Recently I had the pleasure of restoring a little gem of a painting by Rosa Bonheur. The restoration involved several procedures which I’m often asked about, (Lining, facing, consolidating, patching) so I documented the work and made a video explaining what was done. The photos below show some highlights.
Last year I decided to become a sponsor of Antiques Roadshow on Rhode Island Public Broadcasting. That was the start of an amazingly symbiotic relationship! I’ve gone on to underwrite the Downton Abbey series, too. Recently the RIPBS Director of Development, Debby Hall, invited me to visit their Providence RI studio to record a short testimonial. Here it is!
My idea of fun this summer was anticipating what new treasure would arrive at my studio next. I was not disappointed! The variety of paintings was totally fascinating.
The steady stream of oil paintings included a normal array of smoke-covered 19th Century ancestors, views of Cape Cod and Europe, and several floral still-life paintings in various states of decay. An then, in a box delivered from a collector in Miami, a fabulous 17th Century French altar-panel arrived! Its paint was lifting, and covered with at least a century’s worth of soot. (Seems to have had some restoration work in the late 1800’s.)
A call from New Hampshire resulted in the arrival of a rare painting by William Morris Hunt. It had been over a fireplace mantel since its creation in the mid 1800’s, and its winter moodiness was covered by a layer of grey.
A Rhode Island collector presented a 19th Century continental landscape for cleaning, it’s minute details all obscured by the residue of cigarette smoke. An heir in Colorado sent two American 1880’s landscapes to be cleaned and repaired. A woman in Utah sent a ripped painting of a horse, and a Massachusetts couple arrived at the studio with a cavalry battle-scene painting in need of cleaning. And, apparently to balance-out my overly equine selection, a man from Connecticut brought a painting of cows.
It’ was a fun summer!
Some old paintings have a hidden history. In the course of 200 years, a lot can happen to a painting, and it is rare to find one which has never required repair from some form of damage. This is the account of an oil portrait which had a few secrets.
A few months ago I was asked to restore a portrait of Joel Prouty, a Massachusetts resident born in the late 1700’s. At first glance, it was obvious that painting was covered in layers of smoke, soot and grime, but there were no rips or holes in the canvas. However, something was wrong with the left side of his face. As I examined the area, I noticed an unusual cracking and surface texture from an old repair, and that the previous retouching was crude.
When I turned the painting over to see the patch, I realized that the entire canvas had been lined onto a piece of linen, and by the look of it, the lining and repair were done about a hundred years ago! A UV light inspection revealed obvious retouching on the face, but the black background and soot hid any other areas of alteration.
In evaluating my course of action, I determined to clean off all the soot, remove the old varnish and retouching, remove the patch and start the restoration with a new fresh surface. If needed, the existing lining would also be removed and replaced.
When cleaning started, copious amounts of black grime were lifted from the surface. The background was revealed to be painted in a dark, muted green. A few spots resisted cleaning, and I soon realized that those spots were actually oil paint used in the previous restoration. The restorer hadn’t cleaned the painting before retouching, and painted those areas by matching the color of the dirt!
That discovery was a precursor to what I was to find when cleaning the face. You can see in the photos that most of the paint on the patched area came off. However, where the artist blended over into the undamaged face, the paint was well bonded to the original paint. It was very much darker than the cleaned area.
In cleaning off the patch, it was revealed to be made of an old gesso formula which was in common use a century ago. It was harder than plaster, and had developed a few cracks, but was otherwise stable and firmly in place. I decided to repair the cracks with Acryloid B-72 (a glue used in sculpture repair) and then to re-level the patch with an acrylic filler. The lining appeared to still be in excellent condition, so it was left alone.
As I continued cleaning into the lower background, large areas of black retouch paint started lifting off with the old dirt and varnish. That paint was covering some scrapes and water damage. When I got to the lower left corner of the painting, I noticed bits of red appearing. That turned out to be the artist’s signature! Unfortunately, the last few letters and the date below were partially missing, but enough was visible to determine that the artist was Ethan Allen Greenwood, a noted Boston portrait painter active at the turn of the 18th Century!
Finding the signature was a thrill worthy of an Antiques Roadshow episode, but my excitement was tempered by the sight of the old patch covering what was once a large piece of missing canvas. The repair of that area was going to take a bit of inventiveness, not just to create half a face with no reference, but to do it in a way that matched the qualities of the 200 year old surface around it.
The face showed craquelure, and also a myriad of small flecks of missing paint. Painting over the entire face was an unacceptable solution (I want to keep as much original paint showing as possible) so I painstakingly in-painted the worst of the paint-pits. To replicate the complex surface of the original side, I decided to paint over the patch in a manner which had the visual qualities of the original side, but not the same texture.
The result is an almost pointillistic interpretation of the face, which blends well with the original area.
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.
It seems fitting that my first blog post should be about cleaning years of smoke and grease from an old painting. The one I’m showing here was found at an antique show, and turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The dealer I bought it from knew that I restored paintings, and showed me a few which had rips in them, but were otherwise unremarkable. I decided that even after hours of restorative work, they would still be bad paintings. So I passed on them.
As I was about to leave, I spotted this yellowed gem in the back of his booth. At first I had ignored it, thinking that it was an old chromolithograph, but on second look I realized that something better was lurking under its dirty surface. On close inspection, it turned out to be a meticulously painted genre scene from around 1850!
In the studio, I tested cleaning the upper left corner. (See the first photo above.) The amber-brown of nicotine and kitchen grease lifted to reveal a smooth paint surface beneath. (Sorry for the fuzzy photo– I guess I was excited.)
As cleaning goes, this was a relatively easy job. The dirt and old yellowed varnish removed with mild solvents, and after a few hours the original painting was glistening with light again. And the paint film had aged very well, with only very fine craquelure (fitting for its age) and hardly a scrape or a chip!
After a minor bit of in-painting, I coated the painting with a non-yellowing archival varnish. The crystal-clear varnish enhanced all the delicate details of the scene, which now looks exciting and animated.
And as for the painting itself, what can I say? Just looking at it speaks volumes. Fabulous clothes, crisp details, an attractive couple chatting it up, and beer!
But unfortunately, there is no signature on this masterful work. So I did a bit of research. The painting style and subject was popular among early and mid nineteenth century European painters. So I looked for clues in the clothing of the models to determine which section of Europe it may have come from.
The beer made me think of looking at German clothing first, but when that was not a match, I searched traditional costumes of Northern and Eastern European countries. Eventually, the closest match was an illustration of Swedish traditional clothing, which is included in the photos here.
The oil painting is about 20″ x 16″, and was unframed when I got it. Fortunately I had a similar size circa 1880 American walnut frame in the studio, and although it’s newer than the painting, they look great together!
Now that the painting is restored, it is for sale and can be seen along with many other paintings from my studio in my Ruby Lane shop, Conservator’s Choice.