42nd Annual Meeting –Paintings Session, May 29, 2014, “Conserving Spanish Colonial Paintings – Finding the Divine in Conservation," by Cynthia Lawrence

In this Thursday afternoon talk, Cynthia Lawrence presented an in-depth look into the materials and condition problems frequently present in Spanish colonial paintings.
Dating from Columbus through the nineteenth century, Spanish colonial paintings have generally entered collections in remarkably poor condition. Because these paintings have not been widely studied or exhibited, conservators have infrequently encountered them for treatment.
Paintings from this period often did not receive an original application of varnish, and as a result, dirt and debris are found directly in contact with the paint layer.  Interventions by early restorers included varnishing and consolidating with wax, resins, and synthetic materials overtop of dirt, resulting in painted surfaces with an obscured, uneven appearance.
The structures of the paintings were often complex. Wood, fabric, paper, and metal served as supports for the paintings. Compositions sometimes included shell inlays and fugitive cochineal reds painted over thin grounds. Some paintings were executed directly on a substrate without the use of a ground at all, and canvases were often affixed directly to the stretcher.
Cynthia showed slides and presented summaries for the treatment of several Spanish colonial paintings featuring divine narratives. She began by illustrating a treatment of a painting of St. Thomas on laid paper over wood that exhibited convex warping, vertical wood movement, planar deformations, paint loss, heavy grime, and a dark varnish. Cynthia’s treatment included consolidating with isinglass and attaching the paper to the panel with BEVA. She cleaned the surface with aqueous solutions and used a xylene mixture to remove the varnish. B-72 was applied to the break edges, which were clamped and weighted. The painting was varnished with MS2A prior to fills and inpainting, and Regalrez 1094 with a bit of wax was applied as a final varnish. After conservation, curators were able to positively attribute the painting to Gregorio Vásquez, a well-known Colombian painter of the Latin American Baroque period.
Cynthia also discussed several treatments in which she found a variety of materials layered over the divine subjects.
A collagen-based glue was found on the surface of one painting, while synthetic varnish, acrylic, PVA, wax, and natural resin varnishes were found overtop centuries of accumulated soot and grime on others. Due to the varied solubilities of these materials, Cynthia employed mechanical action, aqueous solutions, and solvent-based mixtures to remove dirt and incongruous materials.
For all of the paintings she treated, Cynthia discussed the importance of judicious inpainting. She inpainted the most noticeable areas of damage in order to maintain unity in the composition, but the paintings were not aesthetically compensated to appear new. Since many were used for devotional purposes, Cynthia stressed the appropriateness of preserving them in a way that was sympathetic to their original display.
Cynthia’s talk brings attention to the need for continued innovation in conservation treatment, and more research and scholarship on Spanish colonial paintings.  Spanish colonial paintings are often in such poor condition as to be deemed “lost causes” or “problem children” by conservators, but she cautions that conservators will likely begin to see paintings like these more, as museums and collectors seek out lesser known works.  As we work to understand these paintings better through treatment, analysis, and historical research, we will undoubtedly come to balance creative problem solving with the painting’s long life and history — it is here that we find the divine.
You can see pictures of some of the paintings Cynthia Lawrence treated in this article, and visit the New Mexico History Museum’s page  featuring an exhibition of these works, on view until March 2015.

Review of FAIC Preventive Conservation Workshop: Ossabaw Island, GA (January 7-20, 2012)

How does one care for a historic home that is currently being inhabited? How much care should be given to maintain such a site when funding and physical isolation prevent a clear future?

Last January I attended a two-week preventive conservation workshop along with five other participants on Ossabaw Island, a wilderness barrier island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, to try to tackle these questions.  As a pre-program conservation student, this workshop offered me a chance to consider conservation outside of traditional contexts, to engage in preventive conservation, and to experience a truly unforgettable adventure.

The island, whose earliest settlements date to 2000 BCE, was occupied by the Guale and Creek Indians, Spanish and English explorers, and plantation owners until its eventual purchase in 1924 by Dr. Henry Norton Torrey of Michigan.  Dr. Torrey’s daughter, Eleanor Torrey West, inherited the family’s home in addition to the entire island where she fostered a creative retreat, The Ossabaw Island Project, attended by writers, artists, and scientific researchers. Mrs. West (99) continues to live on Ossabaw today, but has since sold the island to the State of Georgia under the condition that it be kept as a nature preserve for academic pursuits. The island offered a meditative and isolated setting for our preventive conservation study; ancient shell middens, Spanish moss draped palmetto and live oak trees, tidal marshes, untouched beaches, wild pigs, and the ruins of tabby slave quarters comprised the island’s lush landscape.

The primary focus of the workshop was to discuss and employ preventive conservation strategies, including monitoring the temperature, relative humidity, light, and pests, while following and revising a housekeeping manual for the 1924 Spanish colonial revival style Torrey-West house. The workshop, taught by Peebles Island Resource Center conservators David Bayne, Kristin O’Connell, Abby Zoldowski, Michele Phillips, and private practice conservator Rose Cull, also included dedicated sessions on the care of the house’s textiles, books and works on paper, furniture, and outdoor iron structures. Several preventive sessions were continuations of the 2010 campaign, including the recording of pest activity, temperature, and climate within the house.  We identified insects found in traps, discussed data reconnaissance techniques, recorded light and ultraviolet readings, and selected two rooms on the ground floor to be lightly cleaned using housekeeping methods appropriate to historic houses.

In the object-based workshop sessions, the group learned about ideal conditions and care for different objects within the house’s collection. We selectively intervened based on the house’s two main limitations: the climate could not be kept constant, and most importantly, the house was inhabited. During the two weeks, we examined textiles damaged by insects and conducted a freezing cycle on two infested pillows, we learned about the basic mechanism of iron corrosion and treated a corroded window grate, we constructed protective enclosures for books, and took part in lectures and demonstrations on conservation tools and proper handling techniques.

This workshop provided me with an invaluable and thorough introduction to preventive conservation and historic housekeeping. The artifacts in the Torrey-West house presented challenging scenarios for proposing care or treatment; many objects were in daily use, such as the rugs, furniture, and stove, or had potential to be used, such as a book on a shelf.  The need for interpretation also arose when choosing which rooms to monitor or clean, and which damaged objects ought to be stabilized.

Not only did the instructors teach us practical skills and concepts, but they encouraged the students to explore ideas about value, and balancing treatment ideals with real-world limitations.  The landscape, the lessons learned, and the networking prospects (two of the participants, myself included, continued on to intern at the Peebles Island Resource Center) at Ossabaw Island made it well worth the trip! The FAIC generously awarded the participants a travel stipend to attend, and housing was provided by the Ossabaw Island Foundation in the restored “Clubhouse” building.

Applications for the next workshop (1/18- 2/1) are due November 12!  For more information, visit www.conservation-us.org/education.