Yellow Drawing Room at Leeds Castle with kind permission of the Leeds Castle Foundation
Interview with Plowden & Smith Director and Head of Furniture Tom Palmer
When did you decide you wanted a career in conservation?
When I was about 16. From a very young age I always loved working with wood – either making things from scratch or transforming things that were broken to give them a new lease of life. Following a 5-year apprenticeship in joinery I enrolled on a course on Furniture Conservation at West Dean College in Sussex and have never looked back.
Tell us about one of your more interesting projects?
I enjoyed working on a magnificent 18th Century Dutch armoire at the British Embassy in Prague. Plowden & Smith was called in because the armoire was suffering from significant shrinkage and all the ornate marquetry inlay and wonderful applied mouldings were coming loose. We ended up having to dismantle the whole armoire – all 60 odd pieces of it- to carry out the restoration work. It was extremely intricate work however it allowed me to appreciate the armoire’s construction and craftsmanship.
Plowden and Smith recently completed a project at Leeds Castle in Kent. Tell us about the project and what made it special?
Leeds is an incredible place to work because it’s not only a beautiful moated castle, but it also shows off a range of different architectural and interior styles – not all of them original to the house. For instance, The Thorpe Room dates from the mid-17th Century and was removed from Thorpe Hall and installed at Leeds Castle at the start of the 20th Century.
Part of our work at Leeds involved cleaning and re-waxing all the wooden elements in the Yellow Drawing Room using Mylands Traditional Wax Polish. The over-doors feature carved wooden mouldings and these required special attention and one of the (very heavy) doors needed to be taken back to our London workshop for more in-depth treatment.
Tell us briefly about the conservation process you went through and what makes Plowden and Smith the choice for museums such as the British Museum, V&A, Middle Temple and Freemasons’ Hall?
With Leeds Castle I initially went down to assess what work needed doing and to discuss with the client what their specific needs were (in the case of Leeds it was ensuring that all the areas we would be working on would be still be kept open to the public).
I then made a second visit to carry out tests to establish the most suitable method of cleaning and then on the basis of using this method, how long the whole process would take.
Preliminary tests are incredibly important for many reasons, not least because it enables the client to see the finished result before they agree to us starting the work. It also means we are confident we are giving the client what they want, which is at the heart of everything we do.
One of the advantages of using Plowden & Smith is that we are very sympathetic to each individual client’s needs and we have the expertise, experience and workforce to adapt to quite challenging constraints.
Once we had the schedule, a small team went down every day for a week to carry out the work, which thanks to the preliminary planning went very smoothly.
Do you have an artist or designer who influences your work?
I admire Carlo Bugatti –the simplicity of form really shows off to best advantage the rich variety of materials and finishes you find on Bugatti furniture. Having worked on many projects in the Middle East for Plowden & Smith (including the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar and the Jeddah Sculpture Park) I appreciate the strong Middle Eastern influence in many of his designs.
Wood finishing products feature quite heavily in conservation, do you have any products you recommend for anyone restoring furniture?
Mylands Special Pale Polish is a product I always turn to for refinishing wooden surfaces – because it’s clear, I can use it with confidence that it’s not going to alter the original colour of the piece. It’s also particularly compatible with previously French polished surfaces.
You also use Mylands Annoline Dyes when restoring furniture, how do you find using them and what is your favourite colour?
The colour we use most in the Furniture Department is Fumed Oak. Your range of dyes may be products that readers are less familiar with, but they are invaluable when we are trying to match a repair or a new patch of timber with the surrounding finish, which may have hundreds of years to build up a beautiful patina. We dissolve the dye in water and then apply as many thin coats as necessary between layers of polish.
How would you describe your own style?
Darkly opulent off set by classic mid-century pieces – My wife and I have recently opted to paint our staircase a dramatic blue-black shade (Mylands Blackout No. 41), to match the shade in our sitting room.
Tom Plamer's Living room painted in Blackout No.41
What are the quickest and easiest ways to update a tired piece of furniture?
As a conservator I am always reluctant to make any changes to a piece of furniture that can’t be reversed –a good quality wax is one of the best and easiest ways to revive a tired piece of wood. However, replacing a traditional fabric with a very bold tribal print can give a modern slant to even very traditional pieces of upholstered furniture. The Chelsea Design Harbour has a fantastic range of fabrics and if you go to Creation Baumann you can even create your own customised fabric.