An Unexpected Adventure Restoring Governor Clifford’s Portrait

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!

The portrait as it arrived in my studio.
The portrait as it arrived in my studio.

 

The claw.
The claw.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Stump.
The Stump.

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.

State House Portrait.
State House Portrait.

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.)

Reference photo of the Governor's hand in the State House version is used as a reference for replacing the damaged hand.
Reference photo of the Governor’s hand in the State House version being used as a reference for replacing the damaged hand.

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.

final
The restored portrait of Governor Clifford.
The Governor's new hand.
The Governor’s new hand.

8 comments

  1. Tina Guarino

    Fascinating story Bruce! Your work in the restoration process is so interesting and I am glad you are loving your work, preserving historical paintings and making the owners of these paintings happy.

  2. Stephanie N. Miksis

    Great job, Bruce. Of course ;) Sounds a bit more…um… challenging than the restoration you did for me. I’m sure that the owners of “Governor Clifford” are as thrilled with your work as I am thrilled to have my “Sarah” repaired, cleaned and smiling serenely again. Thank you for sharing your adventure. ~stephanie

  3. deborah hanlon

    Excellent! I look at my paintings everyday and I am so happy to have them so beautifully restored. How lucky I was to stop by the shop that day…Deb

  4. Margaret Del Tufo

    Bruce that was an interesting and educational story. You must have felt as great a satisfaction as the owner did. Beautiful work of art…..my admiration. Margie

  5. Sue Sheridan

    What an adventure! You’re a real art sleuth! I’m sure the Governor, if he’s looking down at us all, is very happy to have his real hand back!

  6. Bill Stedman

    Thank you Bruce! You went above and beyond in restoring The Governor for our family and we are so appreciative of the effort, interest and care you put into the project. We are so glad to have a hand where the claw had been all my life looking at the portrait. Well done.