Save This

I’m not sure where to begin.  If you read the previous post, maybe a better title would have been “I should have known better”.   I do believe I’ve learned my lesson this time, but here is the story.  I saw a charming diorama box at an auction that contained a wax figure in a lovely bocage setting surrounded with wax fruit and berries, birds and sheep. This was just the kind of thing I love, but the auction was on the opposite coast.  I pondered it and thought, well – if a few items come loose I can fix them again. 

Photo from the 1999 Sotheby’s Auction Catalog

First a bit about the box

It had some provenance, and even more I was to discover later.  The auction listed it was originally found in Belfast, Maine in 1946 by Mrs. Evelyn Way Kendall (this date should be 1948).  Oh, to have been able to discover the treasures back then, many for the first time I imagine!  It had a Sotheby’s sticker on the front dated 16/12/99, along with the name of a shipping company in London. There are also stickers on the back that reads “Ann and Gordon Getty Collection” along with a number. Anyway, back to the box, which measures about 12×15 inches and has a glass front.  I estimated the date to be about 1800 – 1820, based on the style of the figure.  So, there was one internet bid that opened the bidding, and my next bid won the item.  I was surprised since I thought the price would go higher, but excited. 

I arranged for shipping but was informed that there were a few loose items inside and they could only insure if the glass broke, not for items coming loose.  So, the box made a very fast journey.  I wish I had the wherewithal to take a picture when I first opened the package, but I think I was shocked by the utter devastation…worse than I could have ever imagined.  However, the glass did not break.  I think it was a case of the old glue giving way, as it had in the other box in the previous post – only this time with even more disastrous results!  Along with the box, came an older printout of a photo of it from an earlier auction.  From that picture to the current photo online, I could see a few of things were detached already and had some minor damage, but this was WAY worse.

Based on the earliest picture, there are eight large pieces of hollow wax fruit – peaches, apples and one lemon.  Of the eight – six were detached and in smithereens.  The wax head of the figure was broken in multiple pieces.  All of the leaves were made of cut green paper dipped in wax.  Since the paper was so thin, old and brittle 98% of those leaves were in tiny pieces.  Both bird heads were broken, the sheep, which were simply formed and mostly solid seemed to fair the best. 

I really felt bad about this.  Not just because of the cost, but because this unique piece was so severely damaged, when keeping things preserved is so important to me.  I stared at the big crumbed mess of wax and broken leaves for about 5 minutes and decided I had two options – discard it, or to at least attempt to fix it.  

So, “try” to fix it was the decision.

There were also two options for getting into the box – remove the wood back, or remove the glass front.  I decided I had to go in through the front in order to have the proper access to attempt to reassemble it.  So, I had to cut through the old paper that held the glass with a blade.  Once the paper was cut, the glass came off fairly easily.  I was hit with the strong scent of wax –  just like crayons, that came wafting out of the long sealed box. 

Sorting the Pieces

The first step was to look for the pieces of the girls head.  If I couldn’t salvage that, there wouldn’t be much sense in moving on.  All of her quirky little facial features were intact on one larger piece, so that was encouraging.

I set out to find the pieces that had her hair.  The hair was applied with a technique called wax encaustic, where colored wax is applied while hot.  The wax was painted on to simulate brown hair, laying softly on her shoulders.  Her eyes are hollow black glass beads pressed into the wax and survived unscathed.  Her solid wax arms were fine except she had a clean break to one tiny thumb.  I felt I had managed to get most of the bigger pieces – there were lots and small and tiny pieces of wax, broken leaves and the remains of the old glue which look like chunks of amber. 

Next, I got out the sheep and birds.  The bird heads were both damaged.  The sheep were ok, with the larger one having some damage to front legs, however it did seem as though they had an old repair made with wood sticks, so that was odd.  The blackberries survived well as did some of the red wax berries.  There were other berries made out of a cement like substance that were originally covered with wax, but the wax was mostly broken off of those.  In looking at the earlier photo of the piece, that seems to have been already the case.  I got all of the largest pieces of the hollow fruit and leaves out as well to assess the mess.  Then sorted the rest of the wax pieces by size down to a pile of crumbs.  Nothing was discarded at this point.  From here, I had to begin to try to piece what I could together.

