Carol Booth: ‘I gilded toast and then floated it in soup’

The Specialist: Carol Booth is a practitioner of the ancient craft of gilding and has worked on public and private commissions, restorations and has a range of decorative mirrors

Carol Booth in her studio in Abbeyleix, Co Laois. During the heyday of the Celtic Tiger mirrors and overmantels “were flying out the door”. Photograph: Alan Betson

Carol Booth in her studio in Abbeyleix, Co Laois. During the heyday of the Celtic Tiger mirrors and overmantels “were flying out the door”. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Sunlight in solid form is how the artist Carol Booth describes the effect of the gilded surface. A practitioner of the ancient craft of gilding for the past quarter of a century in Ireland, she has worked on public and private commissions, restoration projects as well as designing her own range of decorative mirrors. Her work can be found in the Irish Embassy in Berlin, Ard na Sidhe in Co Kerry, the Mansion House and the Clarence and Clarion Hotels in Dublin. In Dublin Castle, she restored the peacock weathervane in unvarnished gold “because unprotected gold lasts forever”, she explains.

One of the highlights of her career was the restoration of a magnificent mid-18th century mirror by Francis and John Booker of Capel Street, Dublin, covered in brown paint, which was returned to its former intricate gilded glory of fluted columns, flower festoons, urns and acanthus and later sold for €120,000 in 1998. “I had to soak the mirror with garlic and water to make the wood more porous for the gesso,”she says.

A fine arts and sculpture graduate from NCAD, Booth was an unmistakable figure around town in the 1980s on her bicycle with her magenta spiked hair, plastic bags and vibrant personality. Shortly after hanging her graduate collection in 1985 she left Dublin for the US where she lived for the next seven years in the basement of an old church in Santiago “where I could have massive big paintings in multimedia, spray paint, charcoal, black paint, anything”, she says with a laugh.

Back in Dublin

Booth’s gilding career began after a course in London satisfied a long-standing interest in the craft. Back in Dublin, she started working in Francis Street for Paul Cooke Antiques. She quickly established a reputation for excellence, being the only one, for instance, who knew how to do verre eglomise, a method of gilding on glass. Shortly afterwards she opened her own studio called Gold Rush and at the height of the boom had seven people working in the studio, an international troupe of female artists from Greece, Norway, Denmark and Sardinia.

Business, from private clients, antique dealers and public commissions, thrived and included not only restoration work, but also designing a range of modern mirrors in silver and gold leaf made to order. “Men particularly liked the squares, but not the vulva shapes at all. Women were more flexible,” she says.

During the heyday of the Celtic Tiger mirrors and overmantels “were flying out the door – there was lots of gilding of consoles and furniture and then the trend was to mix the old with the new – so you had the gilt overmantel and a modern painting. People wanted gold high, not toned down with earth pigments in the conventional way”, she says, such was the taste for opulence at the time.

Rabbit skin glue

The technique remains painstaking and laborious. “You learn how to make gesso from ground chalk which is called whitening and you mix it with rabbit skin glue which is then applied warm in the consistency of cream. You prep your wood, apply seven or eight layers of gesso and then layer with different colour clays called bole – three different colours, yellow, red and the top layer is black. This is called the cushion for the gold and everything you have is organic – the brush – called the tip – is from badger hair. Then you float the gold using rabbit skin glue and water with your brush. You have a cushion where you hold the gold, the tip and the knife,” she explains.

The gold comes in sheets of 25 leaves in about 20 different colours and she buys it directly from a goldbeater in Florence called Manetti. Once it has dried, the high points are burnished with an agate stone so that it becomes like a mirror. “The word gilding means laying leaf,” she says.

In 2000 she downsized, moving her studio to her home in Seapoint and six years ago moved to Co Laois where she is now based and where she divides her time equally between gilding and painting. The day we met she had just delivered a console and overmantel in silver leaf to a private house as well as despatching a number of her Irish landscape paintings to a new shop due to open in Boston in January by furniture-maker Charles Shackleton and glassmaker Simon Pearce.

Memorable work

Her work has also included a project with the late Patrick Scott for the Clarion Hotel in Cork, gilding 11 fibreglass balls for its atrium; a mirror for the boardroom of Riverdance, based on the logo; and mirrors for clients including playwright Frank McGuinness and developer Harry Crosbie. Her most recent project was for a school in Bray, where she designed and gilded a flock of swallows, and Arthur Shackleton designed and planted the garden.

A gifted cook, Booth has applied her gilding skills to other areas, more recently food. “I gilded strawberries for a Riverdance opening and for a girlfriend’s party. I’ve also gilded toast and then floated it in soup.”

Earlier this year she and five other Irish painters exhibited their work in Chennai in India and she is currently working on a series of paintings of “demented” women, but that’s another story. “I am only really starting my painting career now because I have been gilding solidly for the past 25 years. I can finally allow time to develop that.”