One day I saw a chair that intrigued me at Maiden & Fosters’ weekly auction. It was a good quality copy of a Chippendale-style chair. By the state of its varnish – yellowy and shiny – I would have dated the chair to the 1940s to the 1950s, though this is difficult to corroborate. I looked at closely – its seat was made of leatherette, but the carving was crisp. The chair stood on its own like a giraffe among all the other chairs about to be auctioned that week.
I had always wanted to paint a chair like this either green or Chinese red, treating it as a ‘decorator item’. Obviously I would not do this with an original 18th century chair, nor would I do it with a good 19th century copy. This one answered my needs. I doubted whether anyone would want it, but since I could not attend the auction I left a relatively high bid of $100.
These days it is possible to luck on an 18th century chair for not much more in an antique auction but I decided I wanted this chair, even though Douglas was slightly incredulous.
When I returned to Napier I got the news I had ‘won the bid’. It had gone for the relatively high price of $93, alas. But I felt really excited to be doing something I’ve wanted to do all my life.
Douglas was away, so I was free to enjoy myself with what, after all, was neither a valuable antique nor even a particularly notable chair in itself.
I needed to strip the chair of varnish before I could do anything else. I went to Mitre 10 and cruised their varnish-removal shelves, fixing on an American solution called Dad’s Easy Spray Varnish and Paint Remover. It was many years – many decades in fact – since I had stripped furniture. In the 1970s my brother Russell and I had a long period of stripping colonial kauri furniture of the painted surfaces that today we would think were quite lovely. In those days, wood was king. I remembered well that stinging sensation of stripper on bare skin, the way you started off quite carefully but inevitably, in your enthusiasm, you got it on you somewhere. I remembered the smell and the mess.
I was dubious about stripping the chair because of its intricate carving. I bought all the associated gear – mask for fumes, gloves, several types of scraper including a plastic one at the last minute. I also bought grade 2 steel wool for the final removal and turps.
I decided to work in the back shed. The weather was still fine – in fact it was hot – but by working by the open door I would be ok for fumes. I set to work. I painted on the stripper in copious quantities, beginning with the intricate back of the chair (not a good idea.) The solution had to be left 10-15 minutes then removed. Removal was messy but the varnish seemed relatively easy to shift. I moved on to another part of the chair. (Later I decided to concentrate on one side of the chair at a time, including those parts furtherest away from me. By rotating the chair I would cover all parts of it. Of course I made a mistake by starting with the most visible part of the chair. If it had gone wrong in some way I would have stymied the whole operation.)
Within two days I had stripped away the unattractive yellowy varnish. The cheap plastic scraper I bought was the best implement even though it collapsed in the end. The most exciting part was removing the final remnants of the varnish with steel wool and copious amounts of turps. This revealed the native wood – the mahogany underneath.
For a moment I debated with myself if I should try and ‘pickle’ the wood a la Syrie Maugham in the 1920s. Besides not knowing how to do this, I decided mahogany was too red a wood to pickle. So I allowed the chair to dry overnight.
This is when I began to have qualms, as the chair in an unstripped state actually looked quite attractive. Its cheap varnish had vanished and the mahogany just on its own had a certain…well, dignity.
I looked at this wood a lot, ran my hands over its smooth velvety surface and wondered what would happen if I waxed it with a good old wax. Would it start looking like a ‘proper antique’?
But this was not my endgame. I wanted to shamelessly produce a ‘decorator item’. I had always liked alarmingly false looking furniture in both Chinese green and Chinese red.
I got some oil based primer and set to work giving the chair a proper undercoat. As I did this I felt the shade of my grandfather become very agitated. My maternal grandfather was a wood merchant. He had carefully chosen all the wood for the hallway and doors of the house he had built when he was married. My mother had told me how unhappy he was when my grandmother – inevitably, as fashions changed – decided to paint all over the wood with a cream or white paint. Painting mahogany did seem sacrilegious. Mahogany in my childhood – especially highly finished mahogany – was meant to be the sine qua non of quality. Nevertheless I pressed on. Two days later I had a rather appealing white chair.
It occurred to me I should, or at least could, stop here. It looked after all like so much French/Scandinavian furniture today, sort of ‘antique’ and sort of ‘contemporary’. I juggled with the green option for a while then decided if I was going to press on I would go with red.
This is where a new set of problems appeared. What red? Douglas had gone to enormous trouble to get a lovely deep saturated red for the library walls. But locating a good red, with blues in it rather than yellow, became problematic. There was a further problem. Obtaining an oil based red in a small quantity (less than a litre) in an isolated place like Hawke’s Bay was difficult.
In the end I had to swap to a water-based red which the assistant told me was quite suitable for an oil-based foundation (but not vice versa.) I began the heretical business of painting the chair bright red.
This was fun. I changed the red for the second coat, hoping to obtain a ‘bluer’ red. (I still think the current colour is too red-yellow.) But the chair does have a rather dazzling presence (to the degree it makes all our old colours look a bit drab.) The next step is some contemporary fabric for the seat. Altogether it will have cost me probably $250 for this essentially valueless item.
Perhaps I should have saved up another $100 and actually bought….a real 18th century chair?
But then I would not have had such good…sacrilegious fun.