Poor brown bird
Fruit in pieces
Wax from the cement berries

The Puzzle and Other Surprises

I do like doing jigsaw puzzles and have worked on them from a very early age.  I think this skill came in very handy.  You need to look for specific shapes and color variations in order to match each piece of the puzzle.  Starting with the head, and using a very thin, fibrous cloth medical tape and glue I was able to get all but a few small pieces together. 

They are on top and not easily seen so that was fortunate.  I was able to fill the small spaces with glue that I mixed with pigment, and they really are invisible – you can see this area circled in green in the photo above. Naturally, I took the chance to examine how the figure was assembled. She has no legs, but is just simply made of rolled cloth with a fabric dress pinned on, and she was placed in a kneeling position in the box.  Her wax lower arms are just wrapped with the dress fabric sleeves and pinned to the top.  The dress has faded to a creamy color, but looks as though it may have been very pale pink at one time.  She had fabric scraps stuffed to give the dress some shape, one being an early piece of printed fabric that is like flannel.

Printed fabric

When I pulled that out to look at the print, I noticed a little heavy paper tucked in the front of her dress…my heart raced a bit.  What could this be?? 

It was folded and on one side was written in pencil “Save this”

I opened it to find this message:

This ornament purchased in Belfast, Maine Aug. 1948 – opened for reglueing Sept 7 ’48 by Estelle Winthrop & Evelyn Kendall, Sharon Mass.  We think age is 1800 to 1820.

I’m sure the note was just a reference to saving the information about the piece, but it took on a different meaning for me – literally to SAVE THIS.

I was sort of overwhelmed by finding the note.  I received the box in August – the same month that Evelyn found it 73 years ago.  All three of us feel the same as to the age of the item.  Both Estelle Winthrop and Evelyn Kendall were early collectors with wonderful dolls that have subsequently been added to other collections – the ladies must have been friends.  I’ve seen dolls in my early books attributed to their collections – I believe the Winthrop collection was auctioned in the late 1970s.  I did some research on Evelyn Way Kendall and there was a good bit of information available.  Briefly, she was born in 1893 and passed away in 1979, Evelyn was a nurse and an avid collector of many things.  She established the Kendall Whaling Museum, the Evelyn Kendall Ballooning & Early Aviation Collection and the Kendall Doll Museum. It appears she also collected folk artwork made with seashells, which is something I currently have a great interest in  – I certainly would have liked to have met her!  The Kendall Collection was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1999. 

Now that the head was together, and even though there were so many broken elements, I felt urged on by Estelle and Evelyn to continue.  Armed with additional knowledge about Evelyn Kendall, I was able to get a copy of the Sotheby’s Auction Catalog from 1999 where her dolls were auctioned.  All I can say is WOW.  This was an amazing collection that included so many 18th century and early 19th century dolls.  In this catalog was the best picture yet of the box, showing the pieces in probably the closest to the original position – this would be extremely helpful.  (This is the picture at the top of this post).

After the figure, I went on to try to fix the birds.  One was just missing his tiny beak, the other had more damage to the head impacting the beak, eyes and neck.  It was difficult finding the beaks.  They were open so each beak was two pieces.  While I looked through the wax rubble for these I was also looking for the thumb.  Finally, I found all but one piece of the birds neck, but still no thumb.  It was a clean, new break but where could it be?  Keep in mind, this piece was just about 1/8 inch in length!  I found several pieces I thought could be the thumb, but none fit.  Finally, after sifting through the smallest crumbs, I found it – the clean break fit perfectly!  So, birds and figure were together.  I had one tiny piece that I was sure belonged somewhere, but it wasn’t part of the birds or the figure.  It was put aside for safe keeping.

The next phase was to match all of the pieces of the broken fruit together.  Of course, no two breaks were alike and I relied on these odd shaped pieces and subtle color, texture and thickness variations to match them up.  The hollow fruits were attached with wire that looks like it was heated, pushed through the wax and twisted up on the bottom in order to make a way to fasten them.  It was tricky lining up the wires again so they could still be used as fasteners.  Once the larger pieces were matched, it made finding the smaller ones easier.  I was encouraged by seeing the pile of pieces grow smaller and smaller as I was able to build the fruit pieces back one at a time.  Finally, all six of the broken pieces were largely back together.  There were some small pieces missing here and there probably broken too small to find, but I thought they could be attached in a way as to not show the losses.  It was in this phase that I realized that two of these had been damaged much earlier since the pieces had warped and were a bit soiled on the edges as compared to those newly broken.  This was confirmed with the picture from the auction catalog.  That picture showed all of the fruit intact, but listed one peach as cracked.  The current auction picture was missing two peaches. Now with the big fruit done, it was time to move on to the smaller berries.

