Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tackling a trumeau

Displaying Library painting.JPG

If I could have one photo represesent my theme "art restoration in Virginia," it would be this one.  It has it all...the Blue Ridge Mountains, and a lovely painting in need of cleaning. And I think the pickup truck gives just the right rural atmosphere.  This truck will soon convey the painting to another rural location in southern Albemarle county--my studio--a converted beauty parlor that my neighbor used to run in an out-building beside her house.  After we took out the hair dryers and shampoo station we had a nice, convenient  work space.

This photo sent to me by Stephen Yowell who is the Farm Manager at Ramsay Farm in beautiful Greenwood, Virginia , about 20 minutes west of Charlottesville.  It is the top half of a trumeau, something that we don't see enough of.  A trumeau is a mirror with a sculpted frame that usually has another section to accommodate a painting.  The whole becomes very architectural which is fairly unusual in our country.  Here, we tend to think of paintings as portable.  In Europe paintings in past centuries  were  often designed for very specific locations, in cathedral chapels, as part of a mural scheme in a large home, certainly integrated with the architecture.    Trumeaux, then, can provide a bit of that architecure -painting symbiosis.
Displaying Library painting finished cropped.JPG
Here is the finished work, reinstalled.  The mirror below is reflecting the curtains and curios although in this photo it looks like an alcove.

To see an extensive chronicle of the restoration work being done at Ramsay Farm, check out this link.http://www.ramsayfarm.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Greetings from Antarctica

It is the middle of November and the weather is frigid.  At least by Virginia standards. I wear multiple layers and even a wool cap merely to cross the street to my art studio. These days, however, I do not complain about the cold nearly as much as I usually do.   The oil painting I am restoring puts all my cold weather gripes in perspective.  It depicts a tumbledown shack located in Antarctica, the hut used by the explorer Ernest Henry Shackleton.

Shackleton came from an Anglo-Irish family and  was one of the leading explorers of Antarctica, traveling there a total of four times, three times as the leader of the expedition.The hut was built in 1908 and was intended as a base from which to reach the South Pole.On this particular trip, they came within  97 miles of it but had to turn back. Until I'd researched Shackleton I had not realized that reaching Antarctica was considered less of an achievement than reaching South Pole. Some people really are perfectionists.

The artist of the work I am restoring is Robert Hogue who was the expedition artist for a trip to Antarctica in 1956-1957.  He actually did the painting on site and here is a photograph of him at work, fifty years after Shackleton's expedition. 

The owner of the painting, Steven Dibbern, provided me with this image and it is very moving to me to see the very painting I am cleaning  when it was a brand new work.  If only we could glimpse the artist's face !   

Mr. Dibbern, who has also been to Antarctica multiple times, did extensive research on the artist.  If anybody has any leads on further information, please contact me and I will pass them along..  Below I have included a portion of Mr. Dibbern's essay on Robert Hogue.  I hope you will find it as fascinating as I did:

  Robert E. Hogue went South during the Austral summer, 1956-57 as a contract artist on several of the Navy and Coast Guard icebreakers.  His first job was to paint the invertebrate specimens from Tierney-Holly’s marine biology dredge nets.  Watercolor was and still is very useful in recording and emphasizing the subtle colors of marine organisms in ways that a camera misses.  Many of these paintings were sent with specimens to the US National Museum Natural History Division (Smithsonian).  He also recorded a number of fish, the so called “bloodless” (no red blood cells) Antarctic fish with a natural anti-freeze in their blood. 
  Bob painted and sketched extensively on the various ships he was on and also at some of the historic sites in McMurdo Sound.  Most are charcoals, pencil sketches, pastels and watercolors.  JQ told me that Bob had not come to Antarctica prepared to spend enough time to do oil painting.  He found that he did have enough time at McMurdo Sound however to do a fine oil rendering of Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. The problem was that he had no canvases.  This was solved by the bosun on the Glacier who stretched ships canvas over a frame he made and sized it in preparation for painting with white lead paint!  JQ has a photo of Bob doing that painting in VERY cold plein air.
  Various paintings and sketches of life onboard icebreakers were later displayed in the halls of the Pentagon.  I have not been able to track where they went from there.  He appears to have gotten around quite a bit as his work includes art from the sea ice at McMurdo, Cape Royds, Hut Point, Little America V, Cape Hallet, Wellington and elsewhere.  Some are naval scenes with ships and equipment and sailors, while others are scenes of “sea smoke”, icebergs, and the seaward face of the Ross Ice Shelf.

