by Dr. Anke Scharrahs
‘ajami decorations were created to adorn the most important rooms of Syrian homes, the reception rooms for guests. The painted and gilded wooden panels often show a wide palette of damages and aging phenomena because of their complex material combinations. The raised gypsum ornaments, the gilding, the paint layers and the lacquers age and react differently on climate changes. Additionally, the elaborately embellished rooms were often updated and changed according to the latest fashion as well as to the particular taste and needs of the families. Because of that these rooms often show many layers and stages of decorations and adaptations. It is crucial that the conservators understand the complex conditions of each single interior before starting any conservation treatment.
In the second half of the 19th century these ajami decorations fell out of use and fashion because the customs and tastes changed significantly. Since the 1880s a significant number of wooden interiors were sold and found their way into private and public collections around the world. They reached North America as well as cities in Europe, North Africa or the Far East. Several dismantled rooms stayed in storage for decades and were never treated after purchase. Such circumstances can be great luck for the ajami panels because they survived with their precious original surface and without any later overpainting or renovation.
The biggest challenge when starting a conservation project is to find out which materials the old masters used in this specific object. Often it is a combination of water-sensitive materials, metal leaf and foil, tinted lacquer layers and various paint layers. Some of these materials react to treatments with water, other are extremely sensitive to solvents. Because of that the conservators need to know exactly which areas and paints can be treated with which method or material.
After analysing the materials the second step is often the consolidation of flaking paint layers. The decorated surface becomes brittle by time and loses their adherence to the wooden ground. Because of this a special glue made from bladder of sturgeon is prepared and used to re-adhere all flaking paint layers back to the ground. Next the cleaning of the beautifully painted surfaces is a challenging step. Often varnish and glue layers need to be removed without harming the original surfaces. The result is very rewarding and often reveals colours and details that were hidden for decades from the visitors behind grime, dirt, varnish, or soot.
Often losses in the paint layers are found on these panels. Because of these losses the overall appearance is often affected, and the clear colours and shapes are broken. Modern conservation does not aim to overpaint or repaint the panels entirely. It is rather the goal to fill the losses with a paint that is easily removable in case it is needed in the future. It is further an important question how many and which losses should be filled. When inpainting every tiny missing bit, the panels will not look old anymore. The conservator’s task is to carry out as much retouching as required and as less as possible. Furthermore, only those losses shall be filled where the original colour and shape is still clear. The conservator should not re-invent what is lost entirely.