by Jessica Estes, Registrar
Museums do not usually seek to purchase paintings that require extensive conservation, but when the subject of the painting is deeply woven into the museum’s story, you make an exception. That is the case with Telfair’s recent purchase of the Portrait of the Richard W. Habersham Family. Habersham had personal ties to the Telfair family and George Welshman Owens. One of the most captivating stories that the portrait would allow the museum to explore is of how though he owned slaves, as U.S. Attorney Habersham insisted on fighting for the freedom of the Africans on the slave ship Antelope. Telling the complicated story of urban slavery is an important facet of the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters’ mission.
Before the painting was purchased, Telfair had a conservator evaluate it to assess the condition and give an estimate on the cost of the conservation. Their report explained that “it is clear that the painting has suffered from both abrasions and flaking in the past. Ultra-violet light revealed a number of locations where there is broad discolored retouching, and it is presumed that this is covering flake losses or abrasions.” They also noted that “the surface is covered by a thick, shiny discolored varnish which inhibits a clear observation of the paint.” As it turned out, that thick layer of varnish would require significant time to be removed. It was estimated that the conservation would take 125 hours, and these hours would be spread out over more than one year.
Because the portrait required conservation for both stability and to be in satisfactory condition for museum display, it was shipped directly from Sotheby’s to the Atlanta Art Conservation Center. The above image is of the painting under normal light before any treatment took place. Once Telfair received the paintings examination report and approved the treatment proposal, the conservator’s first order of business would be to stabilize any loose paint and then to tackle that pesky thick layer of discolored varnish. Traditionally varnishes were applied to keep paintings protected from all the environmental pollutants that surround us, such as dust, dirt, smoke. There are a number of types of varnish, but all are typically applied with the idea that it is a sacrificial layer that can be easily removed. Unfortunately, there are also many cases that an untrained person applies an insoluble substance, like an oil-based polyurethane, made for floors, to the surface of a painting, and when this turns very yellow and brittle, it is not so easy to remove.
This was the case with the Habersham portrait. The first conservator who worked on the painting, Larry Shultz, described in the Painting Examination Report seeing two layers of varnish present. “The uppermost is a green fluorescing natural varnish. Solvent testing shows that it is soluble in moderate organic solvent systems. The underlying is a blue-green fluorescing varnish that is highly resistant. The layer is most likely polyurethane and greatly complicates treatment.” He and the next conservator who worked on the painting, Samantha Skelton, tested a series of ways to remove that brittle yellow layer that was distorting the painting below. Ultimately it was found that a solvent gel would be able to dissolve the polyurethane without taking off the paint underneath.
After the two layers of varnish were gone, the extensive inpainting was also removed. The image above was taken during treatment at this point. It is estimated that 35-45% of the original painting was lost and much of this loss was likely from being in an uncontrolled environment. In all of the areas of paint loss, the conservator applied an isolating layer of Paraloid B-72 varnish. Next, she filled areas of paint loss and inconsistencies to prep it for its final inpainting with Gamblin Conservation Colors. All of these products are both stable and reversible. To be a fine art conservator you must be both a scientist and an artist. Repainting parts of a painting to match an artist’s hand is no small task, and unfortunately the inpainting required on this portrait was significant.
The very last step in the conservation process is applying a protective layer of reversible varnish. The image above shows the painting after treatment. The conservation has revealed all of the fine details of a portrait painted by a highly trained artist. It was transformed from dark and muddy to a glowing work of art.
The Portrait of the Richard W. Habersham Family was purchased on January 20, 2017 and will finally be displayed at the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters on March 1, 2019.