45th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, June 1, “What the Folk Happened to Kitty James and other Folk Tales” by Nina Roth-Wells

Nina Roth-Wells’ talk focused on a treatment that best embodies that crashing realization that you have much more work ahead of you than you’d planned on.

The misadventures of Kitty James started out innocently enough. The portrait, an 1822 work by Ezra Ames, was one of twenty-some early nineteenth century New England folk paintings which needed treatment before inclusion in an exhibition: Colby College Museum of Art’s A Useable Past: American Folk Art. Nina begins her talk by going through some more rote treatments from the same collection, a typical smattering of mends, cleaning, inpainting, and the occasional lining. With great pleasure, she explains how she was able to reverse a drastic restoration, thereby getting as close to the conservator’s dream of time-travel as we’re likely to reach: a canvas painting which had been attached to Masonite was removed and given a strip-lining instead.

Those treatments comprised the group of paintings Nina had selected on the criteria of needing both structural and aesthetic work. The rest were determined to be less complicated treatments and were scheduled to be completed onsite at the museum. She had initially categorized Kitty James in this second set, as it appeared to be an untreated 19th century work, requiring primarily surface cleaning.

Upon beginning surface cleaning, though, things started to go awry. The child’s hair was awfully soluble for how old the paint should have been, her sleeves seemed to be revealing different sleeves when cleaned, and the background was also coming up. The curator was quickly summoned. Artist revision was ruled out as it became clear the overpaint was done by a different, less experienced hand. In search of answers, Nina and the Colby College Museum of Art dragged Kitty James to the local hospital: specifically, the radiography department. This is where the audience learned that small town Maine x-ray technicians have experience working with art because they (or perhaps just this one curious soul) have experimented on duck decoys! The whole experience was both useful and joyful it seemed, as Nina expounded on the ease of digital x-rays compared to the analog procedures of her early training. There were lots of radiography tips, both in the talk and in the Q&A afterwards: suggestions to achieve the best low contrast results included setting the machine for a finger scan (2mAs at 60 KV), or to simply go straight to the mammography department. Nina, the equestrienne, reminded us city dwellers that large animal vets are also a good resource.

Of course, an x-ray is only as useful as the information it gives the conservator, and here it revealed that Kitty James had in fact been altered at some point, and the repainted image differed in the bodice and hairstyle, just as Nina had run into. Given this image of the original to work from, and with the agreement of the curator, a campaign to return poor Kitty to her initial visage was undertaken. A fair amount of overpaint removed cleanly, revealing original details and rewarding the conservator’s effort. The rest proved intractable—and frankly harmful to the original paint to try to remove—over parts of the sleeves and on her forehead where the overpaint hid her side-swept bangs. Thus, Nina’s job became to reconstitute both the original pageboy haircut and some semblance of period-appropriate sleeves from areas which included both original paint and overpaint. A happy medium for the sleeves required some research into 19th century baby clothes, and getting her hair right required several frustrated attempts which Nina characterized as ‘Justin Bieber’ and ‘Peppermint Patty.’ Though she expressed unease with how much of her own artistic interpretation was going into the final painting, the UV after treatment photo really demonstrated her restraint despite the extensive work needed to bring the painting together visually.

Thanks to research done while this painting was in treatment, there’s a possible explanation for Kitty’s new hairdo and wardrobe. In summary: there have been two Kittys in the James family, one (Catherine Margaret James) who would have been the right age for this 1822 portrait, and one (Katherine Barber James) who would have been the right age for the 1840’s fashion and hairstyle that were added in overpaint. The second Miss James was a prominent society lady, so the theory is that the family had the portrait altered to represent to more well-known relative.

All in all, the treatment was a wild ride, but Kitty James emerged safely with the original Kitty James reinstated.