Fruit, birds and figure all back together!

The leaves…

I came to the realization that I was not going to be able to save the leaves.  They were too brittle and too badly broken.  

I had to decide if I was going to try to keep the few that were ok, or would they just break soon?  I got some vintage, unused cloth millinery leaves of good quality.  I was either going to use them as they were, or got the idea that I could wax coat them.  I’m not sure this was value added, and it certainly added a lot more work to the project, but I coated all of the leaves in beeswax.  I first ran a test with soy wax, but read it could actually rot over time due to what it’s made from.  Paraffin seemed a bit dangerous, so I went with beeswax.  I got several types of leaves, of course not exactly what was originally there, but I tried to get things close in size or feel.  I did not keep any of the original leaves in the box, but they are in the bouquet that the figure is holding.

Waxing the leaves

All of the large fruit with new waxed leaves

The red wax berries and buds…

There are five bunches of red berries, and three bunches of blackberries and several bunches of tonal cream and peach berries – large and small.  The red bunches with the smaller berries were fine, except for the leaves.  The larger red berries were missing most of the wax.  These were made of cement like material.  This was also used for two larger items that were streaky pink.  I’m not sure if there were meant to be buds or small fruit since they had lost most of the wax and one had crumbled to pieces.  I formed one new bud from paper clay and removed the bits of wax from the other, and patched the missing area.  There were two green waxed objects that look like maybe some type of pinecone – they were fine except for the leaves.  Also the tonal wax berries were all ok except for the leaves, of course.  I was able to get dye to make the red wax that was needed for the two berry bunches and the streaky buds.

And the blackberries…

The blackberries held up surprisingly well (you know – except for the leaves).  They are made of tiny beads of wax over some type of base.  Only one berry was loose and some of the beads came off.  I was able to put this back on the stem and reassemble the beads.  As a precaution, I coated these with matte polymer, that I dusted up just a bit to hopefully keep them from shedding the tiny beads over time.  These honestly look good enough to eat!

All of the berries and buds repaired and with new leaves

Spa Day for the Little Figure

The little figure had survived quite an ordeal – well sort of survived.  She was still holding her bouquet made of wax and paper flowers.  Between the early auction picture and the current auction picture, I could see that the bouquet had slipped to a lower position.  Some of the delicate, folder paper petals and tiny wax stamens were in the rubble.  I attached these as best I could.  I had in my stash a beautiful, very old – maybe close to the same age group of paper flowers.  I decided to use some of these to augment her bouquet to bring it to a fuller look.  The added flowers looked perfect! Also, in the bouquet I left the original paper leaves and added a few new ones.

Along the top of her bodice, she had a sprig of greens attached with pins.  On one pin was remaining two paper petals.  The other pin was blank, and the thin wax leaves were mostly broken off, so basically she now had a piece of wire pinned to her bodice.  I did find the paper petals, they were all made from pieces of cut paper and had much faded hand painted designs on them – so simple but charming.  I reinforced the flowers and pinned them back on.  I augmented the sprig with some newer paper leaves I had.  Just a note on the pins.  These were heavy, brass pins with separately applied heads.  Straight pins were not made by machine yet, and were kind of a luxury item.  I couldn’t resist including a picture of this early pin design before replacing them.

Also among the rubble were lots of tiny pieces of silk ribbon.  I didn’t know if they were on the bouquet, but they were too broken and frail to reuse.  I had some lace trim from another project that I could use once I figured out what to do with it.  Upon further inspection of the figure, I noticed that her bodice fabric had creases as though it may have been tied.  I decided to use this lace trim here – high on her bodice as would have been the style in 1800.  I also had some very thin silk ribbon which I used as a ribbon around the bouquet.  One thing I couldn’t change is that her little arms after all these years did not want to be held so high – that’s ok. I made a wood base and attached a thick dowel peg.  I drilled a hole in the peg and was able to run a thick twine thread through the rolled cloth body and through the drilled dowel.  This gave more stability to the figure and allowed me to glue the wood base, and not the figure to the box.  The few replaced floral touches to the central figure were well deserved!

