Hearst Castle: Assessments, 1

MPF Conservation has assessed and conserved furnishings of upholstered and non-upholstered objects for Hearst Castle; this page discusses some of the on-site assessments we have performed.

Especially in government-owned properties, assessments are important in assisting curatorial staff as they choose projects to be treated and set yearly and long-term budgets.

A note about not wearing gloves when handling antiquities: Protocol is to wear gloves, however, sometimes it is better to wash our hands often and not touch our face or other objects to keep hands clean rather than wearing gloves. Gloves can get caught on threads, escutcheons, splinters, bits of paint, and cause losses in objects.

On this page:

  • Italian Prei Dieu (Prayer Bench) circa 16th Century
  • Polychrome Spanish Bed circa 16th century
  • Settee, Two Chairs, and Pillows circa 16th Century

Italian Prei Dieu (Prayer Bench) circa 16th Century

This personal prayer bench has a kneeling position intended for only one adult. Storage is in three places, assumedly for bibles (and other religious written material), candles, and other religious artifacts.

A serious pest infestation occurred in many decades ago (see right and below); pests are no longer active, but their exit bore holes can be seen throughout.

Many other issues were assessed, included the door coming apart in three places (see below), hinge issues, finish issues, and loose bottom and back boards.

Polychrome Spanish Bed circa 16th century

The Spanish Polychrome Bed’s decorative surfaces were masterfully created and artistically styled. The carver’s choice in creating facades which typically would be flat, into textually significant lines of chisel-gouged patterns created a sense of sophistication and playfulness. He then went on to embellish contrasting sections with stylized relief-carved motifs.

Mitchell’s musings about the bed: “This bed fascinated me. Clearly the carver, as he sat about his work, had a clear understanding as to how his carvings would be enhanced once painted and this leads me to speculate bout a collaboration between carver and painter during the design phase. The undulating pattern set into the pediment molding is an unusual choice for a carving motif for its time, and is not generally seen until the late nineteenth century. I think of Antonio Gaudi’s brilliant architectural motifs, part of the Spanish Art Nouveau style. I wonder about how often art-forms which become popular during one time period, have their roots in non-popularized designs which erupted centuries before. The textural qualities of the carvings were coated in oil paints with brilliant saturated colors which gave the bed a jewel-like appearance, which I imagine shimmered at one time. Truly a spectacular piece created for someone of status and prominence.” Note: Mitchell is a history buff, not a scholar!

The Spanish Polychrome bed is a little bigger than today’s twin. When we inspected the bed, it appeared the bed’s historic side rails were extended at one time. The original length was in keeping with a child’s bed. When enlarged they were in keeping with an average adult’s height from that period.

MPFC believes the extension was created early in the bed’s life: The original short-rail and extension show consistent bruising and indentations from its woven rope platform (the grid which held the upper mattress).

The bed has many issues, but none at the time of assessment were critical, meaning none were likely to cause failure at any moment. As you can see in our offering of images, there are pest holes from a prior pest infestation, cracks in corners and other connections, and chipped oil paint.

Hoyt Fields, shown in several images, was the curator at the time of this assessment. He helped Mitchell carefully lift the pediment so we could assess the stability of the various mortise and tenons, and the back of the pediment.

  • Lifting the pediment off the headrest, right;
  • Examining the painted finish, above;
  • Detail of the crest: left-facing side, center “castle” image, and right-facing side of the pediment, below.

The castle motif is a single-turret, unusual in family or dynastic crests. Coupled with the lighthearted decorative designs and painted finish, these are important clues as to the bed’s creation period and for whom the Polychrome Bed was crafted.

More of Mitchell’s musings: “A scholarly effort might be taken up relative to the importance of this bed within the history of Spain, focusing on the fifteens and sixteenth century. Such an effort might reveal what portion of Spanish history this crest depicts, with our suggestion of a a focus upon the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and the House of Trastámara. It is my supposition that these answers may be important relative to this bed’s connection to primary historical characters and events.”

Painted details of the extraordinary pediment shown above, and the right-facing side of the bed headrest, right.

The painted finish is beautiful, rich with color and variation as only a very old finish can offer, detail shown above and below.

Finials gracing the top of the column are likely Georgian and we believe were fitted onto the column entablature sometime during the seventeenth or eighteenth century, or perhaps even by the antique dealer who sold the bed to Hearst. There may have been a different finial or no finial at all historically.

Tenons sit into the mortise on top of the bed in the slots (mortise) in the long image above, and that detail also allows you to see into the depth of the painted finish.

Above and below, the back of the pediment.

Some modifications have been made; we assume most were completed before Hearst purchased the bed, but as the State was organizing data at the time, we cannot confirm.

For instance, steel angle iron brackets were placed to stabilize the bed legs to the sides, shown left. They provide an important function in the absence of proper traditional woodworking treatments to cure the bed’s loose joinery; they prevent the bed’s slender carriage from flexing.


  • Painted detail on headrest, right,
  • Cracked bed post,
  • Tenon detail into leg, and
  • Worn foot.

Worn areas such as the foot, above right, are always problematic and should be treated to keep pests from easily entering.

Settee and two chairs, above. You can see a bit of the balcony details in the image right.

Settee, Two Chairs, and Pillows circa 16th Century

Located in the balcony of the small theater, the settee and two chairs were very hard to photograph as there was no light and no room to move!

The set is sixteenth century Spanish trestle foot made of European walnut, with beautiful relief-carved details which are gilded and probably a polychrome oil paint finish; example of this carving is shown right from one of the chairs.

Flemish woven tapestries were created for the pieces with solid woven borders to delineate motifs relative to the decorative frames. Linen decorative tassel fringe borders the lumbar rails and decorative brass nails (bosses) embellish the borders as an homage to earlier influences.

Above, details of the settee: The seat, the inside backs, and the right-facing arm.

Mitchell assessed the condition of the structure, polychrome finish, gilding, decorative hardware, and upholstery buildup as well as the historic tapestry and passementerie. Overall, the condition issues are common to well-appointed upholstered furnishings from this era and are in good condition. While we could not ascertain whether the tapestry is original to the pieces without lifting the showcover and looking at the tacking holes, based on the evidence we were able to see, we believe they are.

It appears the upholstery has been opened once in its lifetime based on our inspection under the seats, images not shown. A modest underlaying of selectively placed striped hemp webbing (European 1880-1910) under the original seat stuffings indicate an effort to reinforce the seat. This was a common practice prior to upholstered estate auctions.

The Flemish tapestry is in need of conservation treatment in order to ensure its viability, and this is also true for the tapestries which grace the pillows, shown below. Three if the pillows appear to be filled with Goose down, and the squab is hair-filled. We do not know if they were historically companion pieces to the settee and two chairs.

Above, the inside backs of the two chairs; below, three pillows and a squab.

Other Hearst Castle Pages are: