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Preserving Family History, Family Ties

May 27, 2006

3 minute read

Preserving Family History - Family Ties

Family Ties

New Yorker Eric Pike, creative director of publications at Martha Stewart Living magazine, claims a lifelong fascination with a single painting: an unsigned portrait of Daniel Webster, the noted early 19th-century Massachusetts lawyer, Congressman and Secretary of State who also happens to be one of Pike’s distant relatives. The 19th century American School portrait hung in his childhood home in Princeton, New Jersey, having come into his mother’s possession through a great aunt with an interest in ancestral history. (His family ties extend all the way back to the Mayflower pilgrims and Charlemagne!)

“This painting had been sitting in my mother’s closet for almost 20 years,” says Pike. “I’ve always loved 19th-century portraiture, and had a special interest in our family connection to this particular portrait. So my mother gave it to me. But by then it was severely damaged, with major tears and discoloration. I immediately thought of Lowy, because our magazine had published an article on the firm. I was aware of Lowy’s excellent reputation and knew they would do a great job restoring it.” Enter Bill Santel, Lowy’s senior paintings conservator who confirms Pike’s condition analysis. “The portrait was in pretty bad shape and had been restored at least once before,” Santel says. “In addition to the large tears, there was severe cupping and cracking, flake losses and embedded dirt. The natural resin varnish had discolored with age. The portrait also suffered from heat damage—likely because it was hung over a fireplace—causing the varnish to crystalize.”

The badly applied and heavy handed oil paint used for the previous restoration, which Santel estimates was done at least 75 years ago, was difficult to remove compared to contemporary synthetic paints, which don’t undergo as many chemical alterations with age. Another casualty of the previous restoration was that paper patches had been used on the verso to repair the tears, causing surface deformations. Santel and Lowy’s conservation staff had their work cut out for them. The necessary structural work was undertaken first to ensure stability. After being faced with protective mulberry tissue, the portrait was removed from its stretcher. The paper patches were also safely removed at that time. The portrait was then treated with humidity on a pressurized vacuum table to remove the distortions in the paint layer. Once it was lined onto a new linen support, using a Pe-cap and Mylar interface for extra stability, the portrait was ready for cleaning. Bill used the appropriate detergents and solvents to remove the old discolored varnish and previous restorations along with surface and embedded dirt.

After a thorough cleaning, the portrait was re-stretched onto its original stretcher. It was also re-varnished, a treatment that not only protects the painting against environmental pollutants but acts as a barrier between the original paint and subsequent inpainting. Bill filled in the tears with reversible vinyl gesso and then inpainted the necessary areas, incorporating selective craquelure, abrasions, accretions and stains using pigments mulled in an acrylic resin. A final coat of synthetic resin varnish sealed the inpainting before a soft finish was applied to achieve a pleasing surface. The previous restoration had been limited both by a lack of modern, professional conservation materials and by a restorer who was not trained in modern practices, according to Bill. “It was a bad attempt to improve the painting,” he says. “Now, it’s very stable and will remain so for years to come. And it’s possible to appreciate the painting as the artist intended, which is always our goal as conservators.” As for Pike, he’s happy to have his relative back hanging on the wall. “I was very satisfied with the restoration,” he says.

“The portrait looks as beautiful as it probably did when it was first created. Perhaps one of my nieces or nephews will inherit it. Preserving my family history was important to me.”