A restoration artist brings antiques back to life
Every piece of furniture tells a story. Who made it and why? Was it fashioned as a gift or piece of art, or was it made to be sturdy and useful? Over the years, time embellishes the story as owners come and go. Paint, scars, and insect damage may alter a once lovely appearance. Underneath a damaged facade, however, the original wood remains, waiting for its patina to be rediscovered. Uncovering that beauty, while staying true to the furniture’s history, is the mission of restorer and conservator Robert Hanna of Brentwood, New Hampshire.
A native of Brighton, England, Hanna grew up in the restoration business. His father was a cabinetmaker whose skill eventually led to his doing work for the British Royal Family. In 1978, the family moved to the States where they settled in Florida, and the firm of Hanna & Hanna was born. Walter, Hanna’s father, created stunning handmade furniture, and his son applied period finishes. It was quickly apparent that young Hanna had a natural talent for finishes; soon more and more restoration work was coming his way. He began specializing in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century pieces. In his hands, veneers, inlays, and other surfaces were brought back to their initial glory.
A well-restored surface can improve the value of a piece by 40 percent; so before long, top auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s came calling, along with the Keno brothers, Leigh and Leslie, the hosts of the television program “Antiques Roadshow.” Soon, Hanna was restoring multimillion dollar pieces by some of America’s and Europe’s finest craftsmen, including Thomas Chippendale, John Carlyle, John Goddard, John Seymour, John Dunlap, and the Townsend family.
“I will not alter a piece,” Hanna says. “I don’t refinish or strip layers away. The history of the piece is the most important element to me, and I want to maintain its integrity. I work to restore the piece to as close to its original appearance as possible.”
Restoring usually means removing anything added to the surface over time, including waxes, veneers, urethanes, and modern finishes. Hanna removes just enough to reveal the original surface without permeating it. Over the years, he learned the chemical makeup of enough surfaces in order to create a solvent to remove safely whatever has been added.
After spending countless hours poring through old books, journals, and trade publications seeking recipes for the polishes, finishes, and lusters used centuries ago, he now devotes his time to mixing and blending these ingredients to achieve the right color and sheen. He tests the product on a small, hidden part of the furniture. How long a restoration takes depends on the extent of the work to be done and the size of the piece. One piece can take days or weeks.
The final look of a piece differs depending on whether it is American or European in origin. “American furniture is not as highly polished,” he explains. “So restoring an early piece to its initial look will usually result in a finish that is not glossy and gleaming. By contrast, European-made pieces were highly polished.” After restoring European furniture, Hanna applies by hand a historically accurate French polish.
Working on antiques requires using materials that cannot harm fragile surfaces. “I was restoring a table that had belonged to Ben Franklin,” Hanna recalls. “I knew that any solvent containing alcohol could burn through the fragile surface, so I spent the afternoon running around my New York neighborhood digging up tree roots to make my own stain. Furniture makers of Franklin’s time would have used products made this way, so it was completely in keeping with what would have been put on the table in the beginning.”
Furniture from China and Italy brings its own set of challenges since much of it is lacquered and the lacquers are not the same. “The lacquers not only vary from country to country but also from region to region,” he says. “You have to learn as much as you can about the piece’s origins before you can begin the work of restoration.
Similarly, gilded pieces need special care. Gilding cannot be glitzy and bright but must go with the period. Hanna makes his own lacquers and gilding and then hand-applies everything as artisans would have when originally finishing the piece.
While he learned a great deal from his father and from his own research, he also studied at such prestigious institutions as Colonial Williamsburg and Delaware’s Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum, considered one of the greatest collections of early American furniture in the United States. He has since restored several Winterthur items.
“I have known Rob for a decade,” says Andrew Holter, vice president and specialist head of the Department of American Furniture and Decorative Arts at Christie’s in New York City. “He has worked on one of the most expensive pieces of American furniture ever to sell at auction. His steady and methodical approach to period furniture and its surfaces is truly special. Rob has mastered the gentle touch and brought back to life numerous pieces of furniture that were in need of a little TLC.”
Among his achievements is restoring original panels from the Forbidden City in China. These panels are now displayed outdoors at a Florida museum. They periodically need restoration as they suffer the affects of time, weather, and termite damage. “Each damaged piece of wood has to be carefully removed, damaged areas repaired, wood replaced, and the surface restored,” he says. “It is painstaking work.”
By working with their furniture, Hanna has developed a profound understanding of some of history’s greatest cabinetmakers. “Over time, you begin to recognize the work of John Townsend, Thomas Savory, and Duncan Phyfe, not only by their style of craftsmanship, but by the surfaces they used. When I’m working on their pieces, I feel like I’m restoring their vision, and soon the pieces will look as they did when first created.”
Sometimes Hanna deals with beautiful pieces that have been mistreated. When someone shellacked an eighteenth-century Chippendale table, the conservator carefully secured the veneer with heat, checked the condition of the original surface, and finally began to restore it. Some clients want their furnishings to look well kept, but others prefer a duller surface with scars still visible to demonstrate that the piece has existed for many years. Hanna usually shows his clients their furniture midway through restoration so they can see how the finish is progressing.
Hanna’s clients range from people with a few cherished heirlooms to sports legends, celebrities, private collectors, and acclaimed auction houses. Regardless of the owner, he takes the same care with each piece, knowing how important it is to restore it for future generations to enjoy.
Will his knowledge one day be passed to his son? “I’m not sure,” he says. “I hope so. He is interested and has traveled with me. I plan to write a book and share all I have learned. Restoration has taught me much about history, life, and art, and I hope others care about preserving the stories these pieces tell as much as I do.”