By Helen Dudor
|Pause a moment to catch the restorer
in the act of laying down a single coat of polish on an eighteenth-century marquetry
commode. This is nothing like your average furniture finisher pushing wax into wood. It is
a bravura performance by a romantic obsessed by an age that made beautiful things without
attention to clock or calendar, a supreme artisan intoxicated by the poetry of wood.
He picks up a grimy old St. Emilion bottle that holds a mixture of golden shellac flakes and anhydrous ethyl alcohol. Several times a day for the last few days I he has shaken the bottle to join the ingredients. Now the solution is ready. He pulls on rubber gloves, wraps a piece of linen around an egg-shaped lump of wool-it must be egg ,shaped-and moistens it with shellac. He adds a bit more alcohol and, finally, drops of oil to get the pad moving.
Then he goes to work on the surface. Gently, lightly, the rubber-gloved right hand moves around and around in precise circles and mesmerizing rhythm. In days past, he has done this for hours, and in days to come he will do it for hours. You might imagine that the process is boring; to a man for whom French polishing is an art, it is almost a mystical experience.
"There's too much alcohol on the pad!" he exclaims. "When I make a circle, you see the film come off? That is the alcohol evaporating. See the fruit flies? The shellac attracts them. And this is the actual French polishing. No one can teach you how to hold a pad and how much pressure to give and how much liquid to let out. It's something you must discover over a period of years-it takes three to five years to learn how to really polish. Each turn of the pad will leave a layer. It has to be done in circular movements, and you cannot stop. If I stopped now, when I lifted the pad the whole layer of shellac which I've just laid down would come up. You must move constantly. You must never, never stop. I do not stop until the pad is emptied."
The surface looks wonderful-at once diamond hard and as lustrous and mellow as a pearl-but it will not be considered finished until it has known fifty hours of muscle. David Linker, maitre ebeniste, graduate of a fine Dutch school of woodworking, alumnus of a great French atelier of restorers, is not to be hurried..
Tall, fit, strikingly handsome, with a matinee idol's baritone, Linker often sounds as if he were a reincarnated citizen of an earlier, more leisurely, more painstaking time. He says things like "The piece is your master. " He speaks without embarrassment of "respect"-respect for the wood, respect for the furniture, respect for a noble craft. He will refuse work, especially from dealers who want it done in less time than he considers necessary for the job to be done right. That would be repair work, and "we don't have a repair workshop. We are conservateurs. We like to think of ourselves as historians involved in the preservation of art history."
Even when the pay is eighty dollars an hour, this is not a philosophy likely to rocket him into the highest income-tax brackets. In 1981, after fourteen years in Europe, Linker, speaking impeccable Dutch and French, came home to New York and went to work as a restorer for the Madison Avenue dealer Didier Aaron. Two years later, he borrowed enough money to establish his own atelier in Brooklyn, in a disheveled old factory with a view of the Williamsburg Bridge.
Because the space is modest and Linker is finicky about qualifications, it seldom has more than eight artisans. Indeed, David Linker Ltd. always has some French employees, trained, as he was, by European masters. Linker is a specialist in eighteenth-century French furniture but will take on any timeworn piece he feels can be salvaged, even if he deplores the design.
"You can't let your taste influence your work, he says forcefully, "or allow your self to think, 'I needn't do my best for this.' You don't want to 'improve' it, either; you have to respect its history. I remember a secretaire en pente-a slant-top desk. It looked like a donkey, one of nature's mistakes. Out of proportion, awkward, with curves in the wrong place. You give it the same care as something beautiful."
There is nothing awkward about the piece of furniture on which Linker's eggshaped pad is still circling as he talks. It is a two-drawer commode with exquisite inlay designs representing musical instruments, a signed work of the eighteenth-century master Martin Ohneberg. Before polishing began, warped panels were straightened and strips of new wood added to compensate for shrinkage in the carcass; loose pieces of marquetry were removed and reglued; missing pieces were replaced with precisely matched, aged veneer; surfaces, sanded to a silky finish.
And before anyone in the shop touched the commode, he studied it with care. What would it need? What veneers were wanted for the restoration? Linker must recognize every tree that contributed to a design. While his right hand circled, the left pointed to pieces in the marquetry images: "This is sycamore. That green colored wood is dyed holly, a widely used color at the time. Now here we have what is called bois de rose in France. But it's not rosewood. It's tulipwood. What the French call palissandre, Americans call rosewood. Then there is boxwood.... "
Linker always takes photographs of a piece before he goes to work on it. The "before" pictures of the Ohneberg, taken six months earlier, show an antique ravaged by time, neglect, and central heating, the kind of inherited piece about which one might say, "Oh, the hell with it. Let's send it to Goodwill." By the time the commode is ready to go home, Linker figures, he and his workmen will have lavished over 300 hours of attention on it. "You can't take shortcuts", he says.
Clearly, for Linker clients, who have included such collectors as the late John Dorrance, Jr., patience is not only a virtue; it is a necessity. One reported goodnaturedly that the workshop had held some of his furniture for a year before completing a job. The reward waiting include Linker's permanent devotion. He sees himself also as a sort of nonresident curator; several times a year he will make check-up calls to be certain that his restored pieces are living in a healthy environment and receiving proper care. Linker's moving methods are also fussy. He distrusts commercial movers, even those who claim to be "art" movers, and often will pick up and deliver important pieces. The owner of the Ohneberg commode, for example, had inherited a trove of serious furniture in great disrepair. For this undertaking, Linker brought his van to Park Avenue in New York with his staff of four men. After they padded and secured the pieces, each man sat in back clutching one as Linker maneuvered the vehicle over Manhattan's potholes.
