Flake by flake, Paul Cadman lifted paint from a table for his thesis on conservation techniques. What he revealed, writes Anne McHardy, was an 18th-century treasure Paul Cadman looked at the table, saw the hint of gold showing through the nicks in its 1930s white paint covering and knew: "We were looking at a restoration adventure."
It was July 1997. Just how big the adventure would be Cadman, a 41-year-old insurance broker turne fine arts student, and his tutors at London Guildhall University began to realise only after the table was moved to London from the Sussex stately home of Lord Gage and his family. Flake by flake, Cadman removed the paint to reveal 250-year-old intricate water-gilding and fabulously elaborate carving - satyrs' masks, garlands of fruit - underneath.
After much delving into architectural history, the adventure is almost over. The table, restored to its 18th-century splendour, has just returned to the Gages' country house in Firle Place ready for the new tourist season. Cadman has his BSc degree in conservation, and Guildhall's department of design and technology has an extraordinary commission to its credit and new restoration techniques in its repertoire.
All that remains is for experts to identify the table's maker, almost certainly one of the great furniture-makers of the 18th century. The most likely contender is the high-society architect William Kent, successor to Thomas Chippendale - a provenance that would make the table worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
"The style of the gilding is manneredI The only people who can get away with the techniques used here are the pure genius artists," Cadman says.
The complexity of the restoration task meant that Cadman needed help. Two of the university's staff - gilder Leslie Kinsey, a researcher, and wood carver John Cross, a senior tutor - were commissioned to complete the table after Cadman graduated and moved on to a master's degree through the Royal College of Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Cross carved a replacement decorative strip patterned on the undamaged side and helped interpret the table's carved mask of Bacchus and fruit decorations.
Kinsey worked for seven months to restore the gilding. "My children thought I had abandoned them," she says. "I would work thinking that the last time the table had gesso applied was 250 years ago and wonder about the person who did the work."
The table was, as Lord Gage's cousin and adviser, Old Bond Street art dealer Deborah Gage, puts it: "A sleeping beauty - probably better preserved because it had been covered with paint." Had it been restored in 1930, when scientific understanding of gilding was less good, it might have been damaged. Gage realised that the table was 18th century, but its rarity became clear only as the paint came off. It was almost certainly commissioned about 1730 as one of a pair for the London town house the Gages then had in Arlington Street. Gage is checking rates books to date the table exactly.
There was, Cadman says, "No wow factor. It just got better and better. There was a frightening moment though." That was when a fellow student showed him an auction catalogue with a similar table valued at Pounds 350,000. "That was a responsibility."
Cadman contacted Lord Gage after a chance visit to Firle. He was seeking a restoration project for his final-year thesis. Guildhall's undergraduates have access to works needing repair in museums, but Cadman wanted a client relationship as part of his research. "What impressed me about Firle was that it was lived in. It didn't look like a museum. I thought there might be something that needed restoration. I wrote to Lord Gage."
After the first meeting, Deborah Gage was invited to Guildhall, to what is in effect the old John Cass Furniture Institute, one of the City of London colleges subsumed into the university when it was founded. Gage met Cadman's tutors, scrutinised their workshops and was impressed.
Cadman began stripping. "The first thing was solvent tests. They did not even soften the white paint. We did chemical analysis. A new idea was tried, which was to paint on glue. As it dried, it shrank and pulled the paint off but left the gold intact. You might lose the odd minuscule piece of gold flake but most was left. The next stage was to use a scalpel. I used the handle of the scalpel to tap the paint. Then I used an American tool that was bought at a jumble sale by my mother. This came with a 110-volts supply but no instruction book. The vibration broke up the paint. Then I looked at getting the paint out of nooks and crannies." He applied stripper with a cottonwool bud that did not damage the gilt.
By the time his BSc was marked, Cadman had stripped 80 per cent of the paint and done a huge amount of research, contacting the Victoria & Albert when he exhausted Guildhall's library. He continued to work for five months more then handed the project on to Kinsey and Cross.
Gage is not certain she would have allowed Guildhall to undertake the work had she realised how valuable the table was. Now, however, she says, she would have no hesitation. "If Paul had not started this, the table would still be under white paint," she says. Commercial restoration would have cost anything up to Pounds 20,000. Few country house owners have that sort of money to hand.