Gilding at Bevis Marks

Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London is not only the oldest synagogue in the UK but the longest continually operating one. It is currently undergoing restoration and the addition of a new visitor centre open to all faiths and none which will house exhibits and provide space for educational and other activities.

On my visit last month I was fortunate to watch Antonio Scialo gilding the refurbished 18th century  ceiling roses through which the chandeliers that light the synagogue are suspended. Gilding is the process of decorating surfaces with a layer of gold which gives a long lasting and beautiful finish to wood, stone and other materials. As his name implies, Antonio hails from Italy and has many years of experience in gilding valuable and historic items.

In this photo, Antonio is applying the thin gold leaf to the surface of the ceiling rose. You might notice that his cheek shows evidence of the gold particles. Before picking up the gold leaf off his palette, Antonio rubs the brush across his cheek. This coats the bristles with natural oils from his skin and helps to lift the thin material off the palette. He has already applied a glue to the surface which he colours to compliment the gold leaf.

In this close up we can see how Antonio gently presses the gold leaf into position on the surface. He has previously cut the leaf using a palette knife to the size he requires. After it has set he then brushes the leaf again and this removes any extra particles which he collects up as they fall away. 

To take this dramatic view I had to lie flat on the floor and photography from below - but it was worth it as from this you can get a sense of the extent of the work required for just this one rose (from memory I cannot recall how many there are in the ceiling but it is at least 8 or more).

Finally, here is one of the finished ceiling roses. I asked Antonio if this technique was better than, say, painting the roses with gold-based paint and he pointed out that real gold leaf may darken with age but gold paints tend to turn black with age as they are exposed to air. 

In addition it is worth remembering that Bevis Marks is a Grade I listed building, completed in 1701 in the reign of Queen Anne, which means renovations like this must adhere to the original craftsmanship. 

It is always a privilege to be able to photograph a subject like this and Anotnio, who is a friendly person willing to share his knowledge, made it an even greater experience.

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