Restoration woman: ‘I’ve brought bags of smithereens back to life’
Susie Conway has revived everything from tea sets to a death mask in her Kerry workshop
There’s only one thing worse than smashing an invaluable family heirloom into smithereens and that’s the bungled effort to put it back together with superglue “which I’ve seen so many times over the years”, says restorer Susie Conway.
Conway is one of the few dedicated china, ceramic and statue restorers still practising in Ireland today, and her Kerry studio is permanently heaving with broken Ming vases, dismembered statues, ivory figurines and pottery aplenty waiting to be returned to its former glory.
Having started out as an interior designer in London in the early 1990s, Conway went on to study the workings and history of ceramics and stone at the London Academy of Fine Arts. Upon returning to Dublin, Desiree Shortt, of North Great Georges Street, lauded as Ireland’s most distinguished china restorer, took her under her wing, which is where Conway honed the art of restoration.
“It was an intense but enlightening few years. Desiree tutored me in many painstakingly slow, step-by-step methods and techniques needed to fix a given piece – from choosing the right consistency of glaze or paint ratio, to deducing the original paint undertones, from how to master an air gun or how even the wrong ventilation could botch the outcome,” says Conway.
In between getting married and having three boys, Conway set up her restoration studio on the grounds of the family farm in Kerry. She has become the go-to restorer for insurance companies, auction houses, collectors and religious orders, all of whom have a backlog of items that are in a bad way.
Commercial commissions make up only half of Conway’s clients. “Much of my work is small private projects – tea sets, decorative plates, miniature figurines, etc, which may not have much market value but hold immense sentimental meaning to the owner,” she says. Although Conway says her skills have limitations, she feels “nothing is beyond redemption. I’ve been sent bags of smithereens and brought them back to life. I can remodel lost fingers, rebuild heads, fix stumpy ivory tusks – you name it.”
(Very) odd jobs
Although most projects are china or stone-based, she gets the occasional bizarre commission, most recent of which was restoring a Death Mask. “It’s a plaster impression made of the person’s face when they have died. It had the thickness of an eggshell, so sanding it down was a nightmare, I had to go as light as a feather and was rather creeped out by the whole thing, but I filled in the missing parts, and the client was delighted.”
The cost and length of time a restoration will take can vary hugely. Conway suggests potential clients email her images and information, but it’s not until the piece lands in her studio that she can gauge how much work will be needed.
For large items, restoration typically happens on site, but Conway is happy to make house, museum or church calls. “I love getting out of the studio and love a challenge; I was hanging out of a ginormous 20ft Jesus on Easter Sunday just gone; it was just the two of us in a big old church, which was quite the surreal experience.”
Although a piece may look perfect after Conway has finished with it, the damage will affect its original market value. “You can expect it to be half the price after restoration; some pieces are not worth the effort unless it’s of personal value. But only a trained eye should be able to notice there have been any repairs made,” says Conway.
So, if you smashed your mother’s beloved china tea set while she was away, you can now get it back on the dresser looking perfect, and she’ll be none the wiser it went on holiday to Kerry.
BEFORE & AFTER: OBJECTS CONWAY HAS RESTORED
Meissan porcelain mirror
Some of this world-famous porcelain mirror was so badly smashed, it came with a bag of porcelain dust. Conway re sculpted the missing parts.
Romanesque pottery plate
The oldest item Conway has restored; this fine Roman pottery plate is thousands of years old.
Blue Willow China plate
This family heirloom was badly damaged while in transit between house moves but we got it back into good shape.
Large Pottery Vessel
A classic case of the hall door being slammed too hard, and a piece toppling off the hall table. “You’d be amazed how frequently this happens,” says Conway.
French Porcelain Candlestick
One half of a valuable pair, which was tricky with the gold edging but restored well.