Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Recovering Martha: Inspiration and Restoration

Last month, a portrait of Martha Dandridge Parke Custis (Washington) returned to Morristown NHP after receiving extensive conservation treatment. The original composition that our Martha Custis portrait is based on was painted by John Wollaston in 1757. During his stay at Daniel Parke Custis’ White House in June, he painted three portraits – one of Martha, one of Daniel, her husband, and one of their two children together. During his two-year visit to Virginia, he produced over 100 portraits, which amounts to an average of four or five portraits a month. But how did he get it all done? 

John Wollaston’s portrait of Catherine Harris Smith Pemberton

John Wollaston’s portrait of Margaret Tudor Nicholls

Wollaston’s portraits were in high demand, as he painted in the latest London portraiture styles. Accordingly, he devised a system meant to mass-produce his portraits; he painted substantial portions of his portraits before he even saw the sitter. Poses, garments, body shapes, hands, and more were prepared as he traveled so that by the time he saw the sitter, he was merely adding details and completing the portrait. His signature style of smiling faces and oval eyes make his work recognizable, despite the fact that he rarely signed or dated portraits. This style and system concurrently makes it difficult to distinguish the identities of his sitters. Some of his portraits are almost identical – take for example the portraits of Catherine Harris Smith Pemberton and Margaret Tudor Nicholls. Thusly, our portrait has also been said to be a portrait of Mrs. Colonel Fielding Lewis, who is George Washington’s sister.

Original Wollaston portrait of Martha Dandridge Custis 

Betty Washington Lewis, attributed to Wollaston 

MORR 3236, Martha Dandridge Custis, after conservation

In 1843, an engraving of the original Wollaston portrait was produced by J. Cheney and J.G. Kellogg for The Life of George Washington by Jared Sparks. We know that the portrait in our collection is likely a copy made from this engraving because the background foliage is very similar to the foliage in the 1843 engraving. It is evident that the painter of our portrait probably never saw the original Wollaston, in which the bow on the front of Martha’s dress is the same blue as the dress. In our portrait, the bow is white. Another difference between the two is that the Wollaston is painted on a traditional 50 x 40 British canvas, and our portrait is painted on a 44 x 35 canvas.

Martha Custis, pre-conservation.
Note the tear, sagging canvas, and discoloration.

The portrait was gifted to Morristown National Historical Park by the Washington Association of New Jersey on March 2nd, 1933 (more than 85 years ago!). The original catalog record notes that it was cleaned and varnished and in “good condition,” in 1934. Six months ago, the condition of the painting was poor. The appraisal report describes the varnish as “dirty” and “discolored.” It also mentions a “9 x 7 inch ‘T’ shaped tear in the upper right quadrant,” a “two inch tear in the lower center in the dress,” and a “3/4 inch tear by the proper right elbow.” 

As described in the 
conservation report, the
“crudely attached”
strip lining.

The conservation report said the canvas 
was “extremely brittle,” and had “a crudely
attached strip lining with a wax resin adhesive
(which has totally failed).” 

Martha Custis, during cleaning with acetone

Conservation efforts have wildly improved the appearance and condition of the painting. Acetone and a solution of soap and water were used to remove the discolored varnish and surface dirt. The old strip lining was removed, the canvas was carefully flattened, and the three tears were mended using an adhesive powder. The painting was then relined onto a linen canvas, and then re-stretched onto its original stretcher. New varnish was applied, as was a small amount of inpainting to replace any paint loss. Two more layers of varnish completed the conservation work. Upon its arrival back to Morristown NHP, we replaced it into our collection storage facility with the rest of our paintings. 

Martha Custis, post-conservation. Note the repaired tear, improved coloration, and stabilized canvas.

This blog post by Amanda Schroeder,  Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Washington and His Family Return

Washington and His Family, pre-conservation.

In 2012 Washington and His Family (1850), painted by Thomas Sully, underwent a conservation report here at Morristown National Historical Park in order to prepare the portrait to go on loan. A brief history of the painting and the process of determining its condition can be found here. 

The work that was done in 2012 did not end up leading to any stabilizing conservation at that time, and thus the painting was left in the collections. But as we know time marches ever on, and the painting has since required more attention. The fact that the painting and frame are in need of restoration should come as a surprise to none as it is close to 220 years old. Such an aged painting with such a historic subject certainly deserves conservation in order for future generations to view and learn from it. Thus, in late 2017 the painting was sent away for restorative work.

Here the painting is shown under UV examination. 
The blue areas indicate layers of original varnish.

But before we get into the details of this restoration let us first discuss a key term. In this context, conservation refers to the restoration of a work of art in such a way that the essence of the painting is not lost, nor has its original style been altered. Conservation work is all about diagnosing deterioration issues and remedying them in a way that will cause the least amount of future stress. This task requires a professional with extensive knowledge of art history as well as a chemistry background in order to best analyze and make decisions based on a painting’s past, present, and future. Now that we understand the goal of art conservation let’s get into the details of the conservation report and what was done to restore Washington and his Family. 

After the use of various techniques designed to determine condition and past restorative actions, the painting was removed from its frame and lightly cleaned with a natural enzyme meant to eliminate built up dirt and grime. It was then rinsed with distilled water and sprayed with acryloid B-72, which is a flexible, non-yellowing varnish commonly used in restorative work. The back was dust vacuumed and the green duct tape applied in the late 1960s was removed. Next, a technique called inpainting was utilized to touch up areas where paint had flaked away over time. This technique aims to be true to the original artist’s painting style and to seamlessly integrate with the artwork.  Another layer of adhesive varnish was applied and the painting was rinsed again. 

Close up of the frame before conservation.

As for the frame, which, of the two components was in worse condition, the same adhesive spray used on the painting was used here to fix parts of the frame that were lifting and broken. MNHP had sent the painting away with a small bag of bits that had fallen off, and through the course of the condition report it was determined that many came from past restorative work. Therefore, only broken pieces that were original to the frame itself were reapplied. Inpainting was done to the gold finish of the frame and all hanging hardware was replaced.  As the old label was falling off it was removed and placed in a Maylar envelope and reattached to the back. Once the cleaned painting was reframed it was returned to us here at MNHP. Finally it was securely placed in our artwork collection storage.   

The newly conserved painting.

Conservation is vital to the continued display of a painting as well as its continued use as a historic artifact from which we can glean knowledge from the past. It is how we preserve the only images that we have for future generations to enjoy. 

This blog entry by Pamela Russo, Fairleigh Dickinson University.