By the time William Henry Powell’s “Portrait of George Law” (1856) found its way from The Tudor Place: Historic House and Garden in Washington, D.C. (Martha Washington’s ancestral home) to the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences in New York it it had some serious conservation issues. The painting was covered with grime, and the paint layer was unstable, with lifting and flaking throughout the image that contributed to multiple losses. The painting also had severe surface distortions which included pronounced cracking and cupping, bulges, dents and stretcher creases that disrupted the picture plane. “In addition, there was a substantial amount of overpaint covering old losses that was not only discolored but obscured a great deal of the artist’s original brushwork,” says Marie Bruno, head conservator for the project.
Because it was so large, the portrait had been stored in a converted garage, which likely contributed to the deterioration, according to Rachel May, assistant curator at the Staten Island Institute, who purchased the painting from The Tudor Place in 2004. “This painting is important to our mission to collect and preserve artwork related to Staten Island history,” says May. good hands.” George Law was a wealthy New York developer who owned and operated the Staten Island Ferry and Staten Island Railroad in the mid-19th century. He commissioned the painting from Powell, a New York artist known primarily for portraits and historical paintings who depicted the stately Law standing near the steps of his Fifth Avenue apartment. The neighborhood in which the Staten Island Institute is located is called St. George, reputedly in honor of this prominent New Yorker. Local legend has it that Law’s partner, Erastus Wiman, said he would make him a saint if he financed the development of the ferry and railroad. The major challenge for Lowy’s conservation team was to stabilize the painting and make it presentable.
“Although the extensive restoration was immediately visible, careful examination under ultraviolet light confirmed the painting had several layers of restoration,” Marie explained. “Cleaning tests with solvents indicated that the older restoration consisted of oil paint that had hardened with age and was, therefore, not easily removable without the use of strong cleaning solutions that could jeopardize the original paint layer. Depending upon the strength of the original paint layer and the weakness of the restoration layers, it might have been possible to break down the heavily overpainted areas with a strong solvent and still keep the original paint intact, but this would have required more testing, time and expense, and ultimately the client chose the less invasive approach.”
So Marie decided to take a more conservative approach that involved stabilizing and cleaning the painting, eliminating distortions, followed by inpainting that would cosmetically improve the previous poorly executed restorations while leaving much of the extensive hardened overpaint intact. Marie and her team began first by setting down areas of lifting paint with a tacking iron and synthetic adhesive. Then they cleaned the painting with detergents and solvents to remove grime, varnish and the more recent restorations.
After cleaning, the old canvas lining had to be reinforced. This was accomplished first by facing the painting with Japanese mulberry tissue and fish glue adhesive for protection so that the verso could be prepared for lining, mending any tears during the process. The canvas was then treated with humidity on a vacuum-hot table to eliminate bulges and other structural distortions. The painting was lined onto a new linen canvas with a thermoplastic adhesive and a Pe-cap and mylar interlayer was inserted between the two canvases for better stabilization of the surface and supports. The painting was then restretched onto a sturdy new seven-member stretcher. During the final stage of this conservation, paint losses were filled with a ground layer of gesso and varnish before they were inpainted with acrylic paints which unlike oils, don’t harden over time.
Surface-level deformations, caused by paint losses below the overpaint that were no tproperly filled and, therefore, appeared as repetitive depressions on the painting’s surfacewere also filled and inpainted with the appropriate matching colors. “We got the painting back just in time for a special exhibition on portraiture,” says May. “We were very pleased with the results. This large portrait will be the anchor of a new 19th-century paintings gallery that will be part of our planned museum expansion in a renovated landmark building at Snug Harbor.”
William Henry Powell's "Portrait of George Law" after conservation.
Lowy conservator Sebastian Deregibus inpainting the portrait.