Cabinets of Curiosity

We had a very strange job on Friday: faking up a late-Renaissance-style cabinet. This was a wheeze dreamed up between the Professor and the Curator as a way of doing interesting and possibly educational things while the actual museum is closed and the new one not built yet. Thus a five-foot-high object was commissioned from a very fine cabinetmaker on Deeside; and very grand it looks too, even in its natural pale wood (I forgot to ask what kind of wood, looks a bit like birch). It has at least sixty drawers, some of them secret. The original Augsburg cabinets were made of ebony, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ivory and slabs of precious stone. This one is due to be painted a lustrous ebony black, and what I was doing, with the aid of the Professor and the Curator, was faking up panels of fictive marble and semiprecious stone. The first technical hitch of the day was getting there, since the lowlying Garioch turned out to be full of freezing fog and most unpleasant (though Deeside, once we got there, rather late, was looking quite wonderful, with a harebell-blue winter sky, the ground pale and sparkling with frost, and ribbons of bright silver mist lying in the watermeadows). The second technical hitch was discovering I hadn’t any titanium white. It’s quite a while since I did anything with acrylic, and when you throw away the white at the end of a job because it’s got dirty or the tube’s nearly done or whatever, you — or I, anyway — do not invariably think ‘I should replace that in case I suddenly need it’. I had completely forgotten, and indeed, had been so preoccupied with wading through Vikings essays and so on that I had barely registered that I’d agreed to do this at all. When we eventually got to the cabinetmakers, it was to find the schrank, though most beautifully finished, was completely unprimed. Oops. And there was no white. The excellent cabinetmaker was able to produce opaque white alkyd varnish, so problem no. 3 was painting the panels with two layers of alkyd varnish as a primer. It’s not the easiest stuff to handle, and I still have a number of small white spots about my person here and there. Fortunately, acrylic will go over just about anything. What we were trying to achieve was marble pillars, and panels at the sides, which were done in various shades of ochres and umbers to look like Italian breccias — all of which had to be slid on in thin layers of pure colour with transparent mixers, which fortunately, I did have. But I decided to do the centre front panel, the most noticeable one, as faux lapis: ultramarine, cobalt, Paynes Grey and a little raw umber, scumbled on in patches over the white alkyd, then more layers over the top — the Professor and the Curator, meanwhile, were similarly dabbing various shades of green on the fronts of three drawers lower down to make serpentine. Natural lapis has inclusions of mica and fool’s gold — once I felt I’d done all I could to my blue panel, I started putting on bits of silver and gold leaf. Absolutely the opposite of conventional gilding; taking a bit of leaf with a stiff hogshair brush blobbed with acrylic varnish, then deliberately scrubbling it so it goes into little bits and random streaks and smears. It was so successful that I did the same to the faux serpentine — it’s wonderfully deceptive, because the little bits of glitter take the eye, and force the blue or green into the background. Once it’s all been varnished up a storm I really think it is going to look very effective. When we felt we had done all we could, we went off to tea with the Real World and Arts Consultants, who quite coincidentally, live a few hundred yards from the cabinetmaker’s workshop. In our part of Aberdeenshire old houses lurk in holes in the ground — you don’t get much of a view out but as the winter winds scream overhead, you very definitely see the point of it. Deeside is I think a bit more clement: it quite certainly has more of a tendency to plant houses on exposed sites. The very attractive stone cottage in question not only ornaments the landscape in a very un-Buchan-ish way, the view out from it is absolutely stupendous, a long, almost alpine vista over the Dee valley and towards Cairn o’Mount. Tea was extensive and prolonged, which was just as well, since thus fortified, we were able to deal with a second encounter with the fogs of the Garioch. The back windscreen wiper has gone, which makes things even more difficult since half an hour’s driving at this stage of the year leaves it caked to the point of actual opacity with muddy roadsalt. The shy troglodyte who sorts such things out for us has disappeared — I think there is someone he is trying to avoid: whether this individual is a taxman, a VAT inspector, Barnyards, or a private debt collector of some description, the result is that he is, unfortunately, eluding us with impressive ease. Oh, well. Only one more week, then driving in the dark will be a bit more optional.

2 Responses to “Cabinets of Curiosity”

  1. William Says:

    Sounds like the days spent at Church Farmhouse..

  2. Jane Says:

    Yes, quite like old times.

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