Returning Sparkling Darkness to a Gloomy Lacquer
In this blog post, Khun Nan talks about the conservation process of treating and restoring lacquered capitals and ceilings in Wat Chaiwatthanaram.
Located high up inside each architectural structure known as a ‘Meru’ at Wat Chaiwatthanaram are worn grayish capitals and frayed ceilings that, at first glance, might not be as eye-catching as the large Buddha images down below. Many visitors walk right by and never notice, and I have to admit, before working with World Monuments Fund this included myself, despite having visited Wat Chaiwatthanaram several times before on school trips. Now I know better. Judging by the remains, these ceilings were not given any less attention or dedication by the artists who created this exquisite monument during the 17th century. Because of my experiences with WMF I now know better; these were some of the richest architectural features found at Wat Chaiwatthanaram, so we as conservators in the 21st century put as much effort in treating and restoring these lacquered capitals and ceilings.
Constructed in stucco and covered with black lacquer, the ornate capitals support false wood ceilings. They were sculpted into the shape of stacking lotus petals on top of supporting pillars at each of the four corners in the Merus. Many parts of the lacquer finish are now flaking, with layers of dust and stains found on the surface. There are essentially three steps for cleaning these capitals. First, we use paintbrushes of different sizes to brush off the top layer of dust. This also includes picking off insect nests and removing cobwebs along with their habitants who are too stubborn to leave forever, always coming back after a couple of days. Then, a special sponge made for conservation work is used to dry-clean the surface, which runs smoothly like an eraser and by far proved the most powerful tool in returning the lacquer's original blackness. Lastly, we complete the process by using a stick with cotton swabs dipped in a mix of distilled water and acetone.
Balancing on these capitals is a teak wood ceiling constructed by hand hewn thick timber beams and traditional joinery. These are coated in thick black lacquer, a substrate used to adhere gold inlay, and abalone shell and cut glass.
These ceilings once glowed attractively in lavish gold, as traces of its coating can still be seen here and there. The pink and cream ceiling planks were probably once all in red, a common color of ceilings in Buddhist monuments in Thailand. Holes are in almost every block of frames where decorating artworks used to be, and some beams and frames are missing from their place which our expert in carpentry will take care of later. But prior to any intervention, the ceiling surfaces also require the same 3-step cleaning, with extreme caution, as I found that the gold and pink cream coatings are relatively sensitive to the mixed solution. Though I’m satisfied with the outcome, I have to say that brightening this ceiling was a little bit painful for my neck!
With further treatments still to undergo for these capitals and ceilings, I can't wait to see how they will turn out and hope more visitors will appreciate their second-to-none restored charm.