Bringing a Jewel of a Collection Back to Life: Freeport Art Museum

Last month, The Conservation Center spent a lovely Saturday afternoon with more than 40 members of the Freeport Art Museum (FAM)—a jewel of a collection located in Freeport, Illinois, right outside of Rockford. Together with Roberta Kramer, a Chicago-based art appraiser, we made a special presentation that marked the end of a two-year project, which, while not beginning under the most auspicious of circumstances, concluded with cause for celebration. Many key pieces of art from FAM’s collection were properly appraised and saved from water damage that occurred in its 2D storage unit.

FAM’s business manager, Carrie Baxter, recounting the events of a fateful day in the spring of 2012: “An air conditioning unit in the attic above our two dimensional storage facility began to malfunction. By the time we discovered it we found water on the floor, the ceiling tiles were destroyed, and water had come in contact with several of the works. They had streak marks from where water had dripped and run down the surface of the paintings.” Once the extent of the damage had been properly assessed, FAM contacted both The Conservation Center and art appraisal firm Kramer and Associates in a joint effort to save the collection.

One of the affected pieces was by the 19th century Italian painter Luigi Agristi titled Interior Domestic Scene. The oil on canvas painting exhibited ripples, even sustaining various punctures and tears, in addition to having a foot long streak of dirt and grime. Our conservators began by cleaning both sides of the canvas, followed by varnish removal, leaving the paint layer undisturbed. Tears on the canvas were then carefully aligned and mended with conservation adhesives. In order to flatten the painting and smooth out the ripples, a combination of heat, suction, humidity, and weight techniques were utilized. After the piece was stretched to a new, custom-built stretcher, conservation grade paints, that are reversible and detectable to professionals, were added to the areas of loss. Finally, we applied a layer of varnish to integrate the surface. Due to the extensive damage to the original frame, the painting was reinstalled into a period reproduction frame, similar to the original, by The Center's Custom Framing department.

Perhaps the most important piece of art restored during this whole process was the oil painting Brimming Holland by James Clarke Hook. The importance of the piece itself was something that FAM was unaware of until appraisal work done by Roberta Kramer. “The most interesting discovery for us was the provenance and exhibition history of Brimming Holland. James Clarke Hook was a 19th century academy painter who is quite well known in the art world. The piece in question was not only exhibited twice at the Royal Academy, London, but it has an excellent provenance. That is, we can trace who owned the painting and when it changed hands all the way back to the artist from the time it was given to the Freeport Art Museum.”

This type of discovery was the silver lining. However, Brimming Holland needed to recover from water damage and warranted conservation treatment—both to the painting and the frame. Paintings conservators at The Center, albeit with a patient and gentle touch, first had to stabilize the canvas. A thorough cleaning, followed by varnish removal and canvas flattening, had to be performed. The process of inpainting was carried out in areas of loss and abrasion using reversible conservation paints. Finally, a very fine layer of varnish was sprayed onto the surface. Separately, from the painting, The Center’s Frames and Gilding department worked on bringing the original frame back to life. Miters were stabilized to ensure the frame’s solid structure; compo, gesso, and gilding were also consolidated with appropriate conservation adhesives. The conservator then inpainted new abrasions to emulate the surrounding surface, in addition to recasting and ingilding frame decorations. Brimming Holland once again brimmed with verve.

In all, the conservation of the seven works for The Freeport Art Museum were treated in groups over a 10-month period. FAM’s Executive Director, Jessica Caddell, summarized the effort applied by all: “Everyone at The Conservation Center and Roberta Kramer were not only highly professional but it quickly became apparent that each representative is a passionate advocate for the preservation of art.” Truly, this is a story with a happy ending.