When to restore bisque dolls

When to restore bisque dolls

claireDavid Barringtons excellent article on the restoration of bisque dolls also appeared in issue 6 of Kinloch and Sellers Catalogue. It caused quite a stir! I invite people to add their thoughts and comments at the end of it!

Margaret Glover's excellent article on restoration of wax dolls in last month's issue has prompted this expression of my views in relation to the repair of bisque head dolls. Views which may seem strong to some but which are, I think, in need of being stated; indeed, should have been put forward some years ago.

Put shortly, my opinion is, that bisque should never be restored unless the original work is so damaged as to be quite disfigured.



The making of a bisque head involved the fusion by intense heat of the solids in the porcelain slip. The sculpting of the original model of the head was all important; from this the plaster moulds were taken and used in the casting of the head. Following fusion by firing, the head was coloured and decorated by hand before re-firing at a lower temperature. The colour pigments are unrecorded and impossible to copy today. All stages in the production of the head are important but most particularly the original modelling and the decoration of the bisque. There is, or can be, great artistic merit in the completed head. That finished head is a work of art and should not lightly be altered or changed in any way. Of course, I have to qualify all this somewhat by saying that this is vitally relevant to the circa 1880-1900 period and somewhat less relevant to the post 1918 period when methods of production and decoration were much lower in quality.

What I have said is fairly obvious but it needs to be stated because what I find astounding is that in many cases for no reason other than a hairline crack a fine quality head has been disfigured in the stated cause of restoration.

Many people have said to me - not so frequent now as it used to be - " I have had the head re-fired and so the crack has disappeared!" Some would not believe me when I said they were being misinformed. It is an impossibility. The physical property of porcelain bisque can never be re-constituted to a liquified porcelain slip.

A restorer's job is difficult. When a head has a crack the pressure from the circular shaped head causes a fine ridge at the site of the crack. Elimination, visually, of this ridge and the crack, involves painting over the crack and at least part of the surrounding area. This is usually achieved by an airbrush. Because the site of the crack is uneven to a varying extent some restorers rub down with rough paper, the uneven portion. This destroys the adjacent original colour and rubs away part of the bisque.

The object of the work being to hide the crack the colour needs to be blended into the bisque colouring. This is difficult work - not only is it impossible to match the colour exactly because the colour pigments are different, but also the texture is of a different quality. I have seen many restorations of this nature; a few with minimal colouring to each side of the crack but most with one quarter, one half, and even the whole of the head sprayed over. What has been done in these cases is not restoration it is effectively a reproduction. The original work of art has been destroyed except for shape and all in the cause of hiding a crack. This cannot be justified when a head has one, two or even three cracks that are not disfiguring.

Five or six years ago restoration was very popular. Now it is less so as collectors are becoming more aware of what has been done in the name of restoration and the fine early dolls that have been ruined. Another factor, is the change in colour that has occurred in many restorations over the years. Many of the paints used, not being fired in, have changed; usually taking on a greyish tint and some even showing crystallized salts on the surface of the paint.

I do not believe that restorations can be justified where the damage is not disfiguring. Two or three hairline cracks to the forehead are not disfiguring and nor is one across the entire face. Where there are two or three across the face I can see that my argument is less compelling, depending on the severity of the cracks. It is difficult to draw the line. If the damage is really disfiguring then perhaps it is justified simply using the head as a model the restorer painting virtually the whole of the head. But before one considers doing that, please remember, particularly in the case of scarce dolls, that the head is a work of art. The owner is only a custodian and without doubt a future owner will want as near original as possible. I ask those who would say that they cannot stand a crack to consider that for little more than the price of restoration they can purchase a reproduction of the same model and so not destroy the original work of art.

Some restorers are very sympathetic to the original and to those that put half a dozen pieces of head together, build it up and colour it as near to the original as they can, I say "Good work". To those who are asked to paint over a hairline or two, I hope they will ask their clients to think again.child with broken doll

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