AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Architecture Session, May 10, “Interior Murals, The Conservators Perspective: Access and Experience of the Conservator within the Architectural Space” by Gillian Randell

Gillian (with a hard “G”) is  a conservator of interior murals and decorative finishes and presented beautiful images of a wide variety of 18th and 19th century American murals, with a deep appreciation of the special perspective of the conservator, given our unique level of access to these artworks. She began by relating this level of access to her experiences spelunking and finding herself in close proximity to spaces and places most people don’t ordinarily see – Werner Herzog’s 3d film of the caves of Chauvet came into the conversation here, with its attempt to give wider audiences that feeling of close contact, discovery, and the sense of actually being there.

American interior decoration of the 18th and 19th centuries is characterized by extensive interior painting. One of the artists Gillian focused on today was Edwin Howland Blashfield, who painted murals in both civic and ecclesiastical venues and had a particular technique of using rich layering on a monumental scale, producing a range of textures. In these murals, the distance of the viewer encourages the use of trompe l’oeil and other effects, which also have a significant impact when viewed up close. Blashfield was friends with Francis Davis Millet, another progressive muralist, and was a member of the group that founded the Mural Society of America in 1895. Many murals were produced as part of the “City Beautiful” movement, which promoted “beauty not only for its own sake, but also to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations.” Many neoclassical murals in public buildings were produced at this time, including Blashfield’s Power of Law in the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, which was conserved in 2005 and is part of a mural cycle produced with other mural artists.

We moved next to the Essex County Courthouse where muralists Lowe, Walker, Turner, Cox and Blashfield painted a series of pendentives around the domes – Gillian noted that these were painted with extensive and subtle detail, even though it wasn’t necessary as they were viewed from a distance. These were cleaned in 2004 so the photo in the link above shows them rather at a worse phase in their lives…for better ones, look on Evergreene’s website.

St Matthew’s Cathedral in DC boasts a series of lunettes, painted in Blashfield’s studio and then installed afterwards, with more painting on site to integrate them. Here he used what was termed “percussive brushwork” (I don’t know where the term came from) using a large brush to “hammer” paint onto the surfaces, creating texture and movement. This was cleaned in 2003, removing surface dirt and grime. There was also apparently an early synthetic surface coating on these murals, which was analyzed at CCI; the murals are painted in oil on linen.

The Assembly Chambers in Albany NY display murals on stone by William Morris Hunt, which were partly covered by a ceiling installed less than ten years later. The mural “The Flight of Night” dates to 1878, a year before Hunt died in 1879; another is “The Discoverer”, dating also to 1878. He had produced many preparatory drawings and paintings as he had been working on this theme for decades; these as well as related 3d clay and plaster studies are in various museum collections. These paintings suffered from roof leaks, damage to the sandstone, salt formation, and most of all the use of paint materials incompatible with the substrate. Hunt may have been using “experimental” materials – he referred to a “secret recipe”. It seems that he was working in an oil-based medium. However, he did not put any preparation layer on the stone such that even while he was working, he noted that the stone absorbed the paint, leaving a more faded appearance the next day – in our terms, the stone had absorbed much of the oil binder, leaving a very underbound layer and precluding the formation of a stable oil film. Because of this “fading”, Hunt applied paint in multiple applications, but the underbound layers continued to fade and degrade over time.

At Rockefeller Center, the wall where Diego Rivera had painted his controversial mural (the one with Lenin), which was demolished in 1933, continued to cause problems with the replacement mural, called “American Progress” by José María Sert – problems which the conservators called “Rivera’s Revenge”. Here’s an NYTimes article about the conservation work there.

Because the architecture session had begun about twenty minutes late (the business meeting ran over) Gillian had to start to run through her remaining slides quickly at about this point. We saw Ezra Winter’s Fountain of Youth mural at Radio City Music Hall, and some wallpaper in the bathroom there designed by Donald Deskey, who was responsible for all the interior decoration of this building. We then sped over to the Pantheon de la Guerre at the National WWI Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, which is a cyclorama of WWI heroes which was painted in France and presented at the Chicago 1933-34 World’s Fair, then toured around the US (currently the subject of an exhibition).   It was 402 feet long and 42 feet high. After the tour, the mural was largely forgotten and stored outdoors until Baltimore restaurateur William Haussner bought it at auction in 1953. In 1957, Kansas City artist Daniel MacMorris persuaded Haussner to donate the panorama to the Liberty Memorial Association, which acquired it with the okay to alter it to fit a new space; MacMorris “revised” it, cutting and pasting and adding more heroes. The last place we got to visit was  Conception Abbey in Missouri, though I can’t tell you much more about that.

Looking up some of these sites online, I realize even more that it was a rare treat to see Gillian’s beautiful photos (I think she credited Whitney Cox with much of the photography) – there aren’t many images of many of these important works available, though often the Evergreene website has the best ones. Maybe some of the great images used in the presentation should be put online!