Despite this recent brush of cold weather, spring appears to be just around the corner in southeastern Virginia. And that means flowers are waking up, the sun is shining once again, and the museum staff is preparing for all sorts of activities this year.
If you stop by the Hermitage sometime this month, you may notice that one of our large paintings with gorgeous, colorful floral elements is not on view in its usual place. But don’t worry! It’s just being conserved. Work began this past Monday on this large beauty.
This work has been slated for conservation since 2010 (see Lauren Northup’s post from June, 2010 on this blog for reference!).
Normally, a conservator would pick up the painting and take it to his/her studio for treatment. And then they would bring it back to us, magically transformed! However, since this piece is so large, and the conservator was nice enough to go along with my crazy ideas, we converted what was previously a back gallery (and more recently a Virginia Stage Company “Dream Clinic” set) into a temporary conservator’s studio for the next few weeks. This presented us with a wonderful opportunity to share the conservation process with our visitors, and to make it an educational moment. You can stop by in the next couple of weeks and peek at the process on-site, 10am-5pm Tuesdays-Fridays until March 30th!
The wonderful Fred Wallace, formerly Head of Conservation at the Mariner’s Museum in Hampton, and more recently, owner and Chief Conservator of Infinity Art Conservation Enterprises, has graciously taken on the project… and he has agreed to make the Hermitage gallery his studio for the next couple of weeks. He will be joined by his colleague, Tom Snyder, a gilt wooden objects conservator, on March 22 to address the frame.
When Florence was alive, this painting hung in the master bedroom in what was a more private space, even when the home opened to the public as a museum by 1942. Nowadays, when there is not a temporary exhibition going on, it is usually on view in the upstairs painting gallery where it is a major focal point and admired by most of our visitors.
Stephen Reid’s Rejoice Greatly (1922) is a Hermitage visitor-favorite. It was painted after the Allied victory of World War I in 1918 and features two young girls placing candles in paper lanterns, lighting the way home for returning troops. The figures are positioned amid a garden that features lively, vibrant flowers. The subjects and details of the painting convey a feeling of deep appreciation for the sacrifices of armed service members returning from war as well as an air of celebration and quiet hope for the future.
The artist’s own daughter, Jessie, often served as a model in many of her father’s paintings, including this one. According to archival letters from Jessie after her father’s death in 1948, she explained that the setting was based on the artist’s own garden in St. John’s Wood (London). The garden and the house were later destroyed during the second world war.
Prior to the start of his conservation work, Fred took several preliminary photos and closely observed some of the weak areas of the painting and frame: Since the painting has not undergone prior conservation, there was evidence that surface dust and grime had accumulated over many years. Aging varnish further contributed to its overall “dingy” appearance. There were also obvious losses in the frame. The canvas was visibly loosening from the wooden frame and the canvas itself was beginning to sag, which posed a risk to aged, cracking paint which could continue to lift if not stabilized.
On Monday, Fred and I removed the painting from its frame so that he could begin his first phase, the structural work.
As we looked closely at the back of the painting, there was 1 hand-cut nail (cool!) and a few marks and hand-written notes, one of which read: “117 Abbey Road, London”–presumably the artist’s residence! There was also a hand-written note indicating that this was to be shipped to “William Sloane, Norfolk, Virginia.”
Now, I don’t want to give away too many details about the extent of Fred’s process because
1. I am not a conservator and can’t begin to explain the intricate details of his work with the same clarity and eloquence that Fred can.
2. This post is absolutely intended to be a tease for our upcoming program next week. So I hope you will join us on Thursday evening, March 22, when Fred and his colleague, Tom Snyder, will talk more about the specific treatment process and considerations for this project. Reserve your seat for this program here .
Personally, I find conservation to be an absorbingly fascinating field. I wish I had the scientific skills required for such work. Because I don’t, it will always be a bit like magic to me. So I am selfishly excited for this work to be treated on-site so that I can see how the phases of treatment unfold in person every day. Seeing the pockets of cleaned areas transform in contrast to the grimy areas is immensely satisfying.
Conservation is extremely important to museums to make sure that we are able to stabilize and care for the objects in our collections in the best ways possible. Why? Put simply, so that they may be enjoyed by future generations. Although we do not have an in-house museum conservation department (maybe in 10 years, right?!?!), we have been extremely fortunate to work with fantastic experts in previous years to help care for many treasured items in our collection.
As you all probably know, the Hermitage began an adopt-an-artwork initiative in 2006 called “Mend our Broken Art” (a play on “heart,” just in time for Valentine’s day that year). It was a fantastic program that gave the public an insider’s perspective to the field and encouraged the community to actively participate in the conservation process through their own generous donations. It created a stronger connection between the community and the objects in our collection and put us in contact with a variety of conservation specialists. Although the MOBA program is no longer active (we are looking to revamp it in the near future!), conservation absolutely continues to be a priority for us today and we hope that this year’s conservation program emphasizes that.
As one can imagine, it can be expensive to bring in professional conservators for a collection of over 5,000 artworks. And so while staying aware of current conservation priorities is really important, prevention measures are also especially crucial in order to mitigate the eventual need for conservation. Of course, that can also be expensive! And so we always appreciate donations to the museum throughout the year, which help fund such specialized care of our collections. If you are interested in donating, feel free to stop in, or go online (yes, an admittedly shameless plug).
For those of you who have treasured artworks of your own, if you are interested in having a piece conserved, there are fantastic local resources available through the Virginia Conservation Association.
Hopefully this has enticed you a bit. If so, please join us on the evening of March 22, for this fantastic opportunity to hear from Fred Wallace and Tom Snyder about their work!