NYSD House

Sheelin Wilson

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


For our interview, Sheelin Wilson wore a dress that glinted with metallic thread—it was a perfect way to dress for the camera because she is a renowned gilder. Also, the dress came from H&M. “I don’t have a grand lifestyle. I’m pretty much a peasant! I really am. I choose to live very simply. I like drinking red wine and I buy my clothes from H&M.” She says she found her craft through luck and it has remained her passion for some 53 years but as so often happens in our interviews, we also veered off-topic (which is kind of the point of a good conversation) and thus, in addition to the art of water gilding, we also wound up learning quite a bit about fox hunting in Ireland.

So I guess my first question is, out of all the things you could have done, why did you choose gilding?

Luck. I had traveled in South America for a long time and Mexico and in America for the first time then I went back to Ireland to live because my visas had run out and a great friend of mine had married a gilder. This was an opportunity to go and work in an artist’s studio.
A cozy tented guest bedroom is tucked into a space near the front entryway. The guest bedcover and dust ruffle were fabricated out of vintage textiles. All the shades in Sheelin's apartment are by legendary designer and former client Robert Denning.
In the guest bedroom Tapp Francke's 'Calla Lily' photographs hang above a Victorian bamboo corner chair. A hand painted Limoges china box stands atop a small French table with ormolu and a marble top.
Night time reading. A French hanging fixture purchased from Robert Denning is suspended from the tented ceiling of Sheelin's guest room.
The front entrance hall is covered in a Farrow & Ball striped wallpaper. The portrait of a violinist was purchased at a Doyle auction.
A pair of painted white gothic chairs flank a cabinet filled with favorite art and objects including three gourds by ceramic artist Greg Kuharic. A pair of mirrored panels gilt by Sheelin hangs above a gothic side chair.
A wooden horse's head from India stands next to a bookcase tucked into a niche in the front entrance hall. An elegant, if slightly off-kilter floor lamp is topped with a shade from Robert Denning.
What is it about gilding that fascinates you?

For me, it means that I can go in and fix things and make them look beautiful.

But you could do that with other kinds of furniture restoration, why gilding?

You could … but there’s something about gold! And silver and palladium … I don’t know what it is because I’m not a glitzy person even though I’m wearing this … thing. And there actually isn’t that much gold around [my apartment].
A mirrored French door from ArtTfacts shows reflections of the dining area. Peering though French doors into Sheelin's bedroom.
Looking across the bed into the dressing room. A not-so-flat screen TV stands under an Indian painting from Doyle.
Antique Irish linen lace from Sheelin's mother covers the bed.
Hanging above Sheelin's bed is a vintage French poster from the 26th Street flea market.
More photos and landscape paintings from Germany, Ireland and Iran hang above another bedside chest of drawers.
A Buddha head, gilt objects by Sheelin and other paintings and sculpture are arranged near a silk painted Chinese screen.
No. I was imagining that your apartment might look like a little Versailles or something …

I don’t know, I’m just very, very grateful that I found gilding. It’s all about following your gut and doing what you want to do. And I can also pass on all this information that I have to anybody who wants to learn. If they’re as passionate about it as I was, I will teach them anything.

What’s hard about it? What’s the difficult thing to learn to do?

Making things look old. You’ve got to put all the leaf on first and then you take it down by aging it and patina-ing, putting layers of dirt and grime to bring it back to the 18th century or the 15th century.
Left: Sheelin's closet and dressing room. Right: A metal plaque of Medusa and family photos are arranged atop an English bedside chest.
Sheelin with her mother, Jean Briscoe.
Looking past Sheelin's necklace collection into her bedroom and living room.
So it’s all to do with judgment?

Judgment and it’s all to do with the eye. I mean I grew up surrounded by old things, so I sort of know what things should look like.

Let’s talk about where you grew up.

