Quick Five Questions with Jürgen Huber – Senior Furniture Conservator at the Wallace Collection17th January 2023
Do you think French 18th Century design is coming back into fashion?
I don’t think it ever went out of fashion, although it will never be mainstream. There are many artists such as ‘Vivienne Westwood’, ‘FKA twigs’, ‘Little Simz’, just to name three, taking inspiration from the 18-19th century and in particular the Wallace Collection.
In terms of material used, techniques employed and the craftsmanship it was the very best, but of course it is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, but is an unlimited source of inspiration. The best of the best was produced in the 18th century. High end furniture is not only functional but covered with beautiful exotic veneers, stone and materials such as Urushi lacquer, further enriched with jewellery like mounts. Furthermore, there is so much engineering and ingenuity often hidden away with the mechanical wonders of David Roentgen’s production or the Jewel Cabinet by Jean Henri Riesener.
© The Wallace Collection. Photo: Secrétaire by Jean-François Leleu (1729 -1807), date of manufacture is c 1772
Within the Wallace Museum you do an amazing cross section of restoration. What is the most difficult element to restore in the pieces you handle?
I think the most difficult aspect has to be when we have to weigh up functionality against originality or the integrity of an object. A clock is obviously made to tell the time precisely, but precisely today means something quite different to people in the 18C. Apart from the usual wear and tear, there are many moving parts in a clock which have been replaced over time, while other clocks have been altered to improve their timekeeping very early on. In order to have a precise timekeeper we need to replace some of the earlier replacements or even originals, meaning that in order to keep the functionality we lose original material. At the Wallace Collection we try to strike a balance, avoid removing original parts and accept that our clocks may be a little unreliable, going a few minutes fast or slow a week. In order to preserve original parts and early replacements we had to stop the cylinder of our two musical clocks in the Front and Back State Rooms but installed electronic devices replicating the melodies undisguisable from the original.
You have a wonderful sense of renewable energy. Are you able to bring this into you work?
As well as preserving artefacts I am also passionate about environmental preservation and sustainability. I first became interested in renewable energy when nuclear power was promoted as the future energy supply for Germany, where I grew up. For me, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was a turning point and as it happened, this was also the beginning of my career in the heritage sector and has had a profound impact on my approach to the various roles I have held. In the early 90’s I invested lots of time and little money into ‘Windpark Saar’, helped to set up car sharing in Saarbruecken at a time when hardly anybody knew what it was. Here I converted boats and barges and my solar electric powered cruising houseboat ‘bauhausbarge’ which I had built as a ‘carrier of ideas’ in 2010 received considerable interest as well as the low cost conversion of my own home to nearly a zero-energy building (NZEB).
At the Wallace Collection I am also pursuing financial and environmental sustainability. For example, I instigated the low budget conversion of the conservation studios to increase energy efficiency, replacing the inefficient heating and cooling system with more compact and energy efficient low cost air source heat pumps, adding basic insulation and replacing incandescent and fluorescence lighting with more energy efficient and more pleasant LED lighting. As a whole, the museum is also pursuing lowering its overall energy consumption and in 2018 eight solar panels were installed. Although you cannot see them as a visitor, it was an important step towards a more sustainable future.
Going back to furniture conservation, as a restorer I actively seek the use of sustainable materials for practical work and constantly look out for sustainable opportunities. I initiated the Riesener Project. I used cutting-edge technology, such as VR-ready 3D modelling, to show how these exceptional pieces were made and might have originally appeared. While of course nothing replaces a visit to the Wallace Collection, there is a wealth of information and interactive 3D models available online via the Wallace and Royal Collection websites allowing the visitor to see these wonderful pieces in detail without having to travel hundreds of miles. Preserving artefacts without being mindful of the wider environment is nonsensical and I try to combine the two. There is no point in creating the perfect environment for our precious objects whilst destroying our own habitat.
If you had the ability to take any piece in the Museum home, what would it be?
If it was a painting it would be Poussins ‘A Dance to the Music of time’ I love the characters depicted, the paintwork and the fact that this painting had different titles over the years, even the iconography is disputed. I saw the painting in our studio close up and fell in love with it. In terms of furniture it would have to be the Leleu Secretaire as it is just amazing. While the outside marquetry has suffered over time, it is in its own way beautiful and I would not change that, but it is the inside which is so incredible. There is nothing like opening this piece, the nearly weightless counterweighted fall-front followed by the beautiful shaped and subtle but colourful interior, there is only one word to describe it – SPECTACULAR.
© The Wallace Collection. Photo: A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin
I’ve got to ask, have you ever spent a night at the Museum?
No, but I have worked on many evening events well into the morning hours but that is not quite the ‘night in a Museum’ people think of. It is more like witnessing the magical charm the Wallace sprinkles on people having a good time.