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Gilded Twig reflects art conservator and master gilder Deborah Bigelow's long career in art conservation and current business interest in handmade gold leaf art jewelry. 

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a golden moment

It was a bright and shining moment when so many people seemed to be interested in gilding. There was even a cover story on gilding in the New York Times (albeit unrelated to our symposium). As one of my committee members asked me, "How did you know there would be so much interest?" 


In 2014 it’s hard to remember a time when information wasn’t just a keystroke away. But in 1981, as I was writing my master’s thesis about gilding at The London College of Furniture, I discovered how few gilders would share favorite practices and how few books were published on gilding or how to repair it. I still have one letter from an irate gilder who chastised me for asking “how-to” questions and suggested that I learn for myself. With my passion for the subject and the support of the Wooden Artifacts Group (WAG - a specialty group within the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works), I began to plan a conference on gilding conservation in 1985 which took place in October 1988.


I always hope that the positive energy I pour into a project will have a good result, and with the Gilding Conservation Symposium that happened in spades. I was on a mission and committed myself to planning this conference with all my heart, soul and thousands of unpaid hours. Then, I convinced a lot of generous people to help me gratis, too! First among them, my colleagues who served on my planning committee and helped edit the publication, and then an international roster of scientists, curators, and conservators who spoke at the symposium.  Institutions, granting foundations, businesses and patrons donated money for operating costs. Countless others contributed to make this 3-day event at our host, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a glittering success. With sunny October days and mild fall evenings for historic house tours, cocktail parties and sightseeing, even the weather cooperated.

Liz Hickey, Marc Williams, Deborah S. Page, Gregory J. Landrey, Elisabeth Cornu, Donald C. Williams, Deborah Bigelow, Bill Adair, Lauren S. Donner, Cornelis van Horne

Liz Hickey, Marc Williams, Deborah S. Page, Gregory J. Landrey, Elisabeth Cornu, Donald C. Williams, Deborah Bigelow, Bill Adair, Lauren S. Donner, Cornelis van Horne

My favorite memories were provided by the chief conservator from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. We were unsure that he would be allowed to make the trip, but he arrived in Philadelphia and caused an immediate stir by asking his driver from the airport “How do you know?” questions such as “How do you know it’s Trenton?” Two days later, I was sitting in my front row seat in the museum’s auditorium, when an excited hush came over the audience. Turning in my seat, I saw an SRO crowd with people lining the walls, as our Russian guest stepped up to the podium. It was an unforgettable moment.


Gilded Wood: Conservation and History, 1991

Gilded Wood: Conservation and History, 1991

ITS PUBLICATION : GILDED WOOD: Conservation and History

All involved in planning the Symposium wanted a book to be our legacy from the conference. We raised money specifically to publish the knowledge exchanged during those three days in Philadelphia, thinking this information could then be shared with colleagues unable to make the trip, as well as future art professionals. We believed a book was something wonderfully tangible that you could hold onto, read or display on a bookshelf for future reference. I had no clue how hard it would be to actually produce a book!

It’s one thing to speak at a conference, but entirely another to create a written document from those spoken words. Fortunately, there were many speakers who were excellent writers and many who accepted editorial suggestions. We hired a professional editor for the task of pulling together words and images from busy professionals now scattered around the world, while our publisher, Sound View Press took on the responsibility of physical production and distribution.

Twenty-six years later, I know the book has become the legacy we intended when I hear how much it has helped a young conservator in London, or that a master gilder in San Francisco refers to it often. Our hard work is paying off!

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