Finding the right spot for antiques in your home can determine their survival

Finding the right spot for antiques in your home can determine their survival
The worst possible way to store your china cups. Never, never! Picture: iStock

Kya deLongchamps gives some tips on correctly placing antiques in the home

Everything has its place and with antiques, finding the right position in your home can determine their very survival.

With paintings and other artwork it’s tempting to hang them where it suits us, rather than where it suits the work best. Obviously, a picture should be out of way. On a stairwell, ensure that a rising shoulder or elbow will not hit the picture or dislodge it from the wall.

Fixing the piece at two positions (top corners or the centre of each upright side, for example) is a lot safer than the swinging fulcrum of one nail. Only ever apply fixings (termed mirror plates) to the frame, not the back-board of the picture. For a particularly heavy example use nylon string plus a supporting batten screwed to the wall under the bottom edge of the work.

1.55m is the standard height to the centre of a picture for it to be seen at a reasonable eye-level, but you can play with the proportions of the wall, the ceiling height and any surrounding artwork if the piece is grouped. If you’re going into a stud wall or suspect there may be utilities in the wall, use a wire and pipe finder (metal/stud/AC) before you drill.

UV-resistant glazing will protect a painting, drawing or print to a higher degree, sealing the work up against changes in humidity. Your framer should use archival quality, acid-free mounts to separate the artwork from the glass. No watercolour or inked artwork should be placed in strong or direct light — they will fade over time.

Suspended over a working fireplace is also a rotten position for any good piece — delivering invisible biomass, soot and heat to the surface and framing. Even radiators can, over time, cause the varnish and paint of even an unglazed impasto oil work to crack and flake.

Antique and vintage rugs by virtue of being spilled out across the floor are vulnerable to a number of things. First of all, there’s foot traffic. The only remedy here is to rotate the carpet or runner to allow even wear. Turning the carpet also spreads the inevitable fading caused by natural light.

Sheers will diffuse some of the damaging rays to delicate fabrics of every kind, but in really hot, bright weather, you might pull the curtains over at the brightest part of the day if a carpet is in a room that allows it.

Any good rug should be run over a natural fibre rug pad — wool or rubber. This protects the floor from the backing of a hand-knotted, hand-woven, or hand-loomed piece sawing off a timber floor, keeps it flat, and acts as a shock absorber, prolonging the life of the piece.

Peter Linden, one of Ireland’s top sources for Oriental rugs, runners and carpets supplies Multigrip rubber underlay free with every rug he sells. He advises to keep the rug clean with a gentle vacuum or brushing with a soft bristle brush, as this too prevents wear by grit worked deep into the fibres, (peterlinden.com).

Antique furniture has a vital water content and despises properly working central heating in a tightly insulated modern house without superb MVHR (Mechanical Heat Recovery and Ventilation). The heat and fluctuating humidity in the environment served by convecting radiators, fires and stoves can stress both the surface and the joints of really old pieces which may have spent a century or more in relatively damp, cold, dim places.

Central heating and low humidity can do terrible things to old glue and failing joints; it’s not that great for our skin either.
Central heating and low humidity can do terrible things to old glue and failing joints; it’s not that great for our skin either.

I’ve met antique connoisseurs who live in Dickensian conditions without a CH system purely for the love of their ancestral collection. The rest of us are generally battling against high humidity because of its health implications.

A few hours a day of a cosy 21-degrees celsius and very low humidity levels will sip the moisture steadily out of old hygroscopic wood causing it to shrink. Veneer, set on parched, failing animal glue and weakened with a small break, can lift in ribbons. Solid wood can split under the duress of the dry air we generally love. Decorative inlay, marquetry and parquetry in a wood or material different to that of the supporting carcass can also spring loose.

Think about placing your furniture in cooler parts of the house if you have concerns — the front hall or a back corridor and ensure they are at least 750mm from any heating element. Humidifiers are a final solution to raise the conditions to 50-55% humidity (CH is tough on middle-aged skin too). If it comes to this, it might be time to move yourself and the Georgian sideboard to a draughty, damp Castle Dread. If you want to measure the humidity in areas of your home you’ll need a thermo hygrometer. The cheapest I could trace was the Beurer HM16, €17.50 from stressnomore.co.uk.

Small antiques in ceramic and glass are often put on proud display, and should in most instances be safe if you put them in the right support. Open shelving, out of reach of children demands dusting, but looks fantastic crowded with middling antique and vintage ware. Vouching for a glass cabinet, ensure the piece is stable and not likely to rock or vibrate if you say hit it with the vacuum cleaner on your way through or the door sticks on opening.

Baise, chamois or other soft unwrinkled material attached to the shelving can cushion and protect the pieces if they do fall — to some extent. Grouping items to give them collective stability or using a dedicated plate support or even a blot of Blu Tack to the bottom can make all the difference. Be warned, we don’t want a “ting” of one thing against another that could chip or even crack something. Blu Tack is also great for holding lids and vessels lightly together — just be aware when moving anything with separating parts.

It’s up to you to police who handles the items as most smalls are damaged when being lifted out of position. Always cradle them with two hands by the “body” and not by any frail old extremity. Glazed shadow boxes that can be hung on the wall to show off individual items and vintage display cases on legs (auction regulars and very popular) are another way to archive and protect your collection with a little museum-style fascination.

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