The application of gold leaf, powder or paint to a solid surface such as wood, stone, or metal to give a thin coating of gold.
|Historic area of significance
|Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, China, Turkey, Syria
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Unknown, but edge gilding was used by monks and holy men around 400AD
Gilding is the craft of applying gold leaf, powder or paint to solid surfaces such as wood, stone, or metal to give a thin coating of gold. TSome of the oldest known gilt artefacts are silver nails from northern Syria, the heads of which have been wrapped in gold foil. In these examples, the gilding does not depend on a physical or chemical bond between the gold foil and the substrate. The skill was further developed in two separate ways: by adding an adhesive in-between the gold and the object, and alternatively, by overlapping layers of gold foil and burnishing them.
Initially this thicker ‘gold foil’ was used for gilding but as the craft developed the gold became thinner and was known as ‘gold leaf’. At this time a new method of attaching the gold developed. Instead of wrapping an object in the gold, it was attached by making indents in the material it was to be applied to, and inserting into the object. Sequentially, the gilding of gold leaf using modern and mechanical techniques is referred to as gold plating.
It is the application of the gold leaf to the material that requires the most skill. Historically, adhesives for gilding wood, stone and to decorate bookbindings were made from animals or vegetables and have naturally decayed, eliminating the gilding with it. There is evidence of alterations in the application of the gold leaf throughout the centuries with advancement in the skills of the craft and with stylistic development from the decorative style of the Baroque period towards simpler and more graceful designs requiring greater control and symmetry in the way leaf was laid.
Charles Douglas, a contemporary gilder noted that, nowadays, it is not uncommon for gold leaf to be applied in a way that replicates a vintage look. Due to this desired demand, gilders have adapted, forming various techniques to make newly applied gold leaf look as though it were gilded long ago.
The crafts of carving and gilding often go hand in hand, and the relationship between the two changes with the development of historical periods. Sometimes all the detail is in the carving and gilding preparations are thin; sometimes it’s the opposite with fine details carved into gesso. All carving of any quality was designed with final finishes in mind.
There are two methods of gilding – water gilding and oil gilding – which differ in the way the gold leaf is applied to the substrate. Water gilding is rather highly regarded, and can be burnished to give high reflectivity, oil gliding cannot. Oil gilding, though simpler, is water resistant and can be used outdoors. This is not the case for water gilded materials.
Other techniques include:
fire gilding (this phased out in the mid-nineteenth century due to combination of technological advancements causing a shift towards galvanic gilding and as a means of preventing the hazardous fumes that emitted from Mercury in the firing).
- parcel gilding
- Verre eglomise
- Fused glass gilding
Most gilded furniture and frames are made of wood that has been covered in gesso; a plaster-like material made of chalk and glue that is painted on hot, with a brush. It can be applied very thinly over detailed carving, or it can be built up with many layers into a thickness which can itself be carved; this is called ‘cut gesso’.
- Pastiglia – Italian term meaning “paste work”, low relief decoration modelled in gesso applied to build up a surface then gilded or left in the white. Technique used in a variety of ways in Italy during the Renaissance. Mostly found on frames, small furniture such as wooden caskets and Cassoni. Giving a there dimensional effect for foliage decoration, halos etc. Pastiglia may also be used in conjunction with Punch Work.
- Sgraffitto – Decoration by scoring through a surface layer to expose the burnished gold. Traced to Renaissance a significant role in its use on internal buildings and Palaces. Sgraffito finding a path into art and Architecture during the Northern Renaissance particularly in Germany, Florence and Bavaria. Nowadays more commonly found in frames and decorative works of art.
- Cross hatching – Decorative technique used as a way of holding toning and play of light with gold. Commonly found on the flats of picture frames and furniture.
- Hassling – Decorative technique used as a way of holding toning and play of light with gold. Commonly found on the flats of picture frames and furniture.
- Carving in the white/ Gesso cutting
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Training issues: fragmentation of the trade and the general de-skilling of practical subjects, especially in further education, is having a detrimental effect on ongoing training, though gilding is taught as part of the BA (Hons) Conservation Studies at City & Guilds of London Art School (validated by Birmingham City University) which has an explicit focus on preserving hand skill.
Dilution of skills: Larger companies are increasingly mopping up the big tenders as one-stop-shops for commissioning curators, who also often lack practical training, are easier for them to deal with. However these large companies often don’t have the specialist skills in-house and sub-contract to newly qualified students who frequently find themselves out of their depth. Consequently specialists are not approached as they have been in the past. There are now some horrors appearing in the public domain because no one is properly qualified to evaluate work.
Dilution of skills: Bad work with inappropriate finishes has always been around, but the scale of it is increasing.
Dilution of skills: There are a lot of hobbyist courses which don’t deal with the craft as it was historically and instead just offer modern alternatives.
Skills transmission: Most gilding workshops are doing it commercially and are not passing on their skills because they don’t have the time to as there has to be a fast turnover. Workshops may offer an apprenticeship, but there is often a lot of secrecy involved.
Craftspeople currently known
- The Building conservation directory list of gilders
- The Heritage Directory list of gilders
- Rachael Linton
- Gillian Brown
- Jade Maloney
- Ruth Tappin
- Claudia Cespites
- Rainey Dillon
- Rian Kunduth
Gilding has seen a rise in popularity in recent years with both gilding suppliers and training providers seeing an increase in demand.