On September 15th, 2021, Property from the Collection of Sheelin Wilson will be offered as a single-owner section at the Doyle at Home auction. According to Sheelin, “I am selling ALL my furniture and things!” Many of the items in the collection are represented in the below interview from 2015. It’s a great way to get acquainted with Sheelin and her gilded glamour. Enjoy getting to know her and while you’re at it, place a bid (or two).
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.
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].
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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