  The only further information that I have is that after his Antarctic stay Hogue worked for the Smithsonian.  In November 1959 the Natural History Museum announced that he had painted the backgrounds for the famous Hall of the World of Mammals display.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mural Restoration Take Two

In my previous post, I described the initial stages of restoration work on a mural at the First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville , Virginia.  Since the painting was unvarnished and  many of the paint colors had faded, I could only clean a superficial layer of grime.    I met with the Board of Trustees to discuss expanding the scope of the job to include overpainting of the original.  We sat down and several members took out laptops to display the original mural in the collection of the Vatican.  The question everyone was asking was, what would the artist Ada Quarlest (the artist of the church's mural) have done had she been able to view the Raphael restoration of the 1970s  The restoration had occurred forty years after her own rendition  and it was decidedly brighter.  Which vision would suit the congregation ? After some discussion the members decided to pursue the path suggested by the later restoration.  I stressed that such a job would involve extensive overpainting, that we were embarking on something not usually part of the scope of art restoration.  Everyone understood and wanted to go ahead.

Those first days of work  I replaced the oatmeal color of the sky with the cobalt and ultramarine blues  I wondered how members of the church would react.  A change of this magnitude might be a shock.  As the weeks passed and more people stopped by to view the project, I received more and more encouragement.  The art restoration at First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville  proved to be one of the most rewarding I have ever had.  While trying to achieve a semblance of Raphael's palette I was always aware of the energetic paintstrokes and a sense of rhythm that were unique to Ada Quarles.  The restoration became a conversation across the centuries with those two artists.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

When Art Restoration is a Community Matter

When Art Restoration is a Community Matter

Transfiguration by Ada Quarles, after Raphael
(after restoration)

 I never met Ada Quarles, but after restoring the mural she created more than 80 years ago for the First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, I almost feel  I know her.   Fearless and expressive.  That’s how I imagine her.  Not only did she execute a copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration, making it larger than the original, she painted it at her home which is no mean feat when the measurements are 12 feet wide by 14 feet tall. (There are two conflicting stories of the location.  One person remembered her cutting a slot into her kitchen floor to make room for the canvas.  Others report that she worked in an out-building). Upon completion of the work, she presented it  to the church.
  I was asked to look the mural as part of a major renovation of the church’s sanctuary, a project overseen by architect William Owens.  During my preliminary examination I noticed some water damage, but the most noticeable issue was the dinginess of the colors.  It was not simply the intervening years that had brought about the dulling of the colors, but  a fire in the nineteen-fifties left a layer of soot that I now saw on the heel of my hand after I touched the surface.  Also, I came away with a suspicion that the mural had never been varnished. Without this protective coating, my efforts at cleaning would be severely limited.
 When I started cleaning, with a variety of solvents and gentle abrasives, I could see that my suspicions had been correct: there was no varnish.  Consequently, there was little I could do beyond the superficial to brighten the pervasive gravy-like colors.   Even inpainting (touching up) the water- damaged areas did little to improve it.  At this point it was agreed that I should stop work to  give the Trustees of the First United Methodist Church, together with the mural committee, time to consider what the mural meant to the community and how far they wanted restoration to go.   Goals needed to be defined.  Was our object the removal of flaws or the transformation of Mrs. Quarles’s original vision  ?   This project caused me to see the scope of restoration in entirely new ways as we considered the wishes of  a church community.  In my next blog entry, I’ll describe what happened next; how I got from before to after.
Transfiguration by Ada Quarles, after Raphael
(Before Restoration)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Frame and Beyond

I have a box of old photographs that I bought for a dollar.  They attracted me because most of them were images of Chicago, my hometown.  One of them shows the football stadium, Soldier Field, under construction.  It’s a lovely image, and  has historical interest.  Unfortunately it is glued to school-grade construction paper with an Elmer’s type glue.  To remove the photo from this unsightly and potentially damaging background is a tedious procedure, and a difficult one.  If only its original owner  had had the benefit of a frameshop staffed with knowledgeable people like Brian Goff !
Brian is a framer extraordinaire at Creative Framing in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since my work and his often intersect when I am working on a restoration project, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to gain his perspective on the care and display of art and objects. 
As with everything, frames are widely available on the internet.  So, why go to a bricks-and-mortar frameshop ?  Brian asserts, “for artwork you really care about, go to someone who designs frames.  A frame is a bridge between the art and the home. Custom framing is expensive, but the value is in getting interesting results, something unique.”  He points out that an experienced framer can help put an eclectic art collection together.  For example,  an abstract painting could “work” in a traditionally furnished home, even if other art on the wall is traditional.  Frames can actually help one work of art relate to another.  Brian’s own preference is for clean, simple lines and single mats that play on the subtlety of the object or artwork he is framing, but there are times when a client prefers a more complex treatment using multiple mats and on those occasions, he takes that approach. 
According to Brian, the three most important considerations when choosing a frame are these:

1.Know your budget and let the framer know, so that s/he can steer you to feasible choices at the outset.
2. Frame “to the piece” rather than “to the room.”  A mat does not necessarily have to match the drapes.
3. Think about scale.  You can make a small painting eye-catching by using a large or colored frame.

