The staff at The Center could not have been more thrilled when a former employee, Megan, brought in a James Jeffrey Grant painting for conservation. It was a lovely, serene landscape painting of cows grazing in a luscious green field. Before finding its current home, the painting hung above a fireplace in Megan’s relative’s home for over 30 years where it was exposed to extreme fluctuations in temperature. Due to this environment, the paint layer was severely compromised and exhibited significant areas of flaking paint overall. This lead to numerous areas of exposed canvas and hundreds of tiny puzzle-like paint pieces that were no longer adhered to the painting’s surface.
As the fourth generation of owners, the Grant painting was very important to Megan’s family. Although many relatives believed the painting was a loss, Megan encouraged her family to bring the painting to The Center. She carefully gathered the fallen paint chips and collected them for safe keeping. She also made sure to store and transport the painting flat, as it could not rest upright without paint flaking from its surface.
When the painting arrived at The Center, our conservators noted that the ground layer was so compromised that significant portions of the paint layer were barely attached to the canvas. In addition to the extensive areas of flaking paint and paint loss, the painting exhibited raised and unstable cracking with associated cupping. This meant that the painting needed extensive consolidation before addressing any of the painting’s other issues, which included a small tear, several old wax patches, discolored varnish, old overpaint, a heavy layer of grime and nicotine, and a quilted, deteriorating canvas.
In order to address the most pressing concern of a very unstable paint layer, the painting was faced before beginning the rest of the lengthy treatment. Facing, a type of treatment where Japanese tissue is adhered onto the front of the painting with a temporary adhesive, helped hold the fragile paint layer in place. The painting was consolidated overall and the tear was repaired. The painting was then lined to a prepared canvas using Beva 371, a removable conservation adhesive. Following best practices as determined by the American Institute of Conservation, The Center uses Beva 371 instead of more traditional lining materials (i.e. wax resin). Wax resin can be detrimental to the long-term stability of paintings, and can affect their appearance over time. Lining a painting, even with Beva 371, is not a process to be undertaken lightly; however, it was believed to be necessary for the continued stability of this painting.
After consolidation, lining, and removing the no longer necessary facing, the conservators began the long processes of replacing all the detached paint chips that Megan had so carefully collected. This process was like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except the pieces are tiny, incredibly fragile, and most certainly not all present.
After painstakingly replacing the paint chips, the painting was surface cleaned and the varnish removed, revealing the original soft blues and purples of the painting. The previous muddy yellows and browns of the nicotine and discolored varnish were now a thing of the past.
It was at this point that one of the conservators commented that she could appreciate what the final product of this intensive conservation treatment would be: “For me, the painting finally looked like a painting again.”
The treatment at this stage was far from over; next began the long process of filling and inpainting areas where paint chips were missing. One of the conservators on the project commented that this was the most fulfilling part of the project for him. "The most satisfying part of the project was when I made the decision to do the fills under a microscope. That way, I could focus on matching the texture of the fills to the surrounding paint layer. While the process was time intensive, it was completely worth it when I began inpainting. Because the foundation and texture of the fills were well matched to the original surface, I only had to worry about matching the color.”
"The most satisfying part of the project was when I made the decision to do the fills under a microscope. That way, I could focus on matching the texture of the fills to the surrounding paint layer. While the process was time intensive, it was completely worth it when I began inpainting. Because the foundation and texture of the fills were well matched to the original surface, I only had to worry about matching the color."
After a few thin layers of varnish were applied to bring the painting back to its original sheen, The Center could finally return Megan’s family's painting. Clocking in at a staggering amount of hours of treatment, the conservation of this James Jeffery Grant painting was a truly rewarding feat.
"...the painting finally looked like a painting again."