This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of The Civil War. Like any thread in the fabric of our cultural heritage, this point in our collective memory was captured countless times by the artist’s eye. With photography still in its infancy, fine art and literature still serve as major artifacts for this defining time period in American history. While many of the artist’s names have been lost over the years, the importance of their work stands as a testament to this era. One of these remarkable works is a painting titled Steamboat U.S.S. Switzerland on River (artist and date unknown), belonging to our friends at The University Museum at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Illinois. The museum recently engaged The Conservation Center to preserve this piece of Americana, and also taking the opportunity to educate its audience in the importance of art conservation.
When wandering a flea or antique market, one just never knows what treasures there are to be found. From terrific steals to relics from a past long forgotten, there is usually something to excite the fancy of just about anyone. During one of his frequent visits to the Grayslake Antiques market, The Conservation Center’s client Robert Le Clerq had one such awe-inspiring moment that brought him back into his younger days. He came upon an old, carved wooden sculpture that immediately reminded him of nuns of the order of the Sacred Heart. Though this probably would not be significant to most, Mr. Le Clerq has fond recollections of Barat College. From serving mass as an alter boy, to watching his older sister graduate, to even dating a few of the girls who attended the private Catholic school, Sacred Heart had played a significant role in Mr. Le Clerq’s younger days.
The weather's heating up, but there are no signs of slowing down at The Conservation Center. From intricate conservation projects to private tours, our staff is hard at work in West Town. To celebrate the new season, we are bringing back our popular "A Day in the Life" photo series. With our camera in hand, we wandered around the lab and captured some amazing images to share with you.
It is not very often that the Textiles Department at The Conservation Center resembles the racks of a high fashion atelier, so when Columbia College Chicago contacted us regarding an iconic piece of French fashion from its Fashion Study Collection, our interest was immediately piqued. Instantly recognizable because of its cone-shaped corset top, the dress, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, arrived at our laboratory with a damaged zipper that posed a threat to the integrity of the outfit as a whole. Because this dress belongs to an academic institution and is used as part of an active study collection, even something as seemingly minute as a damaged zipper could render it useless as a teaching device. As our textiles conservator began to work, she quickly understood that, due to the very technical method in which it was hand-tailored, repairing the zipper was not going to be an easy task.
Sometimes a singular work of art can inspire an entire collection. When this is the case, the collector cherishes that first piece above all others. When a client of The Conservation Center brings in a work that we can actually see the joy and affection brought on by it, those feelings are contagious. This is what happened recently when Bruce Romick, a private collector from Indiana, contacted us about one such treasured item. Mr. Romick and his wife had acquired a lithograph of May Milton by famed Post-Impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1978. While it was in very good condition when purchased, after 37 years, some degradation was to be expected. Our Paper Department was in charge to bring “May” back to life so it would continue to bring the Romicks the same joy for many years to come.
In honor of Pesach (Passover) earlier this month, we’re highlighting a major conservation treatment for Temple Emanuel, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Conservation Center’s team worked tirelessly on-site and in our laboratories to help restore a massive 1,000 square-foot mural that covered the entire expanse of the rear wall of the synagogue. Painted on multiple lightweight wood panels by the Swiss-born American artist Lucienne Bloch (1909–1999), this modern mural stands as a testament to a dynamic time in religious architecture that aimed to keep up with societal trends in art and construction.
When The Conservation Center encounters an heirloom that has extraordinary sentimental value to our client, we always like to learn more about its history and the meaning of the piece for the family. Recently, Mary Anne Keane brought us a reproduction of Jean-François Millet’s (1814–1875) The Angelus that was on display in her living room. “Ever since my childhood, I’ve always had fond memories of this painting hanging in my grandparents’, and eventually my parents’ home,” said Mary Anne. “After finally inheriting The Angelus, I realized that if I didn’t take good care of the artwork now, though it had made it a century so far, it would not be around much longer for my family to appreciate.” Mary Anne also began investigating its provenance to better understand the origin of the piece.
In 2012, significant leaking from the roof caused severe water damage of the plywood panels, causing extreme warping, staining, and delamination of the veneers from the panels. The mural itself, which was painted using water-soluble paints (something similar to gouache), started to drip down across the panels as soon as water entered the space. Devastated, Temple Emanuel contacted The Conservation Center to perform an on-site assessment to best determine how to conserve Bloch’s work. Years of constant use and handling of the doors and tracks around the mural had also caused issues beyond the water damage—fingerprints had darkened and smudged areas of the paint, to the extent that there were significant losses that needed to be addressed. There was also a thin layer of grime that needed to be removed from the panels. However, because of the nature of the paint used, most methods of cleaning would strip away the design. Eventually, six panels came back to The Center’s lab in Chicago to undergo treatment.
In preparation for a new exhibition entitled By All Accounts: The Story of Elmhurst, The Conservation Center recently joined forces with the Elmhurst Historical Museum to help get a few artifacts in its archives in tip-top shape. This innovative exhibit contains numerous photographs, artifacts, art objects, and informational materials from the last 165 years showcasing the growth and development of Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb. After an on-site assessment at the museum, The Center identified a few objects that needed our conservation team's attention--notably a vintage barber pole, dated from the turn of the 19th century. Presumed to be from a local barbershop, the all-wood, painted barber pole was found in a local resident's barn, and came to the museum by way of a donation in 1983.
In the field of paper conservation, there are a myriad of challenges that one can encounter. Some of the biggest issues that arise when treating works of art on paper are the result of fragile media and temperamental fibers within the sheet. “Works on paper were intended for daily use and handling, and thus do not stand the test of time as well as other art forms that were meant to be admired from a distance,” said Brian Kapernekas, The Conservation Center’s Senior Paper Conservator. “Many of the conditions we encounter are not only related to age, but also to improper storage.” Acid-free and archival housing materials are relatively new in the scope of framing practices. Most people do not even realize that acidic materials are usually the cause of the gradual deterioration of paper—until it is too late and the sheet is heavily yellowed, embrittled, and the damage is too severe to reverse.