East Asia meets imperial Austria – Chinese Round Cabinet (detail) in Schönbrunn Palace restored with the support of the Austrian Science Fund FWF. © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H. / Alexander Eugen Koller

Small and exclusive: the Chinese Cabinets in Schönbrunn Palace with their East-Asian decoration were not originally intended to accommodate many people. Access was restricted to members of the higher nobility, ministers and ambassadors, who debated political topics in an intimate setting there. The Cabinets, which later attracted large audiences, have been undergoing conservation since mid-2015. Traffic vibrations, large numbers of visitors and inappropriate conservation work caused extensive damage to the rooms and their contents over the years. As part of a project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, a research team led by Gabriela Krist from the University of Applied Arts Vienna developed a scheme for the conservation and appropriate restoration of the exhibits. The associated conservation work on the Round Cabinet has largely been completed.

Courtly life on bloody ground

The project is dedicated to the furnishings and fittings in the two Chinese Cabinets and the Porcelain Room, which contains valuable lacquer panels, blue gouaches and porcelain items. The team researched the history of the objects, their materials and manufacture for the establishment of the conservation concept. They surveyed, among other things, 125 lacquer panels of wide-ranging origins, which were incorporated into the white-gold wood panelling lining the walls. DNA analyses revealed that the ground used for the panels from China contains pig blood: "The use of pig's blood as a component of the lacquer ground is part of the traditional Chinese manufacturing process. The blood is mixed with chalk and brick dust to insulate the wood panel and create a suitable base for the lacquer work. This kind of ground was inexpensive to produce and particularly popular in large-format works," explains Krist.

Search for missing objects

The research carried out by the project also produced proof that the lacquer panels were split in two halfs around 1900 and that the backs of the panels were used to decorate the walls thereafter. To the delight of the project team, the fronts of the panels, which were believed to have been lost, were found in the storage of the Bundesmobilienverwaltung (Federal Furniture Administration). "In future it will be possible to see the rediscovered fronts in the Schönbrunn Cabinets," reports Krist. "They show magnificent depictions in gold paint on a black background. In addition to scenes from palace life and hunting, they also include landscapes with children at play."

Drilled, glued and painted over

Over the past months, the valuable porcelain items from the cabinets have been conserved in a workshop in Schönbrunn specially created for the purpose. These include three vases that were thought to have been lost and were found in the Breakfast Room. Krist and her team traced the restoration history of the porcelain pieces and developed a mounting plan for their reversible and safe repositioning on the carved wall consoles, which project from the panelling. "All of the 252 pieces of porcelain we found had holes in their bases. Archive research and a technological examination of the screws showed us that this intervention was carried out as far back as the early 19th century – as a result many of the pieces were damaged," explains Krist.

Conservation treatments

Further interventions, which would not be opted for today, were also carried out after that. According to Krist a quarter of the vessels and figures were painted over and numerous pieces were glued to the consoles: "In the 20th century, in particular, polyester resin was used to glue the objects to the consoles and the resin was also poured into the vessels in generous quantities." The work currently being carried out involves the elimination of these past conservation treatments. The new mounting plan contains a solution for the safe and reversible attachment of the porcelain objects to the consoles using waxes. The historical screws are being re-used, while care is being taken to provide good insulation between the metal and porcelain. In addition to the return of the lacquer panels and porcelain objects, the chandelier and artistic inlay of the timber floor in the Round Cabinet are also being treated. The conservation work on the two cabinets is due to be completed in 2017. The research undertaken as part of the FWF-funded project is making a valuable contribution to the success of the conservation work being carried out at this Austrian UNESCO World Heritage site.

Personal details Gabriela Krist studied conservation at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and history of art at the University of Salzburg. She has been a professor at the University of Applied Arts Vienna since 1999 and is Head of its Institute of Conservation. Over the course of her career she has published numerous papers and participated in many research projects. She is also involved in a number of national and international associations, for example Austria’s Denkmalbeirat (Monuments Advisory Board), the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and in various international projects, for example in Patan, Nepal, New Delhi, India and Mongolia. Gabriela Krist is a holder of the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art.