Repaired bodice flowers and sash

Prepping the Box

In cleaning the interior so that things could be fastened again, I discovered that the groups of fruit and berries were wrapped with pieces of green cloth, maybe like flannel or velvet.  The cloth was arranged in such a way as to create a base that would hide the wires and make a nice green background.  The existing cloth was brittle with wax and glue coating, so I removed this and got new flannel to use the same type of attachment.   I had to get rid of as much of the old glue as possible and so I removed the bunches of fruit that were still attached (there were 6), so that I could do the same and reinforce them so that they wouldn’t come loose eventually with the old glue. 

I did find some evidence of the work that Estelle and Evelyn may have done when they opened the box in 1948.  It appears that there were hooks to hang the box originally, and that they removed the back of the box.  They also may have put tiny holes in the back and fastened some of the objects with wire that tied outside of the box.  The figure and a few of the bunches had this.  I also found some clear wax drippings that were different from the other waxes.  They may have been the ones to reinforce the legs of the ewe with wood sticks since the wax pieces for these legs and the tail were not to be found in the box.  Speaking of the ewe, the previously mentioned tiny piece of wax that I originally thought was the thumb turned out to be the ear!  This was an older break, and I really couldn’t tell the ear was missing – mystery solved! 

The old glue was removed, box was gently swept clean and the fruit and berry bunches assembled with new leaves.  The figure, birds and sheep were dusted and repaired as much as possible.  Now it was time to reattach everything!  The interior of the box was lined with thin paper that had a light wash of green paint over it.  I was worried about attaching to this paper since it was brittle and coming off pretty easily.  I decided to remove all of the loose paper in the back of the box so that the glue could hold directly to the wood, and not come loose if the paper peeled off.  I added a few strokes of dry green chalk paint to mimic the color that was previously there.  I left the paper on the sides intact since nothing gets attached directly to the sides.

The Final Phase…

Using the 1999 photo as I guide I started with the corners and worked inward leaving a space for the figure.  I wanted to make sure to keep the full leafy green look of the original piece and to try to place things as close to where they were in this oldest photo.  I placed the green flannel cloth wraps around the wire stems.  I found this both hid the wires and helped make the attachment sturdier…they were very clever when they used this initially.  Each stem needed to be weighed down which made attaching these tricky.  I had two old lead weights from Dutchboy Paints that my brother gave me.  My dad used to work where they manufactured the paint and I was told these were for weighing down drop cloths.  They were about the best solution I could come up with because there were fairly small, flat and heavy!  I could only attach two bunches at a time and had to allow them to completely dry.  The more that got attached, the trickier it became navigating in the leafy environment to get at the surfaces.

The last things to be added were the figure, a small bunch of red berry stems, and then the sheep!

The earliest picture showed the ewe and 3 lambs, the current picture showed 2, and in reality there were 4 in the box, so one came loose prior to the first picture and the other one came loose between 1999 and 2021.  So, the placement of the 4th lamb was left entirely up to me!

Finally, all of the pieces were reattached – firmly!  I had to go through and arrange the leaves in what I thought made them look most like the original.  I cleaned the glass, and used a light glue coating to hold it back in place and adjusted the old paper as well as I could.

I felt partly responsible for the damage that occurred to this piece because I had it shipped.  But then I thought further about this and perhaps rationalized a bit.  There was only one other online bidder to the item, and it appeared that no in-person bidders were interested in the piece.  So, since this was going to be shipped either way – to me, or the opening bidder, it would have been damaged in shipping no matter what.  Perhaps it was meant to come to me.  I have been told I was crazy to attempt to fix it and a few people have said they would have just trashed it.  Sadly, this piece is no longer original, but I do think it still has the same general feel as it once did.  After working with it, I feel it’s very likely that the pieces would have continued to come loose over time since the glue was crumbling. Something would have had to be done to preserve it, and I like to think Evelyn and Estelle were helping me somehow. All three of us have had a hand at saving this sweet little tribute or gift to someone special.  I hope they would approve of what I’ve done.

Before completing the box, I slipped a note under her dress along with the other message I had found.

“I saved this”

My note

And finally, with the glass!

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