In 2017 two interns from the Patricia H. and Richard E. Garmin Art Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State College worked to restore a 17th-century British overmantel by Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721) that now graces the new British gallery. Mary Wilcop was the William E. and Mary F. Conway Graduate Summer Intern in Objects Conservation, and Karen Bishop was the Dr. Isobel Rutherford Graduate Summer Intern in Objects Conservation. This interview discusses the project with the CMA’s Beth Edelstein, conservator of objects; Colleen Snyder, associate conservator of objects; and Philip Brutz, mount maker.
Beth Edelstein When this decorative carving was originally created, it was very ethereal. Made of unpainted lime wood, it was light in color, and applied directly to the wood paneling of the room with no intervening visible support, giving a delicate and airy impression. Over time, this appearance was altered in a couple of ways. For one, the work had been rearranged and restored at various times, with new elements added that were of a different color and less finely carved, and varnish or paint layers applied and removed multiple times, resulting in unevenness in the color and tone. At the CMA, the elements had been affixed to a solid painted plywood mount that inserted another dimension between the object and the wall, adding visual weight. The combination of those factors distracted the eye from the airy nature of the carving.
The goals of conservation treatment were to stabilize any broken or loose elements, remove or reduce the obvious later restorations and repairs, and unify the overall tone and gloss. A new mount would allow it to float again on the wall as it once did.
Karen Bishop creates a 1:1 template of the underside of the object for the new mount (pictured to the right on the table is the old, orange plywood mount); Beth Edelstein shows how mounts affix to the back of the object
Collen Snyder These decorative wall carvings often get reworked over time when they are installed in different spaces. Because they consist of multiple separate elements, they can be rearranged to some degree to fit different rooms, and elements may be added or subtracted to make the object fit.
Philip Brutz For the new mounting system, we wanted it as thin as possible, so we used eighth-inch-thick aluminum. I’d just been over to think[box] where I saw that they had a new waterjet cutter that would accomplish the complex cutting with much less labor than a bandsaw, so I suggested the interns use that approach. It was like the Tom Sawyer scenario where I suggested doing it this way, and then they did all the work! They mapped out the whole thing.
CS Howard [Agriesti, chief photographer] helped with that by photographing the object from below through a transparent table using a special lens so we could precisely map the positions and angles of all the holes. That way we could use all existing holes without drilling any new ones.
PB There was some hand tracing done, and some Adobe Illustrator work—it was multiple steps. They drew the outline on Mylar by hand, and then used Howard’s photography to get everything just right. The outline shapes for the planned aluminum mounting pieces were given to think[box] as Adobe Illustrator vector graphics that controlled the waterjet cutter. Marcus Brathwaite at think[box] did a lot of work above and beyond.
BE One of the challenges with the previous installation was that the installers had to fit a screwdriver or power tool very close to the object—even right through the middle of it. Mary and Karen cleverly designed mounts so that each section has a protruding tab to be screwed into the wall, then the one installed next hides that tab, and so on until the whole object is installed with very little of the mount visible.
CS They mapped that out in a step-by-step instruction manual so we have the exact sequence; they also made a video documenting a complete installation start-to-finish on a “test wall” in the lab.
BE In addition to solving the mounting challenges, they did extensive surface treatment and analysis, and found layers of waxes, shellac, and soot, even traces of metallic paint. They consulted other conservators who had dealt with works by Gibbons, including a specialist in London. There’s a similar work in the Art Institute of Chicago, and the conservators there are about to start conservation treatment, so that was an opportunity for sharing information.
PB Apparently Gibbons would act as a conservator for his own pieces, occasionally coming back to give each one a freshening up.
CS Lime wood darkens naturally over time—especially in this case since it was over a fireplace. As a result, owners might whitewash it occasionally to return the lighter tone, which is why we might see alternating layers of soot and paint. Most of that had been removed by the time the CMA acquired it. The interns worked closely with Cory [Korkow, associate curator of European art] throughout the project to decide what to do about repairs that were made over the years. The original parts are so delicately and beautifully carved and some of the later replacements are visibly different, so they worked together to de-emphasize some of the elements that interrupted the original aesthetic, and to bring the original elements forward.
BE Mary and Karen used airbrushing to visually integrate some of the later restorations that were kept in place, working to minimize the transitions between them and the original carving. As installed in the British gallery, it appears very close to the way it looks in the 1823 watercolor, floating lightly over the fireplace.