Friday, December 5, 2014

Conserving Maryland's Masterpieces

With Washington Resigning His Commission soon to return to its home at the Maryland State House, and the Old Senate Chamber project hurtling towards completion, we thought it was time to give a little insight into the work that went into many of our great pieces conserved over the past year. Edwin White’s Washington Resigning, Charles Willson Peale’s portraits of the six governors, William Pitt, and Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown have all undergone conservation work as part of the Old Senate Chamber restoration.

Staff at Olin Conservation, Inc. show areas on Charles Willson Peale's Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman that will require further investigation. Image by Maryland State Archives, 26 March 2014.

Before any work could be done to restore the paintings and frames, considerable research into the conservation history of the pieces had to be done. Perhaps due to the prestige of these paintings in our art collection, many of the pieces were targeted in quite a few conservation campaigns. Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman, for instance, underwent at least four conservation campaigns in just a quarter of a century! With the constant evolution of techniques, this sort of activity can be damaging to the painting, even accidentally altering the appearance of the original work. Washington Resigning perhaps fared the best; it was spared seriously damaging conservation, likely because of its enormous size. However, the painting’s immovability also meant that it was coated in a heavy layer of dust, which darkened the overall painting considerably.

Dust on the frame of Washington Resigning when it was removed from the State House a year ago. Image by Maryland State Archives, 4 November 2013.

In order to have the best chance at restoring these paintings, we worked with trusted and experienced fine art conservators, who dedicated nearly a year of work to the project. It is our goal to return the objects as close to their original appearance as possible while accepting that some previous interventions could prevent us from getting there. For paintings like Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman, which underwent some of the more traumatic restorations, conservators set a benchmark date for which to restore the painting.

David Olin of Olin Conservation, Inc. explained the conservation process: 
Once analysis of the original and non-original layers was complete...and during the process of carefully removing the deteriorated accumulations of soiling, varnish and repaint to reveal the artist's original intent - in a layer by layer fashion, conservators referenced historic photographs to reveal that some of the non-original layers had in fact remained in place even after a multitude of previous restorations. In fact, analysis confirmed that some layers had existed for well over a century - hiding Peale's signature and much of his genius. With these deteriorated restoration layers identified through sectional and material analysis before being meticulously removed, we are now confidently able to see the original eighteenth-century design in its original, unencumbered form...likely a form unseen since the early 1830's when Peale's son began what would become a long history of altering interventions. These interventions are now reversed, and the conservation process has revealed a great deal about this painting's condition to be sure. The real excitement is seeing what was hidden beneath, details and design elements which are as aesthetically intriguing as they are relative to the painting's role as an important document of our history.
The conservation of these paintings in this past year has led to some amazing discoveries. In Washington Resigning His Commission, we discovered through UV scans that Edwin White had struggled with Washington’s stance and many architectural features of the room - ultimately making this painting much more artistically complex than originally perceived. An analysis of Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman, meanwhile, revealed Peale’s original signature, the faces of the three soldiers in the background, and the buttons on Washington’s uniform - details not seen in more than 75 years!

Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown, while in the midst of cleaning. Image courtesy of Olin Conservation, Inc., 7 April 2014.
Artex Studios, who worked on Washington Resigning, discovered that one conservation effort actually took away some of the aging under George Washington's eyes. A now slightly more war-weathered Washington is restored to the piece. Image by Maryland State Archives, 21 May 2014.

The conservation campaign to restore these paintings was one of the most significant aspects of the restoration that people may not normally think about. While the room will look noticeably different when it is restored to its eighteenth-century appearance, the restoration would never be able to accurately take place if some of the paintings that adorned the Old Senate Chamber’s walls over the centuries had disappeared due to misuse or neglect.

We would like to extend a big thank you to all of the studios who worked on the canvases and frames of these paintings over the past year. All of these pieces will soon be returning to the State House to coincide with the reopening of the Old Senate Chamber this month! Mark your calendars; it’s getting close!!

1 comment:

  1. Some big secret to displaying this portrait?