I grew up in Ireland in a very nice, old, beautiful Georgian house surrounded by very pretty things. I had a very privileged childhood, fox hunting and that sort of thing. And I had parents that didn’t give a flying … f (doesn’t actually say it) about my education or whatever, so I was a self motivator and I just said, I’m getting out of Ireland. I went to study at a school in Chelsea that I don’t think is there any more, called the New Academy for Art and Design or whatever.
Two of six, oversized gothic church chairs that Sheelin found on an Upper East side street stand in front of two Turkish portrait paintings. Front and center in the main room a chandelier that originally was a gas light from an operating theater in a 19th-century hospital hangs above an English hunt table surrounded by four French cane back chairs.
Fresh flowering branches perk up the dining room table.
A painting by Sheelin's first cousin Fionnuala Boyd and her husband Les Evans, 'Ship Rock' hangs near four photos of El Malecon in Havana by Robert Polidori.
A pair of rope gilt wood stools by Sheelin stand in front of a French Art Deco sideboard from auction.
One of a pair of horse architectural heads from a Piers show stand atop the living room windowsill.
Yet another stunning Robert Denning lampshade dresses up a floor lamp found at a thrift shop. Our interview is reflected in a gilt bronze metal mirror.
What did your parents want you to do if they didn’t care about you getting an education?

Be a housewife. And be married with kids and go fox hunting and have dinner parties.

Because that’s what your mother did?

Still does.

So presumably you didn’t want to be a housewife?

I always thought I would be married with kids but my passions went into gilding. And now looking back on it, 53 years later, I put all those juices into my career … I don’t think I missed out. I have travelled extensively throughout the world and I couldn’t have done that if I’d had kids. It’s just a different life. I’ve got lots of friends with kids but I’ve no nieces and nephews because I’ve a got sister who has no kids.
A close up of Sheelin's gilt rope stool.
A pair of rock crystal lamps from a trip to France stands atop the French Art Deco sideboard.
Two Indonesian puppets stand behind a banquette running under the living room windows. Sheelin added a thick French fringe to store-bought pillows.
An Italian gilt wood lamp provides additional illumination over the front banquette.
One of a pair of George II gilt wood mirrors hang near a large wood Buddha head purchased during a trip to India.
More views of the front living/dining room.
Ah, that’s interesting.

It is interesting … but that’s another long story.

What do you miss about Ireland?

Not very much. I was just back there for my mother’s 80th birthday. They had about 100 people. My mother re-married … he’s 94. [Shows us a photo of an astonishing country house] That’s where he grew up but it’s a hotel now. They had the birthday party there.

Why don’t you miss Ireland?

I don’t know … I really ran … I ran away from the country. First I went to London and then Pennsylvania, where I was a white slave—I was exercising horses, nanny, cook … you know that sort of stuff.
Looking down the front entrance hall. Sheelin designed the hanging lampshades.
A photograph of an Iceberg in Disko Bay Greenland by Lynn Davis hangs over a sofa covered in a linen-and-silk fabric from Italy.
A colorful photograph of locusts that Sheelin purchased in Sydney, hangs above a photograph of Irish fisherman taken in the Aran Islands.
Don’t you miss horses if you grew up riding and hunting?

I do miss horses but when I was down there in Ireland just last week, I met this girl who is now Master of Foxhounds somewhere down in Pennsylvania and she rides five or six times a day and I said to her, “Do you know what? If you give me one million dollars, you would not catch me going out fox hunting again.” It’s crazy!

What’s crazy about it?

You get up on a horse, you don’t [necessarily] know the horse and you go across country, flying! It’s terrifying. My father used to hunt it three or four times a week. My boyfriend Bill, said, “What the fuck do these people do?!! They don’t work!!”

