Art & Design Magazine

Lunder Conservation Center: Secrets of a Sailor

By Americanart


Conservator Amber Kerr-Allison (left) talks to Mary Tait (right) about a painting of her ancestor.

The only thing I ever knew about the portrait that hung on my great aunt's wall for most of my childhood was that it showed my great, great, great, Uncle William, a sea captain in the late 1700s. Now that the painting rests in my care, I decided to take it in, along with another family portrait, to the Lunder Conservation Center's monthly clinic. All I had to do was make an appointment to take part in this free public service.

I met with painting conservator Amber Kerr-Allison who examined the condition of my paintings. She placed the portrait of William under normal, full spectrum lights to get a good look at it. Then she put one bank of lights at a low angle to the painting, so that it raked across the surface to show any lifting paint, but there was none to be seen. She then used ultraviolet lights, or black lights, which revealed many layers of both natural resin as well as synthetic varnish on the surface of the painting based on how it fluoresced in color. She could also identify that the painting had been previously restored. While examining the reverse of the painting, she noticed a faded ink stamp on the back of the canvas. She had already determined that the painting had been lined with a new canvas support, but she had never encountered a stamp like this! Normally, a stamp on the reverse of a canvas is from the art supplier, but this faded stamp revealed the words: Restored by, James . . . and Sons . . . Philadelphia. Although we were unable to make out the entire text, these few words offer a clue into the history of the lifetime of this painting and when it was restored. With this information, I can research my painting further on my own.

My appointment concluded with professional recommendations on how to care for my paintings, such as proper ways to display and store them. I learned, that eye-hooks can easily twist themselves out of a frame after many years of adjusting a painting on a wall, and when the eye hook slips out, your painting could fall off the wall and end up with a tear the canvas. I was shown that adding a foam backing board to cover the back of the painting and using D-rings instead of eye-hooks were simple things I could do to help preserve the painting and prevent damages. I was provided with useful printouts with resources to research my artwork, as well as tips on how to find a conservator in my residential area.

If you, like me, are in the Washington D.C. area and would like to know more about a painting, frame, drawing, print, or object you own, you can request an appointment by emailing [email protected] and specify CLINIC in the subject line.

If you are not local and cannot take advantage of the clinic, don't despair! You can find conservators in your area as well as resources on how to care for your collection at the American Institute for Conservation.

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