A lot of 19th Century portraits arrive at my studio. Often they are suffering from aged canvas and a good coating of soot. Sometimes they have holes in them, lifting paint from water damage, and lots of distracting craquelure.
Recently I was asked to restore a portrait of Massachusetts Governor John Clifford (1853). It had almost every kind of damage except fire. The canvas was rotted and weak: it had fallen out of its frame. At some point in the past, it suffered water damage which lifted quite a bit of paint. There were a few small rips. Grime was covering everything. And it had undergone an amateur bit of retouching which left the Governor with a grotesque claw-like hand. I thought the poor man was victim of a stroke!
Needless to say, Governor Clifford’s portrait was going to be a very involved job. I performed the normal steps of using a vapor treatment to relax the cupping craquelure, and the entire paint film was consolidated from behind to prevent further flaking from the water damage. Then the canvas was lined onto a sandwich of archival polyester mesh and mylar.
The cleaning process went as expected, until I reached the hand. I carefully removed the old retouching, expecting to see the old water-damaged hand beneath it. That’s where my adventure began.
There was not a trace of the old hand, except for the area which had been scrubbed down by the previous restorer! Yuk! Looked like a stump!
For a while I considered inventing a hand to fit the pose. The Governor was holding his Phi Beta Kappa key, so I did a quick study to find the hand position which may have been there. That’s when I remembered that the portrait’s owner had mentioned that this painting may be a copy of one in the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
I called the Curator of Collections at the State House, described my project, and asked if Governor Clifford was also holding a key in the State’s portrait, and if I could be emailed an image of the portrait for reference. The answer was that the portraits most likely matched, but that the one on display in the Capitol was also in need of cleaning, and the details of the key-holding hand were obscured in their photo.
So, camera in hand, I went to Boston to see the painting, which I was told was installed in the third floor corridor, on the right side of the House Chamber door. Unfortunately, when I arrived the House was in session and the area around the door, including Governor Clifford’s portrait, was cordoned. I couldn’t get a good photo from behind the ropes , so I explained my mission to a nearby State Trooper who escorted me to the painting so I could get my photos. (And yes, the painting is DARK — and in a poorly lit corridor — so my photos turned out grainy but useable.)
Those photos turned out to be a great resource in replacing the hand. The old retoucher had the right idea for the pose, but just didn’t have the skill to make it believable. The original painting shows that the key is indeed held in an unusual pose. So I started in on the task of reproducing the hand, and painting it in a manner similar to the Governor’s other hand, which is softly rendered and refined.
This project was fascinating for me. It was gratifying to see the process yield results, and to know that by not taking the easy route (inventing a new hand) I was helping preserve an historic document in an authentic way.