[Sian] The only way I know about hunting is because we used to have a house in … I mean, I didn’t know where I was …

Most of those guys couldn’t ride a gate on a windy day, as they say up in Ireland. It’s all coats and things. Get them out there to Ireland and they’d be slaughtered! Anyway, I’m well out of it.
A French portrait of a young girl was purchased from Robert Denning.
Sheelin's fondness for all things blue is evident in the contents of this European cabinet.
Family photos share space with old bronze hares from various antique shops.
Sheelin added wall mirrors to open up her bathroom space.
A photograph by first cousin Fionnuala Boyd and Les Evans hangs on the bathroom door.
You said that you’re not really a glitzy person, so how would you describe your taste or your aesthetic?

Eclectic. I love my theater lamp chandelier – it’s an operating theater lamp from a hospital. I paid far too much for that thing. I’m also very, very tidy. I always am. I didn’t tidy because of you guys. There’s no paper pollution here.

What’s paper pollution?

As in papers, magazines, letters. I put all that stuff in my studio. There’s method in my madness here and there’s madness in my method there. And that is how I run my life.
The entrance to Sheelin's East 91st street gilding studio.
No explanation necessary.
Sheelin purchased the lion from an African street trader and water gilded it with 23 karat gold leaf. The Heineken bottle was a project for the company that accompanied a party invitation for a promotional campaign. It was gilded with 23-karat gold leaf on glass.
Signed tables by Max Kuehne are being restored for a client.
The top of the signed Max Kuehne tables and the separate parts from a large convex mirror.
I was talking to someone who is one of those professional organizers and she said, all those papers you have in boxes and folders … just throw them all away. Your life will not change.

That’s right. My neighbors are art dealers and they get every art magazine there is and then they put them in my cubby hole for me – I will bring them in; I will read them and then give them to my upstairs neighbor. We recycle them.

Is gilding very methodical – is that why you have to be tidy? Don’t you get bored?

It is very methodical but I don’t get bored because I end up working on pretty interesting pieces. I do make a lot of ice cream out of horseshit … but … what I love is working on good period pieces because my work is as good theirs. It’s easier to work on good furniture. It’s much harder to work on a piece of shit. You’ve got to work a lot harder to make it look good.
Nearby a metal throne from India is in the process of being cleaned.
The silver Indian throne.
A French portrait frame is being restored with 23-karat gold leaf.
An over-mantel gilt wood mirror stands next to one of a pair of elaborate French gilt wood sconces.
A detail of the over-mantel mirror.
A Pair of Gilded Carved Wood Duck-Form Decorative Brackets.
But is there still a market for gilded furniture nowadays?

It’s very strange … I used to have enormous amounts of work from certain dealers who always constantly gave me a set of this or that and they still send me things but not as much. I am doing a lot of work for contemporary artists on modern pieces. My biggest client is Peter Marino, and also I do work for Ralph Lauren.

Is gilding a dying form of craft or skill?

No it’s not, there are lots of gilders. I’m a traditional water gilder as opposed to an oil gilder where you can put the gilding on to any surface. What I do involves the layering of gesso, putting on the leaf and burnishing it with an agate stone to bring it to a jeweled surface.
Tools of the trade ...
A contemporary French black lacquer bench is being restored for a design client.
Sheelin's packed office is tucked into a corner of her workroom.
Sheelin's bulletin board reveals postcards from friends and favorite impressions that inspire her.
A photo of Sheelin's stepfather's local hunt, the Tara Harriers, crossing his very own bridge. The bridge, which cuts through the property of her stepfather's Ireland estate was in disrepair and about to be torn down but he purchased it from the town for one hundred pounds.
That sounds like poetry somehow.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Downton Abbey comes out with the new series because I did this whole big video thing for them, a gilding demo. My hands were there but of course my face wasn’t in it – but it’s because of this huge interest in the craftsman thing, you know everything by hand. They say it might be in the show in some way but it hasn’t come up yet and I did it over a year ago.

Talking of Downton Abbey, what about work on rooms, you know all that incredible, ornate gilding you see in palaces and so on – how do you even begin?

You just get the scaffolding up and you just keep on going. It’s all about rhythm.

For more on Sheelin, visit her website: www.sheelinwilson.com