Les Rives du Bosphore was an edition of wallpaper made by Joseph Dufour in Paris sometime before 1812. It’s so old that they don’t even know how old it is, and so rare that only a few examples are known to exist in the US. Several months ago we were approached to restore an original edition of Les Rives in a local Los Angeles home.
The wallpaper had unfortunately been damaged by flooding after the single instance of rainfall Los Angeles has seen this year. Water had seeped in through the ceiling, soaking into the wall and loosening the paper’s adhesive. Large brown stains appeared in some areas. Much of the paper was bubbling up off it’s mounting. The paint and ink had become cracked and the brittle paper was chipping away in many areas.
Our job is not to make the wallpaper look perfect, but simply to re-adhere it to the wall so that all the major bubbles and loose edges are as flat and secure as possible. After we have achieved that stage, we will superficially restore all the glaring damage using a combination of archival materials.
This project involved a lot of research for us. When we initially inspected the piece, we did not have any idea who the artist was, when it was made, what materials were used, nothing. The homeowners were equally at a loss. It was important for us to know as much as we could about what this thing was so that we could get an idea of how to go about restoring it.
After much creative googling, we discovered the date, the artist, and the name of the piece. Les Rives du Bosphore (literally The Banks of the Bosporus,) is an idealized portrait of Istanbul. It was created using a variety of techniques, the main one being woodblock printing. At least 1,000 blocks were used to create the full set of panels for this piece, with 70 colors. If you have ever made a print you will understand how extravagant this is. It is estimated that Les Rives took about 18 months to produce.
The piece was produced on a series of long strips, or panels, with a full set having about 25. The number of panels a client purchased was completely dependent on the amount of wall space to be filled, and the panels were designed to line up together perfectly no matter how many or few were used. Our particular set takes up two walls of a large dining room. so not all the known panels are included. The paper is at least 115 years older than the house, so it would have been purchased in vintage condition at the time of the house’s construction.
The other two methods used in Les Rives were stencil and hand-painting with gouache. The gouache bit was good news because it is an archival and reversible type of paint that we are very familiar with using. We delved further into Dufour’s known materials with the idea that perhaps we could make our own paint. This way we’d save money on our pricey gouache and perhaps we could use the same pigments Dufour did.
Not such a great idea after all. When we found a pigment analysis of Dufour’s work, we discovered that beautiful blue sky was made largely of lead white. The red drapery was made of Vermilion, which contained mercury. And the green, the overwhelmingly dominant color, was made of the dreaded Scheele’s Green, which contains arsenic.
So not only would we not be using original pigments, but we were now faced with the new problem of safety. Since the wallpaper had been sitting around for hundreds of years, the surface would be coated with a protective layer of dirt and grime, but once we started fiddling with it, the potential for lead, mercury, and arsenic dust being released into the air would be a concern.
And that will have to be where this ends for now. We will give periodic updates as this massive undertaking continues!