other objects, like weathervanes. Her passion for the craftsmanship of these pieces, some hundreds of years old, is what draws her to restore older pieces. “Brings me such pleasure to bring something back to life,” says Blunden, “Such pleasure in preserving the old beauty and crafts of years gone by.” Blunden has no advertising or marketing budget, and many of her clients come from word-of-mouth, which to Blunden, “is the best type!” Gilding is a highly specialized profession, and there are few gilders in the United States. Many gilders have a specialty, like framing, restoration, bookbinding, architecture, or another niche.

The process of gilding is labor intensive, and Blunden predominantly uses “water gilding,” which (as the name implies) uses water in the application. The process is used mostly on wood or plaster ornament. To begin, she strips the piece back to bare wood, and applies two layers of warm rabbit skin glue, which is a granular mixture that melts down to a sticky liquid. Next, using a gesso powder (which is chalk mixed with glue), Blunden paints 14 layers of gesso as a “cushion” over the surface. The surface is then sanded smooth and free of imperfections. Two coats of yellow bole (a natural clay) follow, with a base coat of red bole on the highlights. The red bole is used because gold is so transparent, and it is desirable to have a nice warm color underneath. The bole coating is also sanded with a super-fine steel wool for a smooth, imperfection-free surface. Before the gold is applied, the surface is brushed with water with a drop of glue. Blunden picks up a sheet of 23-karat gold leaf from her work palette with her guilder’s tip (a brush with fine squirrel hair) to lay down the leaf on to the surface. The gold leaf is applied, left to dry, tapped with wool/cotton, left overnight and the following day it is burnished with an agate. The burnishing tool resembles a painter’s brush, but with an agate stone attached to the end. The burnished areas shine, while the untouched areas have a matte surface. When complete, an optional sanding brings out the undercoat of the red bole.

Another gilding process is “oil gilding,” typically used on statuary, weathervanes, and architectural features like domes, where the finish must withstand the elements. Oil gilding has a matte appearance and cannot be burnished. The oil used has a long drying time of twelve hours, which allows for an extended gilding time. The piece needs to be finished before the oil has passed the drying time, but Blunden isn’t worried: “I’m fast!” After her time at Christina Leder’s high-paced studio, she learned how to work fast and under pressure.

With such a labor-intensive process, gilding can be expensive. For example, a small mirror can take 5-6 hours for the entire gilding process. A less expensive alternative is metal leaf, which has a flat, metallic appearance. Actual gold is preferable and unmistakable, and the gilding process leaves telltale “lap lines” where the leaf overlaps in the application.

Blunden has many new projects, like the turned wooden lamps and keepsake boxes present on her studio shelves. She dreams of creating modern pieces of gilded furniture during the long winter. In recent months, she has collaborated with neighbor Charles Shackleton on gilding several of his furniture and wooden accessories, like the Modern Classic Mirror, which blends traditional and modern elements. Blunden’s future, much like her gold, shines bright.

Blunden Gilding Studio
The Bridgewater Mill, Route 4
Bridgewater, Vermont 05034