Case study

Furniture conservator and restorer — Eleanor

Eleanor enjoys working on complex restoration and conservation furniture projects. Find out more about how her degree helped her develop the skills needed to work on highly-valued artefacts

What postgraduate course did you study?

I graduated with an MA Conservation, Restoration and Decorative Arts from Buckinghamshire New University in 2015.

How did you get your job?

I'm self-employed and find opportunities within the industry from the contacts I made during my degree. I also continue to work with institutions that I've already had experience with.

What's a typical working day like?

A typical day includes going to my workshop, assessing which project requires urgent attention and creating a schedule for the day with specific tasks. I do this by planning the day by process, taking into consideration specific product applications and drying times, which can take up to two weeks in some cases.

I liaise with clients, supply quotes for new projects, purchase products required for the coming works, check items currently in stock or that require replenishing, clean the workshop thoroughly and prepare products for the coming day.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy assessing new items for their history - I aim to identify the story of the piece by examining details such as wear, construction, fabric choice, materials used, and hidden treasures. Sometimes, we are rewarded by antique newspaper clippings, coins or even the personal notes left by former restorers (particularly in upholstery).

What are the challenges?

Challenges can present in the form of complex construction, which can be particularly difficult with expensive pieces. This often requires research or liaising with my network. Also, I can be asked to identify or repeat a fabric that may be difficult to locate, if not impossible. This requires me to research fabrics with similar characteristics and present these choices to the client, which can prove difficult at times.

In what way is your degree relevant?

My degree prepared me for the daily routine and key skills needed to work within this industry - in particular giving me the ability to value each and every piece, not only in monetary worth, but also in historical context. It also gave me a profound appreciation of the sentimental value of such pieces to my clients.

The practical projects gave me a solid foundation for my day-to-day work, and I often find myself going back to my notes as reference. Many of the projects I did at stately homes required me to elevate my standards of work and were some of my finest works to date. I use these as a benchmark whenever I treat a piece. These experiences raised my confidence as a conservator and provided me with an opportunity to work on highly-valued items.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

As I continue to develop myself as a self-employed conservator, I have goals to improve my skills as a gilder especially, and to ideally reach the museum sector. Due to the current global circumstances, I have chosen to change direction to general conservation - structural conservation and surface decoration in particular.

What are your top tips for choosing a Masters?

Follow your heart. I still remember my excitement when I walked into the workshop and saw a Wallace Collection piece under conservation at the university open day. I was immediately drawn to this subject and knew I had to pursue it further.

The key highlight for me was being surround by equally passionate people, which is why I chose this Masters in particular. To this day I have not regretted my decision.

What advice can you give to others wanting to get into this job?

  • Make sure you know your limits and be aware of the standards required to succeed. The job requires an extremely high level of near-perfect precision by hand. For example, cutting a piece of marquetry is quite challenging and can be frustrating if you don't have the skills required.
  • The job also requires patience as many processes within the workshop require their time. You can get frustrated if you don't have the patience required.
  • Building a workshop is quite a costly endeavour, so be prepared to invest in good tools as this will be reflected in your work.

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