 We talked about the importance of using archival materials in framing.  Interestingly, customers are much more educated now about acid free adhesives and mounting materials than they were even ten years ago.  As a restorer, I see first-hand the damage done by scotch tape and Elmer’s glue. Although I can  cover up the yellowing caused by these adhesives I cannot undo it.  Exposure to these materials will make paper supports brittle and prone to tearing or crumbling.
Brian points out that owners of art and photos do not always anticipate the value of what they have.  Family photos (and photos of Soldier Field)  are a case in point.  In the future they may gain historical or aesthetic value.  
I would also add that an experienced framer can alert you to any conditions in your artwork that need to be addressed.  If you have lived with a painting on a daily basis, you might not realize that it has darkened over the years, but somebody experienced in framing artwork will be able to level with you, letting you know that the painting for which you are prepared to spend a substantial sum is not looking its best.
Not surprisingly, since Creative Framing develops long-standing relationships with customers, the shop has had unique and important projects.  Recently, Brian framed an admission ticket to Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.  It goes without saying that he used archival photo mounts.  The shop also framed copies of the Declaration of Independence just in time for display at Monticello’s naturalization ceremony.  Brian found the project interesting because he worked with a designer based in northern Virginia who created computer images of the room where the documents were to be displayed.  These images helped when it came to choosing the type of frame and the thickness of the mat.
Having the opportunity to handle a piece of history is one of the parts of his job that Brian enjoys most.  Speaking with him made me realize how important it is to work with a frameshop where each piece is valued. We are custodians as well as owners and collectors.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reversability Rocks

Reversibility Rocks.  I thought that title would show everyone what a cool, "today" person I am.  Any day now I'll start including Steely Dan clips on this website to really bring it up-to-date.  (I've heard that there has been some pretty good music since Steely Dan, but I wouldn't know).

Seriously though, when it comes to restoring paintings, reversibility is important, and it does rock.  Reversibility means that whatever a restorer does can be undone.  Here's why that is a necessary ingredient in responsible restoration,

Right now I am restoring a lovely eighteenth century portrait.  Although the paint is stable around the face and clothing, the background has shown a good deal of flaking. The canvas should really be relined, backed onto a new piece of linen with an adhesive (wax resin being my usual method).  Through gentle pressure, the flaked paint can be flattened and re-adhered to the canvas.

Alas, relining is impossible for this painting. At some point, probably in the last thirty years, the canvas was backed onto a piece of masonite with an adhesive that  cannot be removed with either heat or solvents .  I am following Plan B instead, working on the painting from the front. I am achieving results, but unfortunately, the masonite panel's horizontal patterning is evident on the painting itself.  The texture is distracting.  Hopefully, when I clean the painting, this pattern will be minimized, but I won't be able to eliminate it entirely.Had the adhesive been a reversible one, I could have removed it from this board and relined it on something suitable. 

I remember watching an episode of the old Superman TV show.  In order to undo various and sundry evil deeds, Superman lifted the Earth and spun it backwards.  It was awesome !  (I did start to wonder why he didn't just do that every week to fight crime.  So much more efficient to undo a bank robbery than to fight all the bad guys one by one).  I guess that's what a restorer needs to do.  He or she needs to be able to undo what's been done, to unwind time, if you will.  Even if we don't see the benefit of reversibility in our lifetime, another  restorer, at some point in the future, will really appreciate it. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All Is Not Lost

Central Virginia is a lovely place.  Although it isn't as warm as I expected, it still beats Chicago.  (When I first moved here and spotted somebody with a University of Virginia Ski Team tee-shirt, I thought it was a joke.  But there actually is a ski team...and ski slopes).

Because Charlottesville and surrounding counties have so much to offer, people are moving here all the time, and of course moves often result in breakage of  one's belongings.  I am called quite often by new residents to the area.  The calls come immediately after  they have unpacked.  One client discovered  a rocking chair poking through a painting. In the case of this sculpture, it arrived in pieces, the casualty of an inadequately reinforced cardboard box. Who among us has not experienced  that sinking feeling upon hearing a rattling sound issuing from a box labeled "fragile" ?  
This figure, reminiscent of a Giacometti sculpture, is approximately three feet tall.  It is cast plaster, covered with textured paint.

This photo is a little confusing.  The red ribbon is part of the band clamp that's holding fragments in place.  
The first order of business was to find all the broken pieces hidden in the bubble wrap and try to reattach what we could.  We were able to salvage perhaps half of them and fabricated the rest in epoxy putty.

Once the arm and neck were restored, we replicated the texture and the layered paint.

Now the figure is back on display in the owner's home after languishing for years in storage.  
The moral: don't give up on your damaged artwork.  At least get an estimate for its restoration.