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.

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