The route to Linker's life's work was circuitous. He grew up in Queens, New York, the son of a hardworking man who was at various times a grocer, a trucker, and a cabbie. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, he expected that his three boys would rise on the professional scale through the study of medicine or law. Linker, who loves music, thought he might become an opera singer and actually sang with a company for a while.
When he got to the City College of New York, he settled on science. Then he switched to French and decided he would teach. This ambition took him to Paris to study. The wonder of the place is still fresh to him. "Boom, it just hit me. Everything. It flung doors wide open. The things I had always looked for and yearned for. "
What he had not looked for were the student demonstrations of 1967-68. Here he was at the Sorbonne, loving every day of his schooling, while his fellow students were out on the streets, protesting the educational system, or inside, disrupting classes. At least some of the world was thrilled by it; Linker hated it. So he moved to London, enrolled in art classes, and joined an acting group.
Chance led Linker to lodgings on Portobello Road, over the great open-air antiques market. This casual act would finally focus his ambitions. At home, he had always been handy with hammer and glue, a natural fixer. Eager for extra shillings, he started mending odds and ends for streetstand vendors-wobbly tables, looselegged chairs, clocks in need of new glass. He soon realized that he enjoyed the work immensely and was better at it than he was at art or acting. In time, he found his way to Amsterdam and was accepted in the Derde Technical School. He worked with wood by day, leaming Dutch by night. Generally, the students turned out new pieces. Linker's first finished design was a pretty little spice rack, which still hangs in his kitchen. One day, he observed a group of advanced students who were hoping to become museum restorers; they were dealing with the problems of a nineteenthcentury rolltop desk. That was an epiphany. For a second, the piece shimmered and fractured in his vision, swimming out of focus like an object in a late Monet painting, and then returned in bright detail. "Everything snapped into place."
He had seen his future. It was grim news to Adolph Linker; until then, he had not told his sot-is that in the town of Czernowitz, on the pre-1914 border between' Austria-Hungary and Russia, their grandfather had been a cabinetmaker. The elder Linker had never understood the honor of working with one's hands and died unreconciled to his son's choice of career.
Linker's final initiation into a great craft tradition was his apprenticeship at La Cour de Varenne, one of the best workshops in France. La Cour was maintained solely to tend the needs of two prestigious antiquaires, Bernard Steinitz and Claude Levy. "In France, when you become a journeyman, you are a member of what is almost a fraternity of monks. I was totally involved in work, and when I wasn't at La Cour I was taking courses in art history and marquetry. just learning to sand properly, we never used stripper or machines to remove old finishes. I remember it took me two months to sand off a Louis XVI chest, working eight hours a day. You couldn't make an irreversible mistake. The older man at the next workbench would stop you. I was lucky. The fellow behind me was Philippe with the Golden Hands, the chief restorer at La Cour. "
Linker might well have stayed in France, had it not been for the election of 1981. When Mitterrand came to power, he could not get his work permit renewed. So the expatriate returned.
Still, he has never cut his ties to France. Bronze ormolu removed from pieces undergoing restoration is sent to Paris for regilding because he cannot find a shop here that can do the work properly. He will not buy American veneer, because it is sliced. French sawn veneer is thicker, has more body, and is traditional in marquetry work. The shop shelves hold stacks of aged veneer of every variety, but when Linker lacks a rare piece, a wood merchant just outside Paris will supply it. He runs his finger down a ledger; the last square-meter piece of imported pearwood veneer cost about seventy dollars.
"Do no harm" is Linker's credo for his work and his life. Needless to say, he regularly sees wounds inflicted by others: a restored marquetry design in which a journeyman tinted the pieces rather than hunting up the right woods; an Empire mirror whose frame was coated in plaster and then painted faux bois in lieu of having its veneer replaced; over sanded finishes in which the design lost all its shadings. An important part of Linker's French education was learning when to stop.
Sometimes he is asked to sin. Once, he did a delicate restoration on a French cabinet with a vernis Martin finish. The painting on the door was a depiction of a lusty, bulbous-nosed Fragonardish nude. When the piece was ready, its owner, a New York dealer, came to inspect it. "David," she said, "can't you do something about her nose-make it a bit more like Christie Brinkley's?" Linker looked stunned. ' His administrative assistant blurted out, "You must be kidding. " But she was not kidding. "I know what sells," she announced haughtily. The piece was delivered with the offending nose. The dealer has since taken her business elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, he has dreams, a vision of perpetuating the great old tradition. For the last few years, Linker has been in the process of acquiring a nonprofit, tax-exempt status that will allow him to establish a training pro gram rather grandly named the American Ebeniste Furniture Conservation Institute. A while back, at a local vocational high school that teaches fairly elementary woodworking, he found a talented, eager graduate and took him on as an apprentice.
But he wants more, between six and ten promising students at a time, young men and, yes, women with the gifts and patience to learn a demanding craft. If the project thrives, David Linker will be shaping a new generation of American artisans who know the secrets of what was once thought to be a dying trade. With any luck, one or two of them may even turn out to be true children of David Linker, ardent purists driven by the same, engaging fanaticism that drives the master.